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MAQB: Don't Count Out Ezekiel Elliott Just Yet

The RB is poised to finish the 2021 season with career-best numbers. Plus, analysis on Harbaugh and Fangio's connections and a special moment for Ron Rivera.

We’ve got a lot to get to here, with a quarter (or so) of the season in the books …

• I’m not sure why people were so quick to write their Zeke Elliott eulogies, but here we are now, four weeks into the season, and Elliott’s numbers: 64 carries, 342 yards, 4 TDs, and a 5.3-yards per carry average. Which projects to a 267-carry, 1,464-yard, 16-TD season that would rank with his best as a pro. And that’s saying something for a versatile, 230-pound back who’s been the best at his position over his six years in the league. And yet, there’s still people out there who think, somehow, the wheels are falling off? “You hear it, but you can't really pay attention to it because at the end of the day, it doesn't matter,” Elliott told me after Dallas’s win Sunday over Carolina. “It doesn't matter at all. All that matters week-in and week-out is going out there trying to win football games. So I mean, when you play for the Dallas Cowboys, when you're doing well, they're gonna love you. If you're not doing up to par, then they're gonna let you hear it. That's just part of the deal.” Sunday was, to be sure, was one of those days when Elliott felt the love—with 20-carry, 143-yard performance keying a 245-yard afternoon for the Dallas run game. And more than just the numbers, for Elliott, it was another way to show that he hasn’t lost the step some think he has (which, to be fair, is what often happens to backs as they get to where Elliott’s at in his career, six years in). “I feel like I'm a better player,” he said. "Just with time, I think I've been able to get so many reps, and the game starts to slow down. And last year was tough. We had a lot of injuries, we were out a lot of guys, but definitely, I'm feeling great now.” Another part of it, too, is the presence Tony Pollard, who’s there to spell Elliott, and give the Cowboys a change-up pitch behind a line that’s healthier than it has been, if not completely healthy yet. “Me and Tony, we're brothers,” Elliott said. “Our whole running back room is a brotherhood. And Tony, man, ever since he's got here he's worked his tail off. He's developed so much as a player. He's a smart dude, too. So he's definitely earned the right to get some of those carries, those touches. And I think honestly, we're better together than me trying to just carrying the whole show. I feel like us together, we keep each other fresh, one, in the game, and if you think about it, we added a game this year to an already-long season so we're gonna keep each other fresh all the way to down to hopefully where we'll be playing at the end of January—and hopefully into February.” Which is to say Elliott/Pollard isn’t the either/or some are making it out to be, and Elliott’s still got at least a little left on the tire.

• The John Harbaugh/Vic Fangio Monday war of words is pretty interesting, given the strong connections in play here. Fangio was actually in Baltimore from 2006 to '09, and Harbaugh held on to him when he was hired to replace Brian Billick in 2008 as a special assistant to, yes, the head coach, before making him linebackers coach. From there, Fangio became defensive coordinator for John’s brother Jim at Stanford in 2010, then followed Jim to the Niners, where he was Jim’s coordinator for all four of his years in San Francisco. And yet Fangio told the Denver media Monday that Harbaugh’s decision to call a run play up 16 with 3 seconds left was “kind of bulls---t. But I expected it from them. In 37 years of pro ball, I’ve never seen anything like it … I know how they operate.” Harbaugh returned volley in early afternoon, telling the Baltimore media he thought he was good with Fangio, and that they caught up before the game. Then, Harbaugh pointed out that just before the Ravens called the Jackson run, Fangio was throwing into the end zone as the fourth quarter wound down. “We didn’t expect to get the ball back,” Harbaugh said. “But we decided if we got the ball back, we were gonna try to get the yards. And we got it back with three seconds left. And you’re throwing the ball in the end zone, 10 seconds left, I don’t know that there’s a 16-point touchdown that’s gonna be possible right there. So that didn’t have anything to do with winning the game. What’s meaningful to us might not being meaningful to them, and we’re not gonna concern ourselves with that.” Just FYI: The Ravens will host the Broncos in 2022 if the teams finish in corresponding positions in their divisions. So there’s something everyone can root for.

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• I wanted to put a bow on the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick extravaganza here with a few details that, honestly, I couldn’t quite shoehorn into the narrative of the morning column, after all that happened last night—details that I think can explain the philosophical divide between player and team that led to the divorce after 20 years together. The Patriots made their last long-term contract offer in the summer of 2019, and the issue wasn’t money specifically. It was the guarantees. Brady’s camp was looking for a deal that would lock him in as the team’s starting quarterback for a couple years past the March 2020 expiration of the existing deal. The Patriots were willing to pay him, but wanted year-to-year flexibility that protected the team against Brady’s age becoming a problem. That understandable, of course, given that there’s no precedent for what Brady’s doing. But if you’re Brady? And you’ve given 20 years to a place, won six championships, and boosted the franchise’s value exponentially? You’d probably be at least a little put off that the team wouldn’t bet you on reaching your goal of playing until you’re 45. (I’d probably be a lot put off by it, to be honest.) So at that point, the Patriots gave Brady a raise, and a no-franchise tag provision that essentially handed him what the Kraft family wanted to promise him—full control over the next steps of his career, something they felt like he’d earned. And even then, into 2020, the Patriots were willing to do a deal with him. But they were going to let him make that call. So they had the thought that he might come back to them with offers from the Bucs and the Chargers, and see if the Patriots wanted to match. Instead, Brady showed up at Kraft’s house last March already gone—there not to negotiate, but to say goodbye. And that was that. The whole thing wasn’t completely clean, of course. Still, as is usually the case, it feels like time is thawing those hard feelings. Which is good to see.

• One more leftover—the Bucs were not pleased with the officials at the end of last night’s game. And it came out when Bruce Arians and I discussed his defense making plays in the final two minutes to keep the degree of difficulty up on Nick Folk’s eventual bid at a go-ahead field goal. “Defensively, we had a chance to stop them there at the end—We got picked and it wasn't called, but still the kicker hit the upright,” Licht said. “But I watched him make 60 from that direction in warmups, so I was a little worried.” And indeed, the video evidence is there backing the Bucs up on this. On second-and-6 from the Patriots 49, Kendrick Bourne lined up to Mac Jones’s right, tight to the formation. At the snap, he ran right at linebacker Lavonte David, who was trying to get out to the flat. With David’s path blocked, Brandon Bolden came wind open on a swing route, and easily picked up the first down. Further angering Tampa in that spot? Both the Patriots offensive tackle jumped, and should’ve been flagged for false starts. Which, you could argue, was a fitting end to a game that was officiating relatively sloppily all the way around.

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• Strange situation involving Washington’s head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion, who was placed on administrative leave after a DEA raid of the team facility on Friday, in connection with a criminal investigation. Vermillion came to Washington with Ron Rivera, so plenty of guys on staff have background with the trainer going back years. But the couple guys I touched base with had no idea even what’s being investigated, other than it’s something that’s unrelated to the team itself. Obviously, this one bears watching going forward. Rivera declined to comment on it on Monday in his time with the D.C. press.

• On a more positive note, I texted with Rivera after filing my column last night—with a note in there on a pretty special moment between the coach and his team last week on his one-year cancer-free anniversary. I really wanted to know what it meant to Rivera, to have the team come together to honor him, and make a $25,000 donation to proton therapy research and treatment in his name. “It meant two things,” Rivera texted. “One is they saw how it was to me to be there for the team, and in spite of my circumstances I was going to do that. Two is they’re getting my messaging about team. We are learning to do things the right way. Of course, we still aren’t where we want to be. … But more importantly, they were there for me.”

• Yesterday, there was more than just a win—just the franchise’s second in its last 20 September/October games—there for the Jets. There was real progress on the part of their quarterback, and it had little to do with a few spectacular plays Zach Wilson made down the stretch. More so, it was Wilson growing up a little, and showing it early on when it looked like it was going to be another long afternoon. On the Jets’ second offensive snap of the second quarter, Wilson was picked off by Tennessee’s Kristian Fulton, which led the Titans kicking a field goal and going up 9–0. And maybe earlier in the year, it would’ve been time for Wilson to put on his cape and try to win the game with every throw. Instead, on this first Sunday of October, Wilson became more surgeon than superhero. On the Jets’ next possession, he hit Corey Davis for 13 yards on an out route to convert third-and-10, then Davis again on a similar route then the receiver turned upfield for a 30-yard gain. Then, three plays after that, he checked the ball down to tailback Ty Johnson for 6 yards on third-and-4. That drive wound up going 75 yards in 11 plays, and ended in touchdown, getting the Jets within 2, at 9–7. And now, as the Jets coaches see it, the hope is Wilson builds off that experience in seeing the offense work for him, in getting he and the offense easy completions and yardage.

• I don’t know where the Urban Meyer story goes from here. But being up front and addressing it with his team, and then acknowledging it publicly was the right move. To me, it was just surprising, especially since it wasn’t all that long ago that Meyer was coaching college kids who needed to be preached to on the fact that everyone’s got a video camera in their pocket now. It’ll be interesting to see how the Jaguars week goes, with the Titans up next on the schedule, and after the team showed a lot of fight and grit in a loss to Cincinnati.

• Bills/Chiefs is a Week 5 matchup worth paying attention to—NBC gets that one on Sunday night, and Buffalo no doubt remembers being outclassed in every way on that Arrowhead field in January. Buffalo, for what it’s worth, has been a machine since Week 1, outscoring its last three opponents 118–21.

• Can we start a Go Fund Me to have a ManningCast tonight? 

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