With rise of Tony Pollard, has Ezekiel Elliott played last game for Cowboys?

FRISCO, Texas -- The question was posed to Ezekiel Elliott minutes after the Dallas Cowboys’ season ended with a divisional-round playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

What is the running back's future with the Cowboys?

“Definitely thought about it,” he said. “I want to be here. I don’t have a crystal ball. Can’t tell you the future, but definitely want to be here.”

Elliott understands the business side of the NFL more than most.

That’s why he held out of training camp in 2019. Being a running back with a ton of work in his first three years (25.1 touches per game), he knew he had to strike as soon as possible even if the Cowboys had him under contractual control through the 2020 season. When the Cowboys selected Elliott at No. 4 overall in the 2016 draft, they effectively guaranteed him a second contract.

On Sept. 4, 2019, Elliott signed a six-year extension worth $90 million and guaranteed him $50 million.

The Cowboys hoped that by going in early on Elliott’s second contract, they could have him at his peak levels before he turned 30, when most running backs fall off the pace.

Elliott turns 28 in July. He is set to make a base salary of $10.9 million, which is not guaranteed. If the Cowboys release him, they save $4.86 million. If they designate him a post-June 1 cut, they will save $10.9 million, but he will count a little more than $6 million against the 2024 salary cap.

Asked at his end-of-season news conference about the running game and Elliott, coach Mike McCarthy demurred. Filling coaching vacancies is a bigger deal at the moment.

“I’m not really ready to dive into all that. I don’t know when the next time we talk, but, yeah, we’re just getting [started],” McCarthy said. “We haven’t turned a cut-up on. We haven’t even had a postseason personnel meeting. I understand there’s the list of free agents that we have. But briefly just talked to those individuals. We haven’t met as a coaching staff. We haven’t met with the personnel guys yet.”

At the Senior Bowl, executive vice president Stephen Jones extolled all of Elliott's virtues but also told reporters: "But we’re going to have to talk business."

The Cowboys never made a pay-cut offer to receiver Dez Bryant after the 2017 season or to linebacker DeMarcus Ware after the 2013 season. They did not want to upset either player by making offers that were too low, so they opted just to release them both.

Elliott is coming off a year in which he had career lows in yards (876) and yards per carry (3.8) while missing two games with a hyperextended right knee that forced him to miss two games and required him to wear a bulky brace for a good portion of the season. In 2021, he played through a partially torn posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, didn’t miss a game and finished with 1,002 yards.

The explosive runs have disappeared. Elliott had just 16 runs of 10 yards or more and five of 20 yards or more in 2022. Tony Pollard had 34 runs of at least 10 yards and nine of at least 20 with three touchdown runs of at least 30 yards. Elliott caught just 17 passes this season, a career low. He remained a terrific pass-protector, but teams don’t pay $15 million for a running back to protect the quarterback.

In the Cowboys' six losses, including playoffs, Elliott failed to average more than 3.7 yards per carry. In the two playoff games, he had 23 carries for 53 yards (2.3 YPC).

It’s not that Elliott can’t be effective. He had 12 rushing touchdowns. On third- or fourth-and-1, he converted first downs 14 of 17 times. But teams don’t pay backs $15 million per season to be short-yardage and goal-line runners.

The Cowboys could ask Elliott to do what DeMarcus Lawrence did last offseason. He signed a three-year, $40 million deal that included $30 million guaranteed. His $27 million salary-cap figure in 2022 went from $27 million to $14 million.

But Lawrence remained one of the better all-around defensive ends in the game.

The Cowboys also have a Pollard question to answer too, since he will be a free agent.

While Elliott remained the starter, Pollard became the Cowboys' lead back in many ways. He ran for a career-high 1,007 yards on 193 carries (5.2 YPC). He caught 39 passes for 371 yards. He scored 12 total touchdowns, one more than he had in his first three years combined.

In the playoff loss to San Francisco, he suffered a fractured fibula as well as a high ankle sprain that required surgery, but he should be 100 percent before training camp in July.

In a perfect world, the Cowboys would work out a multi-year deal with Pollard, but the franchise tag, which could cost about $10.1 million, will be in play.

After chewing up more than $20 million in cap space among the running back position in 2022, would the Cowboys want to remain at, near or above that figure in 2023 to keep Pollard and Elliott? Maybe not, especially with a position that lends itself to injury and change.

Elliott knows all of this. He has led the league in rushing twice. He was named to the Pro Bowl three times. In 2022, he became the third Cowboys back to have more than 10,000 career scrimmage yards, joining Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett. He was instantly one of the most liked players in the locker room in 2016 and became one of the most respected too.

“Honestly, when you talk about brotherhood and culture, Zeke, as much as anybody in that locker room, should get that credit,” quarterback Dak Prescott said late in the season. “For being able to be light and have fun but at the same time lock in. I mean if you want to see a guy who’s done it better than anyone, that’s him.

"For young guys to see that -- that you can have fun when you come in these locker rooms and play this game, but it’s also very important when it’s time to get serious, time to get study, time to make sure that you’re on your Ps and Qs, you do that. That’s Zeke for you.”

For seven years, Elliott and Prescott became the face of the organization. Their initial bond came when Prescott had a car for the rookie minicamp in 2016 and gave rides to Elliott, who didn’t. It grew that rookie year when Elliott won his first rushing title and Prescott was named Rookie of the Year.

Their numbers -- 21 (Elliott) and 4 (Prescott) -- matching the Dallas area code. Their staying power hit Prescott after their fifth season together, looking at the changing of the faces inside the locker room.

And now they might have played their last game together.