Was Ezekiel Elliott’s poor season a fluke or something more?

Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) /

Last season was, by far, the worst of Ezekiel Elliott‘s five-year NFL career. The Dallas Cowboys‘ running back posted career-lows in rushing yards (979), yards per carry (4.0), average rushing yards per game (65.3), and total touchdowns (8).

Elliott finish 2020 ranked outside the top ten of the league’s best running backs, ranking 11th in total rushing yards. Unfortunately, Zeke is tied for second with the New Orleans Saints’ Alvin Kamara when it comes to the top salaries for NFL running backs, averaging $15 million per year. Only the Carolina Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey makes more, averaging just over $16 million a season.

That hefty price tag comes with hefty expectations from Cowboy fans. And while injuries at quarterback and along the offensive line didn’t aid in his efforts, Elliott was often his own worst enemy.

The former first-rounder tied a career-high with six fumbles in 2020. Elliott led all NFL running backs in that category, fumbling five times while rushing and once as a receiver. All but one of those fumbles was lost, with the majority of the turnovers coming early into the season when Zeke still had quarterback Dak Prescott under center.

Still only 25-years old, Elliott figures hasn’t yet hit his athletic prime. But running backs also have a tendency to wear down sooner than most due to the constant physical pounding they take on an every-down basis.

And Zeke has carried the ball more than most over his short five-year career, racking up an average of more than 282 rushing attempts per season. Elliott actually led the NFL in carries in both 2018 (304) and 2016 (322) plus he was a very close second in 2019 (301).

So the question is has the wear and tear caught up with Zeke? Was his poor performance last year simply a fluke and a result of all the injuries the team suffered around him? Or was it the start of a downward trend for Elliott?

Here’s how Rob Phillips, senior writer for DallasCowboys.com, recently responded to a mailbag question about how Elliott’s efforts in pass protection might be having a negative impact on his production.

"“In 2019 [Elliott] ranked fourth in the league in 10-plus-yard runs with 38. In 2020, he was 15th with just 22. That’s not a coincidence. I don’t care how much money he’s making, sometimes the holes just aren’t there. Put Dak and a healthier line on the field next season, fall behind on the scoreboard less often, and I think we’ll see more normal production in the run game.”"

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While I’m not sure many fans share Phillip’s optimism, Elliott posting a better performance with a healthy offensive line blocking for him and his top quarterback under center certainly makes sense. Yet, it also flies in the face of the notion that star players should be able to lift the team on their shoulders during the toughest of times. Especially when they are seemingly being paid top dollar to do so.