OXNARD, Calif. -- It was clear something was wrong with Ezekiel Elliott during the second half of last season. After upping and altering his offseason training regimen, he displayed quickness, speed and power that was reminiscent of when he took the league by storm as a rookie No. 4 overall pick in 2016, but eventually he looked slowed, deliberate and unable to make the same cuts. At season's end, we discovered the truth of the matter, in that the two-time NFL rushing champ had suffered a torn PCL in his knee but continued to play through it.
It was long clear that there was an injury anchoring Elliott to the tarmac, labeled as simply a generic knee injury at the time by the club, and calls to sit Elliott to ensure he'd heal to present a healthier version of himself for a potential playoff run went unanswered.
Elliott's gladiator-like efforts led to his fourth 1,000-yard rushing season in six tries (narrowly missing being 6/6 in that category), but he ran for just 31 yards on 12 carries in the postseason loss to the San Francisco 49ers on NFL Super Wild Card Weekend, and caught just one reception for no gain. On Wednesday, following the first official practice of Cowboys training camp in Oxnard, the three-time Pro Bowler admitted he lost a step or two as the injury began to really take hold.
"I'd say just my burst," he confessed. "It definitely limited my burst. And I think just the stiffness, keeping it warm on the sideline, but mostly just the burst. ... I think it was definitely different from week to week, and also kind of relied on if I got hit on my knee or not. So, I mean, just game to game, week to week, how much I got hit in it."
Elliott still believes it wasn't made any worse by continuing to play, though, and he explains why he took the risk in the first place.
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"I mean, even before I got the big contract when I was on a rookie deal, I didn't miss any games [due to injury]," said the former All-Pro. "So, I just think it's me as a football player, me as an individual, me as a competitor, I want to be out there. I want to be out there for my team and I think that's that."
No surgery was needed to repair his torn PCL, only rest (see above for call to sit him and allow such rest in-season), and now Elliott is completely healthy and, most importantly, as confident as he was pre-injury -- when he looked like the 2016 All-Pro version of himself.
"I would say I was a little worried at the beginning of the offseason, like, 'Dang, this thing still feels a little iffy.' But actually probably a month of two into the offseason, a month or two getting back into work, and I'll say probably by the time OTAs hit, I was back 100," Elliott said. "... It definitely helped kind of getting that confidence back because it's tough being injured and kind of feeling yourself lose a step.
"So, it definitely helped kind of get back to moving the speed that I was used to and just bringing that confidence back to myself, back in my body, back in my mind that I could make those cuts."
It's been a wild-and-crazy offseason for the Cowboys, and that includes Elliott having seen the team trade away four-time Pro Bowl receiver Amari Cooper and release starting right tackle La'el Collins, also losing starting defensive end Randy Gregory in free agency, all items owner Jerry Jones attributes to as decisions rooted in availability issues.
And with Elliott, who is set to hit the team's salary cap in 2023 for $16.7 million, being one of the biggest contracts remaining on the team, are Jones' comments about availability an added motivation to do what he did in 2021 -- remaining available for all 18 games despite his knee telling him to rest a bit? In other words, does Elliott enter the 2022 season fearing he could be next on the chopping block??
If so, he's not showing it, instead focused on the day-to-day of reascending the RB mountain and trying to make a deep run in the playoffs this time around.
"I think it is a big season," said Elliott. "But I think you can't look too far down the road. I think if I focus on every day, focus on having a good day at camp, if I focus on taking it week by week. I think everything will handle itself.
"I don't think there's really a reason to look that far down the road. I think if I handle my business every day then I will be in a pretty good situation at the end of the season."