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When the Dallas Cowboys broke their full squad minicamp a month ago, several coaches had an overriding message in their parting words for players: Enjoy your time off. Be smart. Training camp is only a few weeks away.
More than anyone else on the roster, you can bet those words were meant for the ears of running back Ezekiel Elliott. The team centerpiece is now alleged to have broken the nose of an acquaintance six days before he was scheduled to report to training camp – a camp that was already slated to begin beneath the smoke of the NFL’s ongoing domestic violence investigation into Elliott. Now, this kindling gets added.
At this point, the Dallas Cowboys can call Elliott a lot of things. A great football player. A charismatic personality. A “fun-loving,” passionate guy on the practice field (as head coach Jason Garrett has previously framed him). Even a good teammate. But smart? Or self-aware? Right now, calling Elliott either would be a stretch.
The Cowboys know this, too. Some individuals inside the franchise are irritated. Whether the power brokers admit it publicly or not (and Garrett hasn’t and probably won’t), the amount of off-field energy expended on Elliott is becoming frustrating, largely from one big thing – the domestic violence investigation that owner Jerry Jones wants to go away once and for all. But now, also from two (arguably) smaller, stupid things: Elliott pulling a woman’s shirt down and exposing her breast at a St. Patrick’s Day party in March, and now allegedly breaking a man’s nose.
When Elliott pulled the shirt stunt in March, it was passed off inside the Cowboys as a dumb, immature act of a 21-year old kid. It was eyerolled and forgotten as a “be smarter than that” moment. And now this? Sunday night’s alleged incident at Clutch Bar in Dallas? It’s being framed as Zeke being stupid again … inserting himself into a female friend’s argument and then escalating into him punching a guy he knew in the face.
To be fair, friends and acquaintances do get into physical altercations. It happens. Maybe not to the point of someone being taken away in an ambulance, but surely this moment isn’t breaking new ground in the history of bars or alcohol or arguments.
All of that said, the problem with Elliott is becoming a cumulative one. From an optics standpoint, he’s an amazing football player who is, at best, looking like a young, immature pain in the rear. At worst? He’s an amazing football player with character problems who plays into a Cowboys “anything goes” stereotype that has lingered since the 1990s.
In reality, Elliott could very well be all of those things – a young, fun-loving, immature-but-great football player who has shown some character concerns. More often than not, athletes are mixed bags and people tend to love or hate them based on what they choose to recognize inside that bag.
Elliott is no different. And he has given his supporters and critics no shortage of headlines for celebration or criticism. Just take a little walk down memory lane …
• May 2016: Elliott gets drafted, then promptly gets splashed across social media via a woman’s snapchat photo from bed. Certainly other guys have been there (see: Julian Edelman). Not exactly earth-shattering, but definitely gossipy material.
• July 2016: Elliott gets accused of domestic violence by an alleged former girlfriend. Information has remained both limited and ambiguous – and also included an account in which Elliott’s accuser allegedly asked another witness to lie. A text exchange revealed in the investigation also featured Elliott responding to a drug test question from the woman by texting back: “I’m gonna pass. About to live in this sauna the next 24 hours.” No charges were brought against Elliott in the domestic violence probe, but it sparked an NFL investigation that has lingered for more than a year. The depth of the league investigation has been far more than cursory, with the NFL requesting (and receiving) phone records and other documents from Elliott.
• August 2016: Elliott makes a visit to a weed dispensary in Seattle. Not illegal in that part of the country, but also not something thrilling for a franchise that has had so many drug-related suspensions. Even Jerry Jones called the decision “just not good.”
• March 2017: Elliott pulls down the shirt of a woman and exposes her breast in a St. Patrick’s Day celebration. The social media fury ranges from “boys will be boys” to “that’s assault.” Probably also falls into the Jerry Jones “just not good” category.
• May 2017: Elliott misses a week of OTA practices after hitting his head as a passenger in a car accident. Hard to blame a guy for being in someone else’s car when it crashes. But all things Zeke make the news.
• July 2017: Elliott allegedly strikes a man at Clutch Bar in Dallas and breaks his nose. No charges filed at the moment. The local police, Cowboys and NFL are all investigating.
That’s a lot of TMZ headlines in only 14 months as an NFL player. And all of them occurred outside the regular season. The tradeoff, of course, is that Elliott was arguably the Cowboys’ MVP last season and probably the best running back in the NFL as a rookie. He also did the whole jump in the Salvation Army kettle touchdown celebration – which reportedly led to a spike in donations. And by all accounts, he has drawn rave reviews as a teammate and leader.
Again – this is the mixed bag.
Right now, Elliott is headed toward training camp with a focus on the cloud that Dallas doesn’t want hanging overhead. But it’s there. And it will remain as long as Elliott keeps conjuring it.
Ezekiel Elliott looks like a lot of things right now. But that’s not one of them.
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