Ezekiel Elliott got all the touches in his return, except the most significant one

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Ezekiel Elliott did not look like a player who had missed six weeks of an NFL season on Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks.

He carried 24 times for 97 yards in the Dallas Cowboys21-12 loss 49 days after his last previous carry in an NFL game. He caught four passes for 21 yards.

“I knew what type of guy Zeke is,” Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott said. “I knew he was going to come back in game shape.”

When he left after the Cowboys’ Nov. 5 win against the Kansas City Chiefs, he had no fewer than 26 carries and no fewer than 93 yards rushing in each of his final four games. He was looking every bit like he did in 2016, when he led the NFL in rushing.

Despite the layoff, the Cowboys planned on giving Elliott what offensive coordinator Scott Linehan called “significant touches,” after the running back’s second practice. And Linehan did.

Until Linehan didn’t.

Elliott wore on the Seattle defense throughout Sunday's contest. He had 73 yards on 15 carries in the first half. He had 11 carries in the first quarter, just the third time he had 10 or more carries in a quarter all season. He did not have a carry of more than 9 yards for the game, but he had just one carry for negative yards.

In the second half, he was limited to just 24 yards on nine carries, but the Cowboys did not need Elliott to break a long run midway through the fourth once they got inside the Seattle 5-yard line.

“My job is to play football,” Elliott said. “It’s not to coach. It’s not to call plays. I go out there and do what the coaches tell me. Coach Linehan has been doing this for a long time and I trust him. I trust his judgment.”

On first down, Linehan called a run-pass option. If there were too many defenders in the box, Prescott had the go-ahead to pass.

“It just wasn’t clean enough to throw it,” Prescott said. “At that point, there were guys downfield, and it was kind of hard to scramble and make a play. I just kind of had to do something with the ball.”

He ran for a yard before being tackled. On second down, Prescott was under center, but he sprinted to his right, looking for a quick throw to the end zone, but there was no opening. Jason Witten was flagged for holding on the play.

“Obviously, Zeke is a very good player,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. “We like him and we give him plenty of opportunities. In that particular case, it didn’t work out for us. And that was a big part of the game.”

Instead of third-and-goal, the Cowboys faced second-and-goal from the Seahawks' 12. Prescott was sacked for an 11-yard loss on the next snap. On third down, he hit Witten for a 7-yard gain in hopes of a Dan Bailey field goal, but the 34-yard attempt was pushed to the right.

“On hindsight, I wish -- we all wish -- that we would’ve tried Zeke in there,” Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. “Now they were really stacking it up for us. We all understand that and we’ve seen and had a lot of good things happen for us with Dak faking that ball in there and keeping it himself. But at the end, I’d like to have them all back down there and just tried to see what we could do with Zeke all the way up in there -- but we all know how that works.”

Elliott’s final carry was a 4-yard gain with 9:33 to play from the Seattle 17.

The Cowboys will carry what ifs with them from the loss to Seattle throughout the offseason.

They will carry what ifs with them regarding Elliott’s absence. They went 3-3 without him, but the offense was unable to generate a touchdown in the three losses, and the passing game became stale without the threat of Elliott.

It wasn’t better on Sunday with him. Prescott threw for 182 yards, completing 21 of 34 passes. It was the seventh time this season he did not throw for at least 200 yards.

But when it mattered most, the Cowboys went with the pass instead of handing the ball to Elliott.

“It was just one of those days,” Elliott said. “Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. We beat ourselves.”

And they will have to watch the playoffs as a result.