In the past, it was Jason Witten’s job to stoke the Cowboys’ fire, but he retired to ESPN’s Monday Night Football booth. The first three games of the season, it was Sean Lee’s job, but the veteran linebacker was out Sunday with a hamstring injury.
“I’ll do it,” running back Ezekiel Elliott said, to the surprise of some inside the locker room.
So there he was in the middle of all of the Cowboys, screaming and yelling. Everybody had his helmet on except Elliott, his hair flopping all over the place as he darted from one side of the circle to the next. Some players bounced up and down. Others swayed back and forth. Others acted like they were in church, agreeing with whatever Elliott was saying.
Elliott ended his fiery speech with “dominate,” which everybody repeated.
“Zeke did a good job just bringing out that natural energy. You can feel it, and you knew from that moment the team felt it, and it was something that we needed,” quarterback Dak Prescott said. “Zeke brought that energy there to the first play and all the way up to the last one.”
Elliott followed his speech with what Jerry Jones called the running back’s best game as a Cowboy. He had 152 yards on 25 carries. He caught four passes for 88 yards, including a 38-yard touchdown. But the most important play was a 34-yard catch down the sideline that set up Brett Maher’s game-winning field goal.
“He’s pretty chill,” right tackle La'el Collins said. “I definitely wasn’t expecting that from him [before the game]. Just brought some different type of spark.”
That Elliott volunteered to lead the pregame huddle speaks to the evolution of his status. He has been the most important player on the team since the Cowboys selected him fourth overall in the 2016 draft, but he was content to stay in the background as Witten, Lee and others served as the leaders.
A year ago, Elliott mostly kept to himself as he dealt with a suspension that cost him six games, while still performing at a high level.
“This is a new dimension for me. I never really had to have been that guy,” Elliott said. “With Witt gone, Dez [Bryant] gone and Sean Lee getting hurt, you see opportunities open up, and sometimes you have to be that guy. And I’m going to do whatever I have to do for this team for whatever we have to do to be successful.”
As outgoing as he seems, from doing the "feed me" gesture after long runs or jumping in the Salvation Army kettle after a touchdown as a rookie, Elliott said he has “never been that rah-rah guy.”
“Game day, I really don’t talk much,” he said. “Pretty locked in. I don’t talk smack, anything. I may encourage my linemen. Honestly, I like to be locked in and let my play do the talking.”
In training camp, he spoke about being more of a leader to the running backs after the departures of veteran backs Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris. Running backs coach Gary Brown has called Elliott a student of the game with his ability to understand defensive fronts and the leverage of offensive plays.
“Obviously, he’s been here three years now, and he’s arguably our go-to guy, so I mean, that comes with the territory a little bit,” right guard Zack Martin said. “A lot of guys look to him to bring that energy and all that stuff.”
As much as he has not been a designated leader in his career, he has always been "the guy." It was that way at John Burroughs High School in St. Louis. It was like that for his final two years at Ohio State. He wants that attention.
In the victory over the Lions, Elliott became the first player with more than 200 scrimmage yards in a game this season. He accounted for 12 first downs (eight rushing, four receiving). The only other back to have as many in team history was the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, Emmitt Smith, who twice accounted for 12 first downs in a game in his Hall of Fame career.
Given the offensive struggles to start the season, the Cowboys need Elliott to carry the load.
“I love it. That’s why I was picked No. 4 overall,” Elliott said. “They believe in what I was able to do, and I got to thank this staff, got to thank my teammates, my coaches just for believing in me and having that faith in me knowing I can go out there and do it and helping me do it.”
And the Cowboys will need him to continue their pregame hype session.
“He has to,” Martin said. “Can’t mess with the juju.”