EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Ezekiel Elliott’s importance to the Dallas Cowboys was on full display Sunday, and he did not even play.
For the first time in his career, Elliott was healthy and did not dress for a game. The Cowboys did not even want him going through pregame warmups. At least in 2016, when the Cowboys had home-field advantage wrapped up, Elliott was able to wear his uniform and sit on the bench for four quarters.
On Sunday, Elliott was in a blue sweat suit.
And the Cowboys won anyway, beating the New York Giants 36-35.
Now a rested Elliott will lead Dallas against Seattle in the wild-card round on Saturday. He ran for 127 yards on 16 carries during the Cowboys' Week 3 loss in Seattle, but he also lost a fumble. The Cowboys are looking to advance to the divisional round of the playoffs for the first time since 2014, and they'll be facing a Seahawks team that was middle of the pack in rushing defense.
Elliott still kept busy Sunday. He ran the pregame huddle, bouncing around his teammates, pumping them up. On the sidelines, he was talking to his fellow running backs. When Rod Smith bulled his way in for a 1-yard touchdown, Elliott met him with a leaping high-five.
“Each and every drive I was coming to the sideline and he had something to say. Or as I’m going back out there, [he was] encouraging us,” Dak Prescott said. “But he was definitely locked in. That’s what you need from your running back and a leader of the team.”
By sitting Elliott, the Cowboys showed just how important he will be to their playoff success.
“We all know the leading rusher in the NFL is an important player,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “But he’s also had more touches. Maybe the guy we played [Saquon Barkley] might’ve been right there with him, but [Elliott] had more touches than anybody I’ve ever been around as far as 15 games. This was real similar to his rookie year when he didn’t play in the last regular-season game when he led the league in rushing that year either.
“I think it will help him, think it’ll be a little jolt for him feeling refreshed going into next week’s game.”
In a league dominated by passing, the Cowboys will look to win the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl in an old-school manner: the running game and defense.
Elliott won his second rushing title in three seasons on Sunday without taking a snap. He finished the year with 304 carries for 1,434 yards. As a rookie in 2016, he had 1,631 yards in 15 games to win the rushing title.
The last team to win a Super Bowl with the rushing champion was the 1998 Denver Broncos when Terrell Davis ran for 2,008 yards. In the Cowboys’ three Super Bowl wins in the 1990s, Emmitt Smith was the rushing champ in 1992, 1993 and 1995.
“We ask him to do a lot of things,” wide receiver Cole Beasley said. “We play through him. He’s our playmaker, so they obviously want to get him as many touches as possible.”
In the 15 games Elliott played, he accounted for 39.4 percent of the Cowboys’ scrimmage yards, 2,001 of the 5,082 yards, the highest percentage of any player in the league. Through the first 15 weeks, David Johnson of the Cardinals was second at 35.9 percent.
Since selecting Elliott fourth overall in 2016, the Cowboys have not hid their desire to get him the ball. A lot.
In three seasons, he has 5,247 yards from scrimmage. He is only the fourth player in league history to eclipse more than 1,900 scrimmage yards in two of his first three seasons. Eric Dickerson (1983-84), Edgerrin James (1999-2000) and LaDainian Tomlinson (2002-03) are the only others to have done it twice.
Elliott missed six games in 2017 because of a suspension but would have had more than 2,000 scrimmage yards based on his totals through 10 games.
“They drafted me the No. 4 overall pick and I’d like to think that I’ve fulfilled all the expectations that they’ve expected of me,” Elliott said.
This season, Elliott became a bigger part of the passing game partly because he had to with the release of Dez Bryant and the retirement of Jason Witten. His 77 catches are the most by a running back in a season in franchise history. He entered the year with 58 catches in 25 games. He matched his career total with three touchdown receptions this season.
“I’ll never say somebody can replace Witt or what Witt meant, obviously. But just having [Elliott] in your back pocket, knowing you’re in trouble, knowing a blitz is coming or something like that, you got a back you can get it out to or no telling when he gets it, what he might to do with it,” Prescott said. “That serves this offense so much and keeps us ahead of the chains.”
Twice this season Elliott had games with more than 200 scrimmage yards. His four games of at least 200 scrimmage yards are tied for the most in team history with Smith and DeMarco Murray.
“I don’t know anybody who’s better with the ball in his hands,” Beasley said of Elliott.
The Cowboys took the ball out of Elliott’s hands against the Giants.
That won’t be the case in the playoffs.
The Cowboys’ road to Super Bowl LIII will have to be paved by Elliott.