It’s not time to take the foot off the gas for the Dallas Cowboys, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if they went into cruise control when it comes to star rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott.
After all, we’ve reached that time of the year where first-year players are surpassing the typical workload they used to have on college campuses around the country, and the move from 12 or 13 games to 16 and beyond can be quite the grind in an era when coaches at both levels tend to be much more judicious when it comes to playing time with star players.
Furthermore, at 10-1, the Cowboys are running away from the field when it comes to the No. 1 seed on the NFC side — especially after Seattle, likely the only team that could catch the Cowboys, experienced an unexpected hiccup in Tampa Bay on Sunday.
There is a lot that has made Dallas the juggernaut that it is in the NFC, things like the best offensive line in football and a skill-position group with a difference maker on the outside (Dez Bryant), in the slot (Chase Beasley) and at tight end (Jason Witten).
And as impressive as fellow rookie Dak Prescott has been at the quarterback position in North Texas, we all understand who the linchpin is for the Cowboys — it’s Elliott.
Heck, the former Ohio State’s star ability to control the game even helps Rod Marinelli and the other side of the football, which is the far more flawed unit for the Cowboys.
Currently, Elliott is on pace for over 350 carries, which would be the second-most for any running back in this decade, trailing only DeMarco Murray, Dallas’ bell cow the last time it was relevant in 2014 and a player it ran into the ground in what turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
When Murray touched it 393 times in 2014 and over 400 when you include the postseason, the ’Boys were content to let him walk in free agency understanding that backs who work that much have their production drop off a table soon after.
Murray indeed had a disastrous season in Philadelphia last year but is rebounding nicely this time around with the Tennessee Titans. His personal travails, however, have nothing to do with the Cowboys any longer, other than to say the team wouldn’t have fallen off a cliff last season when Tony Romo was injured with a Murray of 2014- or Elliott of 2016-type threat in the backfield.
The concern here is twofold, namely that Elliott is a rookie while Murray was a grizzled vet and you want a significant shelf life this time around instead of taking Dave Kingman-like hacks at the fences.
Perhaps worse, though, is that Jerry Jones has not learned his lesson from the Murray affair and the Cowboys owner and general manager still sticks his nose into things he shouldn’t be involved in.
“Not at all. The more we can give Ezekiel the ball the better,” Jones said on his weekly radio show on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas when asked about the rookie wall.
The proper answer there is to defer to the head coach and allow him to gauge what needs to be done with Elliott down the stretch especially if the Cowboys remain unthreatened by either the Seahawks or the New York Giants.
And with a veteran like Alfred Morris in reserve, it would be rather silly of Jason Garrett and his play caller Scott Linehan to keep force-feeding Elliott in advance of the playoffs if the Cowboys don’t need to.
-John McMullen is a national football columnist for FanRagSports.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen — Also catch John each week during the NFL season on ESPN South Jersey, ESPN Southwest Florida, ESPN Lexington, CBS Baltimore, KDWN in Las Vegas, and check @JFMcMullen for John’s upcoming appearances on SB Nation Radio, FOX Sports Radio, CBS Sports Radio as well as dozens of local radio stations across North America.