OXNARD, Calif . - This time a year ago, they told us lies about Ezekiel Elliott.
A lot of them. Every day.
We know why.
The Cowboys couldn’t tell the truth about their star runner, who was sifting through a litany of emotions as he dealt with off-the-field issues that ultimately resulted in Elliott serving a six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
Well, there’s no need to lie about Elliott as the Cowboys prepare for the 2018 season.
“You go at this time last year, he’s very stressed out,” running backs coach Gary Brown said. “He wasn’t himself. He looked big.
“Now he looks happy and jubilant and lean and just going out there and having some fun. So it’s a completely different Zeke than it was last year.”
And that’s fantastic news for coach Jason Garrett, who shouldn’t be surprised if another non-playoff season results in his unemployment.
It’s good news for play-caller Scott Linehan because Elliott’s presence makes everybody else so much more effective.
Elliott is the only skill position player on the roster who makes defense coordinators drink black coffee deep into the night searching for ways to contain him.
We’re talking about a runner who has at least 80 yards in 23 of 25 NFL starts. Only once has he had fewer than 50 yards - and that occurred in the debacle at Denver last season when he had nine yards on eight carries and quit on at least two plays.
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And it’s good news for his teammates. The more plays Elliott makes, the easier it gets for his teammates to operate.
This season, however, isn’t about all of those other folks.
It’s really about Elliott.
It started in the offseason with Elliott proving to the organization that he can stay out the news and the headlines.
“It’s important for him, it’s important for his teammates, it’s important for our franchise and what people’s thoughts are on him,” Club Vice President Stephen Jones said. “I think it was huge that he was able to really get his hands around what this is all about -- the challenges that are out there. Hopefully, it’ll continue."
“I just think he’s a lot more serious-minded. I actually think that he’s learned a lot from his experience.”
It’s also about Elliott proving to the coaching staff and his teammates that they can trust him to handle his business off-the-field, so he can do his thing on the field.
“I am being more cautious, more focused on my game, and focused on having a good year,” Elliott said. “I am just ready to go out there and prove myself and be the running back I am for this team.”
The Cowboys have noticed a difference in Elliott’s behavior and his attitude. They see a player who wants to be a leader.
But they just don’t hear it in his words, they see it in his actions.
Like when he told Brown the running backs needed to go through a drill one more time for the young players. Or when he often runs to the end zone on a practice carry - even if it requires him to run an additional 60 yards.
It’s been a good first week of training camp for what the Cowboys hope will be a great season for Elliott.
He’s seen that Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley signed a four-year, $60 million deal with $45 million guaranteed last week.
He know Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell will command a deal in that range when he becomes a free agent at the end of the season.
The NFL values running backs again. If Elliott does what he’s supposed to do that kind of deal awaits him too.
“When you have such an impact as a rookie, like he did, and then for things to happen to you your second year it humbles you,” Brown said. “I have to be on point with everything that I do, on and off the field, I can’t be this guy that people are looking at and saying negative things, I want to be the guy people are saying positive things about.
“I think he was humbled in that way, I think it helped him and we should get the best Zeke that we’ve seen so far.”
And no one will have to lie about it.