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The Cowboy Way

Ezekiel Elliott has Dallas playing flashback football

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration
Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

The Cowboys might as well have a one-page playbook: It should be an old, yellowed, dog-eared piece of paper with coffee stains on it, and it should read “FOOTBALL.” The Cowboys are playing FOOTBALL-ass football. The Platonic ideal. You can’t much design against it, you can’t really cheat it; you just have to face it down and do your damnedest. And based on what we’ve seen over the first five weeks of the season, that probably won’t be enough.

Last week, in anticipation of a matchup with the suddenly unstoppable Dallas Cowboys, Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones went out of his way to play down the significance of this whole “Ezekiel Elliott” thing. Because after all, what’s so great about this rookie running back and his penchant for midriffs? Besides, anybody can rack up 412 yards through four games behind a $100 million offensive line stacked with stone golems. Jones said:

The Bengals were set on being more “disciplined” than previous losers (in order: the Redskins, the Bears, and the 49ers). They were planning to stack the box and force quarterback Dak Prescott to win the game by himself. This was a good, solid strategy that was both simple and easy to remember. Don’t let Zeke do Zeke things. But the Cowboys came out last Sunday and punched Sonic rings out of Cincy nonetheless, starting the game off with 28 unanswered points and giving up a consoling 14 in garbage time. The Bengals knew exactly what was coming and still had nothing but hope and prayer to throw at it. Elliott had 134 yards on the ground and two touchdowns on just 15 carries. Jones, in due course, was forced to tip his hat and then eat it just a little bit:

And it was kind of embarrassing. Like, “calling ‘game’ on a fadeaway and missing the whole basket by a full foot” embarrassing. (Wow, actually yeah this is super embarrassing for you, my guy.) But it is slightly less embarrassing when you consider Elliott’s prolificness in the context of football history. We may well look back on his season, in the fullness of time, as [ominous cellos] “Ezekiel Elliott: The Beginning” or somesuch. Or that we might see eBay listings for Ezekiel Elliott’s “Real! Rare! 100% Authentic!” discarded mouth guard. This is all to say: Ezekiel Elliott is really fucking good right now, and more of this is likely to come. Here are the plain, remorseless numbers:

In addition to adding his name to record books, Elliott has also been steadily trending upward in terms of production each week. Starting at a worryingly low 2.6 yards per carry in Week 1, he upped the average to 4.0 in Week 2, and in Week 5 was all the way up to 8.9, a number buoyed by big, ridiculous plays like this one:

Well, maybe not ridiculous. That may not be quite the right word. At least not in the way that we typically mean it. The ridiculousness lies in how utterly pedestrian that touchdown looks. The rote, ordinary, cut-and-dry directness of it. Everything goes exactly like it’s supposed to, everyone manhandles their would-be tackler like they’re supposed to, and Elliott powers straight up the gut like he’s supposed to, taking it 60 yards — pretty much untouched — to the house. Oh, and he split two safeties along the way. It looked exactly like when Larry Allen and Daryl Johnston used to pry open holes in the front line so that Emmitt Smith could get an unfettered, running head start and barrel through defenses like a rock through a wet sheet of tissue paper.

For comparison’s sake, this was 24 years ago:

And this was last week (it’s so much cooler with the speedometer):

Football has changed, but not that much. There are wideouts playing as running backs playing as quarterbacks playing as slot receivers. There are cinched sleeves now (someone tell Sam Bradford) and hyperbaric chambers and safeties that line up as linebackers. And all of these new approaches work to varying degrees of success. But, at the risk of sounding 75 years older than I actually am, a quarterback that can manage a game and take control of it if he has to, receivers that can help stretch the field, a bullying offensive line, and a running back that can reliably hit holes for big gains are still good for four wins out of a possible five. Ticking the boxes and hitting the procedural notes still works, and can be exciting in its own way.

Ezekiel Elliott could be the new Emmitt Smith. Zack Martin could be the new Larry Allen. Dak Prescott … dinks and dunks a little more than Troy Aikman used to, but the concept still holds water. (Plus, as it gets deeper into the season and you can break a team’s back by keeping their defense on the field for seven uninterrupted minutes, the dinks and dunks will prove useful.)

Of course, this may not last. This is the Cowboys, after all. Jerry Jones seems bullish on starting Tony Romo as soon as Romo is healthy again, and maybe that turns this team back into a pumpkin. Dez Bryant, or New Michael Irvin, I should say, could come back from injury ahead of schedule (it will happen) and get seriously hurt, for real this time. And, most worryingly, Ezekiel Elliott is already at 109 carries going into this Sunday’s game against the Green Bay Packers, and 370 is the cursed number that drops a running back’s usefulness off a cliff the following season — if you believe in such things.

But let’s not wreck how great this is now with what may come in the future. Let’s enjoy this iteration of the 2016–17 Dallas Cowboys while it’s here. They look an awful lot like the past. They look an awful lot like the way great football teams usually look.