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Cowboys hot topic: Ezekiel Elliott quitting against the Broncos

Is it a sign of bigger problems for the team, or just a distracted and sometimes immature player getting caught?

Dallas Cowboys v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

You can have your pick of issues for the Dallas Cowboys in their embarrassing and puzzling loss to the Denver Broncos. Giving up almost immediately on the running game, a strangely ineffective performance by the offensive line, struggles by Dak Prescott and his receivers, missed tackles on so many defensive plays, a depleted secondary losing even more players, very poor coverage by the remaining defensive backs, and more. But in the media, the most attention seems to be directed at Ezekiel Elliott. Not because of what was by far his worst game since becoming a pro, with only eight yards rushing. No, what has drawn so much focus was him giving up on a couple of plays when the ball was intercepted by the Broncos. Examples:

It was a stunning lack of effort in the middle of a game that was still certainly in play. Dallas, down 28-10 at the time of the Harris interception, had six possessions after that. So often in cases like this, the player gets a pass. And very often, Dallas players get passes, because the Cowboys take chances on great players who have character or behavior or ethos flaws. Elliott might have all three of those. To give up on that play was horrendous. Dallas coach Jason Garrett has to do something about it—if he has not already. Owner Jerry Jones should back his coach 100 percent when Garrett does discipline Elliott. And if Garrett does not, then there’s something seriously wrong in Dallas. - Peter King, Sports Illustrated

Is it the end of the world that he’s loafing on a Dak Prescott interception? No. It wouldn’t have changed much for the Cowboys in a 42-17 loss to Denver, and Elliott can easily prevent it from being a season-defining moment.

But that doesn’t change the fact that it did happen, and that Elliott is—and should be—held to a high standard, no matter the score or circumstance, as one of the most important players on the Cowboys’ roster. That’s life as a star player on what Bill Parcells used to call the NFL’s “main stage.” Coach Jason Garrett said as much on Monday, noting that Elliott is competitive and could have been frustrated by his tough day against the Broncos but acknowledging that “that’s not the way we play,” and that the Cowboys would address it with him. - Albert Breer, Sports Illustrated

Following the Cowboys' 42-17 loss in Denver Sunday afternoon, Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson strongly criticized Ezekiel Elliott.

Tomlinson, the former TCU and Chargers star, said the Cowboys All-Pro running back "absolutely quit on his team."

"Zeke, to his credit, he didn't have any room today," Tomlinson said on NFL Network's "NFL GameDay Prime." "He was running, getting hit in the backfield, making moves in the backfield. But all of that is OK. I didn't like the way he quit today. I didn't like that. He absolutely quit on his team today." - Jon Machota, Dallas Morning News Sportsday

During his Monday press conference, coach Jason Garrett said that he’d be talking to Elliott about the Harris interception as well as one by Aqib Talib later in the game.

“Well, he had the two plays that were not good plays. The two interceptions obviously. One of the things we preach to our team on both sides of the ball when there is a turnover, everybody is involved. If you’re an offensive player, become a defensive player on a fumble or an interception. Zeke is one of the most natural competitors I’ve ever been around. He loves to play. He loves to practice. I think we’ve seen that through his first year playing. Those two plays were not indicative of the kind of competitor that he was and we have to get that addressed.” - Josh Alper, Pro Football Talk

This is not a good situation for the beleaguered running back, who is still waiting to find out how the appeal of his six-game suspension is going to turn out. There is little question that he did not have his head in the game during the two interceptions. He may have been venting some frustration over the way the game had gone for him and his team, but this was not the correct way to do it.

The story has gotten a lot of play for several reasons. First, the court battle over his suspension has been a big story in pro football for weeks now, so Elliott’s every move is going to be under a microscope. Second, it is the Cowboys, and every NFL writer in the world knows that nothing generates attention like a Cowboys story, particularly a negative one. Third, this plays into the reputation of the team for having a lot of out-of-control, undisciplined players on the roster.

The reality is that this is not a major issue for the team. As as far as the next game, this does not really affect his status or how he should perform (assuming that the injunction allowing Elliott to play remains in place). It is something that needs to be addressed, but probably not as severely as Peter King would likely want, based on his somewhat hyperbolic coverage.

There is no good side to this, but it should have little effect on the team moving forward. It is mostly a distraction, at a time when the Cowboys really don’t need any more than they already have. The coaches need to get this taken care. Certain media types will no doubt clamor for details on what is done to “punish” Elliott, but they have no reason to get them in what should rightfully be an internal matter. Besides, talk of “punishment” for football players always sounds a bit like they are not really being considered or treated as adults. But there is no reason to linger over this. The damage has already been done, and there is no real point in damage control (despite Jerry Jones’ somewhat ill-considered defense of Elliott).

However it is handled, it does need to be wrapped up quickly and the Cowboys need to move on. There are all those other issues mentioned at the start of this article - and they have to be corrected if Dallas is to have any real expectation of winning on Monday night.

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