Ezekiel Elliott’s past football life consisted of raw, consistent production.
The man was a pillar of the grit and grind attitude that embodied countless Cowboy teams of yesteryear.
Whether it was yard-crunching displays that vaulted him to a league rushing title, suction cup catches that made him a favorite reliable target for his quarterback, or the emotional sparks that flooded his team’s sideline after Zeke performed his trademark “eating” celebration before signaling a first down, his impact on his team’s fortunes was undeniable.
That is, up until 2020.
And as the scares and terrors of Halloween night creep closer, the man who once represented joviality in Dallas has traded in his hero’s cape for a completely different mask - a villainous one.
For Cowboy fans nationwide, seeing #21 step on to the turf and take handoffs from behind center is one scary sight.
And contrarily, what used to be a fright-filled endeavor for would-be tacklers in face-to-face meetings with Elliott has gradually become a highly-coveted encounter - for one reason, and one reason only: fumbles.
EEEEEEK!— Bookies.com (@bookies) October 20, 2020
2nd fumble for @EzekielElliott!
7 #RedSea (+1, -105)
ARI up to -7 and -305 @DKSportsbook
Best #AZvsDAL Odds & Deals Here: https://t.co/0YautYamOJpic.twitter.com/Y4g8S17WDg
Statistics from years past postured Zeke as a Goliath amongst Davids when it came to ball security. You’d need a locksmith to pry the ball free from his vice grip, as shown by his amazingly low giveaway count (he had just five fumbles lost in his first FOUR years, compared to four this season alone).
Monday was his worse case of the hiccups yet. For the first time is his five-year tenure, Elliott lost two fumbles during the same game. Ironically, this came just after his now infamous promise to ESPN’s Lisa Salters that he wouldn't relinquish the rock again all season.
But botches aren’t the only areas in which Zeke has fallen incredibly short of expectations. He’s well on pace to the lowest rushing yards mark of his career (I’ve removed his 10-game suspension-shortened campaign for reference here), and can’t seem to find adequate footing in the passing game either. His rushing yards per attempt total (4.1) and receiving yards per catch (6.4) are also career lows.
Now, part of Elliott’s numbers showing is outside of his control. Dallas seems to love playing from behind, and has oftentimes relegated substantial ball movement and scoring to the latter parts of their outings. It’s been clockwork - as if they were a behemoth juggernaut over the rest of their unworthy competition - they’ll spot their opponent a surplus of 20 points before finally deciding to actually try and climb their way back into contention.
This has warranted the type of gaudy passing numbers we've seen from both Dak Prescott and Andy Dalton - the former whom was on pace to crack 6,000 total passing yards before his unfortunate mishap, and the latter who doled out 50+ attempts Monday night.
But that doesn’t make Zeke fully immune to criticism, and part of his shortcomings are based solely in a lack of trust in him to take care of the ball - as evidenced by his brief benching in favor of Tony Pollard.
Sure, the offensive line has been completely depleted from the top down. Andy Dalton can’t seem to buy a completion at times. And let’s not get started on the defense.
But Ezekiel Elliott has been just as bad. And at this point in the season, he’s going to have to be the heart and soul of the squad - at least on the offensive side of the ball.
That starts with not giving the ball away.
The team’s faring against Washington, and their hopes of crawling out of the NFC East, is unfathomably reliant on the strength of Elliott’s hands, and girth of the stomach he claims wants to be so desperately fed.
We’ll see if that’s a responsibility that makes it queasy, or sits well with it. Cowboys nation hopes for the latter.