The 2020 season was a rough one for the Dallas Cowboys, and in particular for their top runner Ezekiel Elliott. His 979 yards were a career-low and it marked the first time he failed to reach 1,000 yards in a full season of action. He only had two 100-yard games, tied a career-high in fumbles (6), and his eight total touchdowns were the least he's had in any season.
Elliott's doubters now have plenty of ammunition to criticize the former two-time rushing champion. However, three factors could very well silence them and put Elliott's name back at the top when people mention the best running backs in the NFL.
The return of Dak Prescott
It's no secret that Dak Prescott is currently trying to find his long-term security with the Cowboys. Whether it's a long-term deal or a second franchise tag, Prescott will be the organization's quarterback in 2021, and Elliott will benefit from it.
With weapons in the passing game like Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and CeeDee Lamb, the Cowboy's passing attack will be lethal with Prescott for a full season. Having multiple threats on the outside like Cooper and Gallup, mixed with Lamb who led the league as a rookie in catches and yards in the slot, defenses will have to honor that and it will be difficult to load the box and defend Elliott. Plus, a healthy Blake Jarwin at tight end will aid in this as well.
We've seen Elliott produce at a high level when Prescott had his best season as a pro. In 2019, Prescott nearly set a franchise record with 4,902 passing yards and threw 30 touchdowns. Elliott was also lights out finishing fourth in rushing yards (1,357), fourth in touchdowns (12), second in all-purpose yards (1,777), and first in 100-yard games (7). Also, while Prescott won the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2016, Elliott led the NFL in rushing with 1,631 yards. Simply put, their games feed off each other well.
A healthy offensive line
The Cowboys were rattled with injuries in 2020, and the offensive line suffered immensely. La'el Collins misses the entire season, Tyron Smith missed 14 games with a neck issue, and Zack Martin missed six games with a calf injury. Undrafted free agents Brandon Knight and Terence Steele both played significant snaps this season, and the offensive line never found any continuity.
With two All-Pro's like Smith and Martin healthy, a Pro Bowl level tackle like Collins back on the field, and rookie Tyler Biadasz continuing to develop (also missed time with a hamstring injury), Elliott will have much better blocking than he did this season which will lead to better results on the field.
Rebuilding his reputation
In Elliott's first three seasons, he won two rushing titles (2016, 2018) and led the league in rushing yards per game (2017) even while serving a six-game suspension in the one season he didn't up to that point. Surprisingly, the rumblings of Elliott's demise started even after a highly productive 2019 campaign. An anonymous coach ranked Elliott the 11-best running hack in the league, claiming that he was only 60 or 70 percent of what he once was.
Elliott took to Twitter to voice his displeasure with that particular take.
Whoever that is, is faded lol https://t.co/mCqdYv1U2a
After the season Elliott had in 2020, those rumblings have gotten even louder, to the point that some are even suggesting that the Cowboys signing him to a six-year, $90 million dollar contract in 2019 was a mistake and it may be time to move on from him and give the keys to Tony Pollard.
This is all the motivation Elliott needs heading into next season. After one down year, it seems as if Elliott's production in his first four seasons has been forgotten by many. Now, he has the opportunity to put the naysayers in their place and regain the respect he had for so long. This doesn't guarantee he'll have a great season in 2021, he still has to do it on the field, but it doesn't mean it won't fuel him to have a bounce-back season either.
Elliott is still one of the best running backs in the game from an all-around standpoint (running, receiving, blocking). With the doubters at an all-time high, will he rise to the occasion and get his respect back? We shall see but if I was a betting man, I'd say yes.