FRISCO, Texas—On Jan. 12, 2015, Emmitt Smith made his way to the owner’s suite at AT&T Stadium to watch the national championship game between Ohio State and Oregon. He settled in close to his former teammate and current Dallas Cowboys head coach, Jason Garrett.
Garrett hadn’t watched much college football that season outside of catching highlights here and there. His Cowboys went 12–4 and were just a day separated from a controversial loss at Green Bay in the NFC divisional round. But Smith, the league’s all-time leading rusher, had spent a few months watching and ranking the top running backs in college football.
Smith had eyed Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon early, and then caught some Ohio State games later in the year.
“Hey Red Ball,” Smith said to Garrett, “you’ve got to watch this kid No. 15. He can really play.”
Smith was, of course, referencing then-sophomore Ezekiel Elliott. He marveled at the young back's ability to block and catch the ball, as well as his superb talent as a ball carrier.
Elliott carried the ball 36 times for 246 yards and four touchdowns that night. Garrett promised to keep an eye on him, and 15 months later Elliott became a Cowboy as the No. 4 overall pick in the 2016 draft.
The leading rusher in the league and on pace to break Eric Dickerson’s rookie rushing record, Elliott has been the catalyst for the Cowboys’ 5–1 start as they head into an NFC East showdown against Philadelphia on Sunday night. His complete skill set as a tailback—running inside and out, catching out of the backfield and lining up as a receiver, staying in as a pass protector—harkens back to a time before the spread offenses took over the college scene. His style of play, the way he wears his jersey and even his name fit a throwback narrative.
“As a competitor we want to be the best at what we do, “Elliott said. “That’s what I think I’ve done a good job with kind of becoming a well-rounded player and kind of working on everything, not just focused on running the ball, catching it or being a third-down guy out of the backfield. Just being a guy that you don’t have to take out, who can do a little bit of everything.”
He’s doing all this behind the best offensive line in football, with a quarterback who’s making smart decisions and pass catchers who help make the offense two-dimensional. This feels like a throwback to the glory days of the Cowboys' dynasty, a team that won three titles in four years in the 1990s.
“There’s no question that being around those Super Bowl teams in the ’90s, that was the formula that worked for us then,” Garrett said this week from his new office overlooking the practice field at The Star. “And we wanted to build and construct this team in a very similar fashion. We’re fortunate to have a lot of those pieces in place.”
Elliott is the centerpiece.
Gary Brown can’t stand it when people say anyone can run behind the Cowboys’ offensive line. Dallas’s running backs coach is hearing it now just like he heard it two seasons ago when DeMarco Murray rushed for a league-high 1,845 yards.
“It kind of negates that running back’s ability, and it negates the hard work that they put in,” Brown said. “I don’t believe that it’s a plug-and-play type of system. You have to have some type of ability to go out and perform at high levels.”
The funny thing about great offensive lines is, just like they make the running back look better, he can cover up some of their scabs. A 3-technique could be wreaking havoc in the interior and break through the line, but a running back like Elliott can do a jump cut and hit the hole that a defensive tackle has now vacated. And now that the rookie has been much more patient on stretch runs, he’s finding the holes and making more out of those plays.
Elliott’s yards after contact have been a boon to the Cowboys, as well. Of his 703 rushing yards this season, 293 have come after contact—yet another league-leading statistic for the 6-foot, 225-pound back.
“The way he can cut and read the defense. That extra gear that he shows. He’s a one-cut guy where he makes a cut and takes off,” guard Zack Martin said. “I think he’s a lot bigger and more physical than people think. He can take hits and run through tackles. He’s a complete back.”
Martin is one of three starting Cowboys linemen who was picked in the first round of the draft within the past five years along with left tackle Tyron Smith and center Travis Frederick. Right tackle Doug Free came to the Cowboys as a fourth-rounder in 2007, and the Cowboys have started two former risky undrafted free agents (Ronald Leary with his medicals and La’el Collins following the death of his ex-girlfriend) at the other guard position.
It’s too early to tell if these guys are Mark Tuinei, Erik Willams, Kevin Gogan, Nate Newton and Larry Allen from the Cowboys of yesteryear, but Dallas has made a concerted effort to find out.
“There’s no question what we wanted to do was build the team with the offensive line. And as great as the skill players were on those Super Bowl teams, it started with the offensive line,” Garrett said. “The team was built around the line and we used a lot of resources to rebuild the offensive line.”
Brown was a running back for the Houston Oilers during the Cowboys’ dynasty. So even though he wasn’t in the facilities during that run, he was down the road. He admits this team gives him the feeling of those ’90s Cowboys, especially with how well Elliott is running.
But despite the strong links between the team's marquee running back of the past, Emmitt Smith, and their marquee back of the present, Elliott, the two still haven’t met.
Michael Jordan once told Smith years ago that if young athletes want your opinion, they’ll ask you for it. That, to Jordan, meant that athletes truly value your opinion rather than having some old head reach out with unsolicited advice.
Smith has adopted that philosophy. He’s told Brown and others in the building that if Elliott wants to talk, they have his number. He did the same with Murray and Julius Jones before him, and he’ll keep that offer on the table in the future.
“For me, and I’m only speaking about me, it was always important for me to talk to people of wisdom,” said Smith, who understands a rookie like Elliott may be busy and doesn’t take it as a slight that he hasn’t reached out. “And when I say that, I mean people who have been there and done it and know what it’s all about and pick their brain for the knowledge that they possess. For me, they have traveled the places that I want to go.”
Smith casts a big shadow. His name and likeness is all over the $1.5 billion practice facility Elliott frequents. Smith was going to come to an early-season practice but Garrett changed the practice schedule earlier in the day.
Smith has watched every Cowboys game this year and has been rooting for Elliott from afar.
“He doesn’t want to be a distraction to Zeke. He doesn’t want to take attention away from us,” Brown said. “Would it be great for them to talk? Of course. Why wouldn’t you want to talk to the NFL’s leading rusher?
“The reality is Zeke’s gonna be here for a while, and if those two can get together and share stories and Zeke can bounce things off of him and Emmitt can give him some advice, that’s one of the greatest gifts in the world.”
Elliott wants to meet Smith, and he says their respective commitments—especially his own in his rookie year—have kept them from doing so. When they do meet, he knows his first two questions for Smith.
“What he thinks helped him separate himself from everyone else,” Elliott said. “And once he got to the top, how did he stay at the top.”
Not much can get you ready to play for the Cowboys after being the fourth player taken in the draft, but being the star at Ohio State for two years and playing in front of 108,000 at home games doesn’t hurt.
Eddie George knows what it’s like. A former Heisman winner at Ohio State, George spent the final season of his career in Dallas after eight years with the Oilers/Titans.
“They’re America's team. The star is a ubiquitous brand that no matter where you see it around the globe, you know what it stands for. It’s a different pressure. It’s a global presence that he has with him being one of the young superstars on the team right now. When he does something like running for 150 yards, that’s a really big deal nationally.”
Elliott has also made national news for the wrong reasons.
In July, Elliott’s former girlfriend accused him of assaulting her. After speaking with Elliott and other witnesses and comparing statements, the Columbus district attorney declined to press charges against Elliott in early September before the start of the season. (Nearly two months later, the NFL is still reviewing the case under its personal conduct policy.)
A week before that, Elliott was spotted walking into a marijuana store in Seattle before an exhibition against the Seahawks. Jerry Jones said “it’s just not good,” and days later Elliott said he made the rookie mistake out of curiosity.
Said Brown, his position coach: “Obviously off the field there are different things that he has to understand. That he’s not Zeke from St. Louis. You’re Zeke of the Dallas Cowboys. He’s learned from the things that have happened to him and it’s great … He understands that and knows that. I don’t anticipate seeing any problems from now on in. When you get burned a few times, you learn and you don’t have those problems anymore.”
Once the season started, Elliott got off to a slow start—after two weeks, he had just 134 rushing yards and as many touchdowns (two) as fumbles, but he said his teammates were there to offer support.
“After Week 1 and Week 2, no one lost their faith in me,” Elliott said of his teammates. “Just kind of having that camaraderie, faith and trust within these walls when you didn’t necessarily feel that from the outside of them.”
Elliott has now rushed for at least 134 yards over his last four games. Barring any setbacks, he is well on his way to the offensive rookie of the year award and has a legitimate chance to break a record that has stood since 1983. Of course, he and his coaches promise that is none of their concern right now.
No doubt, one of the biggest reasons Elliott has been so well fed is because of his fellow rookie at quarterback, Dak Prescott. Marshall Faulk, a mentor of Elliott’s since Zeke was in high school, feels the record can be Elliott’s if Prescott remains at quarterback over Tony Romo.
“This is no knock on what Tony can do, but as long as Dak remains their quarterback, [Zeke] is going to keep playing as well as he has. They’re going to run the ball regardless,” said Faulk, a two-time NFL MVP now an analyst for NFL Network. “If Tony comes in, Tony is going to get them into better plays and sometimes those better plays are going to be pass plays. Tony can definitely help them in the long run. But in reality, for Zeke, it’s going to take away from him.”
Garrett promises that no matter who’s at quarterback, the dynamic of the offense won’t change. The plan for the Cowboys is to control the line of scrimmage and let the run game open up the passing game. And the truth is, with Romo still rehabbing his back, the Cowboys have at least another week or more to kick the can.
Smith, though, said the Cowboys would be “foolish” if they changed anything right now. Their run-to-pass balance is what wins them games, and it’s reminding him of two decades ago.
“That’s why I call it the winning formula. It is that balance that got us to three Super Bowls,” Smith said. “It’s that balance that allowed us to eat up the clock when necessary and put pressure on opposing offenses and defenses more than anything. That’s why I say I don’t see things changing that much.”
Elliott is at the center of it all. He’s clearly special. Some of the league’s greatest retired running backs know it, the Cowboys know it and so does Elliott.
On Monday after practice, Elliott stood by his locker singing Lil Uzi Vert’s hot new rap “Do What I Want.”
“Boy I started on the bottom, made my way to top/Boy I’m gon keep winning, no I cannot stop,” Elliott repeated softly to himself.
Then he packed up two commemorative game balls he had recently earned into his black bookbag and walked out.