The Dallas Cowboys dealt many problems throughout their 2020 season, one, in particular, being the struggles of Ezekiel Elliott.
Elliott, a three-time Pro Bowl selection and one-time All-Pro selection in 2016 had his worst year to date as a professional.
He posted career lows in total yards, yards per attempt, yards per game and tied his career-low for rushing touchdowns in a season with just six.
Many ridiculed Elliott’s physique and playstyle throughout the year, claiming that the five-year running back looked “overweight” and lethargic running the football.
While Elliott did not have his best outing in the 2020 season, it would be unfair to say that it was entirely his fault. Injuries across the offense made his job harder than usual, particularly the offensive line and Dak Prescott.
Elliott and the Injured O-Line
Based solely on the injures the entire Cowboys’ offensive line sustained, it’s not difficult to see why Elliott had such a rough going. Quite literally, everyone was hurt and missed time at some point during the season.
Prior to the 2020 season, the Cowboys’ starting center Travis Frederick retired leaving Tyler Biadasz as his replacement. While Biadasz was no pushover, there was a clear difference between him and the All-Pro talent.
On top of this, three of the Cowboys’ five best linemen all suffered season-ending injuries.
La’el Collins, the Cowboys starting right tackle, missed the entirety of the 2020 season after undergoing surgery due to a hip injury.
Tyron Smith, the Cowboys All-Pro left tackle, missed 14 games in 2020 due to a neck injury and continuing to struggle with his lower back issues.
Even Zack Martin, who had missed just two games his entire career prior to 2020, was not absent from an untimely injury. In a week 12 blowout loss to the Washington Redskins, Martin sustained a calf injury which placed him in injury reserve for the remainder of the year.
The only lineman who managed to play the entirety of the year was Connor Willaims. Even Frederick’s replacement in Tyler Biadasz missed four games due to injury.
It doesn’t matter who it is, any running back that has to compensate for an offensive line that sustained multiple injuries and saw new faces all season is going to struggle. For that reason alone, it would be foolish to have Elliott shoulder the entire blame for his struggles.
Dak Prescott’s Absence
Football is a team sport, everything needs balance to be successful. A good offense helps a good defense. An experienced coach corrects mistakes and the team responds by capitalizing. In this case, a good passing game opens up the running game and vice versa.
Elliott did not have the best start to the season, but things only got worse for him after the Cowboys’ passing attack regressed in light of Dak Prescott’s injury.
In the five games prior to Prescott’s injury, Eliott averaged 72.8 yards per game. In the remaining 10 games he played Elliott averaged just 61.5 yards per game, that is not a coincidence.
The Cowboys are not the most complete roster in football, but their offense is known to be dynamic and respected league-wide. However, when you take an entire element away from the offense it becomes easier for defense for defenses to adjust.
Elliott did not have a 100-yard rushing performance until week 11 against the Minnesota Vikings, who had the 27th ranked rushing defense in football. His only other 100-yard game came against the 23rd ranked rushing defense of the Philadelphia Eagles in week 16.
Perhaps the most glaring statistic of all for Elliott is the fact that after Prescott was ruled out, he scored just twice more the remainder of the season. He tallied a receiving touchdown against the Vikings, and a rushing touchdown in week 17 against the New York Giants.
Allow that to settle in for a minute. Ezekiel Elliott posted just one rushing touchdown in Dak Prescott’s 11-week absence. If this is not telling of just how important Prescott’s presence is for Elliott’s success in the run game, there’s not much else that will.
The two young stars feed off of each other’s success and are at their absolute best when the other is succeeding.
Looking Ahead to the 2021 Season
In hindsight Ezekiel Elliott had a lot to deal with in the 2020 season, arguably the most he’s had to deal with so far in his five-year career.
His numbers weren’t great, but stats can’t tell the entire story. Elliott certainly took a step back in his level of play, but there was far more going on outside of the stat sheet that many conveniently failed to consider.
Does this completely absolve or excuse Elliott from his performance this year? Of course not. Elliott did not look like himself physically or mentally, regardless of the injuries and setbacks he faced this year.
It is undoubtedly true he looked to put on a few more pounds, and that he wasn’t attacking defenses with the same ferocity and aggression Cowboys fans had become accustomed to.
However, this does not mean that he has seen his best days.
Elliott is still just 25-years-old and has more than enough left in him. This year will surely be one of his most, if not the most, important to date, and he has never been one to not rise to the occasion.
If Elliott’s 2018 season is any indication of how he will respond coming off a bad year, the Cowboys and their fans are in for a show.
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