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By not properly adjusting to his injury the Dallas Cowboys let Ezekiel Elliott down in 2021

The Cowboys let Zeke down in 2021.

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

When a Dallas Cowboys season ends the pieces of it are all spread out on the floor and subject to inspection. We have to put them together as best as we can to figure out what led to the demise. It is an annual tradition that we know all too well.

Part of what seemingly led to this team’s faltering down the stretch was their inefficiency on offense and namely their ability to run the ball. The season started with such promise for both Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard and ultimately withered almost week by week until there wasn’t much left.

As soon as the Cowboys lost to the San Francisco 49ers in the Wildcard Round it was revealed by Ezekiel Elliott that the running back suffered a torn PCL at one point in the season. In the immediate moment nobody knew the exact details but were frustrated nonetheless. Why wasn’t Elliott given proper rest? How could Zeke have played injured ahead of someone like Tony Pollard?

Mike McCarthy held his season-ending press conference on Wednesday and in providing an answer sparked a ton more questions.

By not properly adjusting to his injury the Dallas Cowboys let Ezekiel Elliott down in 2021

It can be argued that when both backs are healthy that Tony Pollard is the superior runner to Ezekiel Elliott. This isn’t about that argument, but we all know that it exists.

Elliott, of course, provides his own level of contribution as a pass blocker, but the purpose of this conversation is how they contribute to the run game. Playing an injured Elliott seems unwise in general, let alone when there is arguably a superior player behind him standing at the ready.

Part of what is so frustrating about the end of the season for Zeke is that even if the Cowboys happen to believe that he is the best runner on their team, they gave him the ball 18 times in what was effectively a meaningless game in Philadelphia in Week 18 (Dallas did benefit from winning the game to be fair, although the benefit was partly their ultimate undoing). If you believe he is your best shot then why are you compromising him the week before the tournament starts?

As if these all weren’t already legitimate questions, McCarthy brought forth some new ones when he revealed that Elliott partially tore his PCL back during the team’s Week 4 win against the Carolina Panthers. A look at this and Pollard’s season on the whole is all the more frustrating when you know this information.

Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard in 2021

Game Elliott Carries Elliott Yards Elliott YPC Pollard Carries Pollard Yards Pollard YPC
Game Elliott Carries Elliott Yards Elliott YPC Pollard Carries Pollard Yards Pollard YPC
Buccaneers 11 33 3.00 3 14 4.67
Chargers 16 71 4.44 13 109 8.38
Eagles 17 95 5.59 11 60 5.45
Panthers 20 143 7.15 10 67 6.70
Giants 21 110 5.24 14 75 5.36
Patriots 17 69 4.06 10 41 4.10
Vikings 16 50 3.13 7 26 3.71
Broncos 10 51 5.10 4 11 2.75
Falcons 14 41 2.93 11 42 3.82
Chiefs 9 32 3.56 7 50 7.14
Raiders 9 25 2.78 10 36 3.60
Saints 13 45 3.46 7 71 10.14
Washington 12 45 3.75 N/A
Giants 16 52 3.25 12 74 6.17
Washington 9 37 4.11 8 34 4.25
Cardinals 9 16 1.78 3 9 3.00
Eagles 18 87 4.83 N/A
49ers 12 31 2.58 4 14 3.50

You will note that the highest volume of carries Elliott got all season were the 21 that he was given against the New York Giants, literally the very next week after he partially tore his PCL. Why? Why!

To make matters worse, McCarthy reiterated in his post-season presser that this injury is not one that requires surgery for Zeke, that it should heal up on his own. If that is the case then why did the Cowboys not give him the time on his own during the season when they were having all sorts of success so as to put him in the best possible position to contribute to the team?

A lot has been said about Ezekiel Elliott, his contract, and what his current skillset may or may not be. However you feel about him, the fact that the coaching staff continued to have him serve as their lead back (and then gave him 18 carries in a meaningless game right before the playoffs) seems counterproductive to the overall goal of the club. The blame for this falls on the coaching staff, not on the player.

The Cowboys are clearly not above resting runners by the way as they literally rested Tony Pollard not just once, but twice across the season, including the effectively meaningless game in Philadelphia. What the game represented was not in their minds enough to merit risking Tony Pollard but it was enough to trot an already-injured Ezekiel Elliott out there 18 times. There is no logic that can explain this entire line of thinking.

When asked why Tony Pollard wasn’t used more against San Francisco during his presser Mike McCarthy avoided the question and instead responded that you can ask why a lot of guys weren’t used more.

Nobody is asking about those other guys right now. We are asking about this. And we deserve answers.