Ezekiel Elliott’s calf injury might have been the excuse the Dallas Cowboys needed to not play him rather than the reason the Pro Bowl running back was unable to play.
Speaking after Sunday’s 41-33 win over San Francisco, Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy revealed that Elliott was a last-minute deactivation because “we felt like it was not in the best interest to go with him.”
Most assumed Elliott’s absence — the first time he’s missed a game in his five-year NFL career — was due to his nagging calf, which popped up on Dec. 9 after Elliott was listed as a limited practice participant. He gutted through obvious discomfort in Dallas’ win over Cincinnati, converting 12 carries into 48 scoreless yards.
Elliott remained limited in practice on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday as the team readied for its home contest versus the 49ers. He was officially listed as questionable, though the Dallas Morning News reported he would play.
As did McCarthy.
“I would say I think understandably he’s a little further away this week than he was last week because he played in the game,” he told reporters earlier this week. “But I still plan on him playing Sunday. Today will be important and the amount of work he gets tomorrow (in practice) will factor. But all things look like he’s going to play in the game.”
Until he didn’t.
Insert “eyes” emoji.
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Pollard Shines in Zeke’s Stead
Given a full workload with Elliott looking on, sophomore RB Tony Pollard single-handily beat the 49ers, totaling 69 yards and two rushing touchdowns on 12 carries — a breath-of-fresh-air 5.8 YPC. He added six catches on a team-high nine targets for 63 yards.
Pollard’s highlight-reel play came late in the fourth quarter, with Dallas clinging to a 27-24 lead. Pollard cut, juked, broke out of a tackle, and hit the turbo button en route to a 40-yard TD scamper. McCarthy rightfully termed his performance as “excellent.”
Asked about the support he received from Elliott during the game, Pollard downplayed the notion of potential bad blood between the $90 million workhorse and his young understudy.
“Zeke’s like my No. 1 fan. Any situation where he can’t go and the team has to run through me or another guy, (he’s cheering us). Definitely a good guy to have on your side,” he said, via USA Today.
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Cowboys Predicted to Trade Zeke in 2021
Projecting the biggest trades to come in 2021, Bleacher Report columnist Chris Roling urged the Cowboys to send Elliott to the New York Jets for a second-round draft pick.
If the Cowboys want to unload Elliott and get some cap wiggle room, a team like the New York Jets would make plenty of sense. The winless Jets sit with the second-most projected cap space in 2021 at more than $81 million and figure to use the No. 1 pick on a quarterback like Trevor Lawrence.
Those Jets could send a second-rounder to the Cowboys for Elliott, who they can use to absorb workhorse punishment while a rookie learns on the fly. The front office could then use the out in Elliott’s contract after the 2022 season.
Unless the Jets agree to shoulder a majority of his contract, or Elliott agrees to restructure to facilitate the transaction, this trade is unlikely to materialize. According to OverTheCap.com, Dallas would absorb a cap-killing $24.5 million dead-money hit, with $10.8 million in savings, by moving Elliott pre- or post-June 1.
Follow Zack Kelberman on Twitter: @KelbermanNFL