FRISCO, Texas -- The day after the Dallas Cowboys’ 2014 season ended in a controversial 26-21 loss to Green Bay in the divisional playoffs, coach Jason Garrett saw his team’s future, even if he didn’t know it.
Garrett was sitting in the owner’s suite at AT&T Stadium next to Cowboys legend Emmitt Smith for the first College Football Playoff National Championship between Ohio State and Oregon. At the time, it was Garrett’s desire to retain Dallas RB DeMarco Murray, who led the NFL with 1,845 yards rushing that season and was set to become a free agent.
The Cowboys went 12-4 in 2014, and their formula for success revolved around Murray. Plus, then-Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott was a sophomore at the time, ineligible for the draft. And there was no reason to think the Cowboys would be so poor the following season that they would have a chance to select Elliott in the 2016 NFL draft.
“This 15 for Ohio State is pretty good,” Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, said to Garrett.
After a season spent with tunnel vision, Garrett knew of Elliott, if not about him at the time.
"So I kind of watched him because Emmitt knows a little something about running backs. I watched him closer and closer, and obviously he had a big game that night,” Garrett said. “And then you watch him throughout the next year, and he obviously is a really, really good football player."
In 2015, Dallas QB Tony Romo suffered a broken left collarbone -- twice -- and the Cowboys finished 4-12 and had the fourth pick in the draft. As good as Darren McFadden was for Dallas in 2015 (1,089 rushing yards), the Cowboys couldn’t take their eyes off Elliott.
“If I’ve ever seen anything that was scripted in the draft room, scripted in the evaluation process, and then has come to bear any more straight down the line than Zeke, I don’t know it,” owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. “He’s exactly more than we had hoped for.”
As a rookie, Elliott led the NFL in rushing in 2016, finishing with 1,631 yards despite not playing the final five quarters of the season. He had 322 carries and scored 15 rushing touchdowns.
The Cowboys did not draft Elliott for just regular-season success. They drafted him for what he could be in the postseason.
Elliott had more than 25 carries in two games in the regular season, including 28 for 157 yards against the Green Bay Packers, Sunday’s foe in the divisional round of the playoffs.
The time to rest is over.
“Think it could be more,” Elliott said of his postseason workload.
In 2014, Ohio State leaned heavily on Elliott. He ran 20 times for 220 yards and two touchdowns against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. In the playoff semifinals against Alabama, he ran 20 times for 232 yards and two touchdowns.
And with Garrett watching from Jones’ suite, he ran for 246 yards and four scores on 36 carries against Oregon.
“It’s all about clicking at the right time,” Elliott said. “You got to peak at the right time. We got to come into this playoff hot. It doesn’t matter what we did coming up to now if we go in there and s--- the bed. Everything we’ve done this season really meant nothing. We’ve got to come in there clicking on all cylinders and ready to rock and roll.”
Except for when the Ohio State coaches apparently forgot about Elliott against Michigan State in 2015, he delivered in the big games. In 2015, he closed the regular season with 214 yards and two scores on 30 carries against Michigan. Against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, he ran 27 times for 149 yards and four scores.
It’s been the same with the Cowboys. Leading into the regular-season meeting, Green Bay was allowing fewer than 2 yards per carry in the first five games. Elliott averaged 5.6 yards per carry. In Dallas' biggest win of the season at the Pittsburgh Steelers, he had 114 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries and also scored on an 83-yard screen pass. After the Cowboys saw an 11-game winning streak end to the New York Giants, he ran through and over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for 159 yards on 23 carries. To celebrate his touchdown, he jumped in an oversized Salvation Army kettle, something that will be replayed for years.
Sunday against the Packers is the next big game.
“I’m a competitor, that’s what I expect to do,” Elliott said. “I expect to show up in the biggest games and [it's] kind of what I pride myself in. So I’m excited for this postseason run.”