American Football

Cowboys say they released Ezekiel Elliott to avoid insulting him

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NFC Divisional Playoffs - Dallas Cowboys v San Francisco 49ers
Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

Rather than offering their longtime RB a pay cut, Dallas cut him for salary cap relief and reduced production.

The Dallas Cowboys know that some fans aren’t happy about the departure of running back Ezekiel Elliott. They also know that time will heal the wound, but that hasn’t held the front office back from expressing their continued affection for Zeke even after his departure. In fact, Stephen Jones said yesterday that Elliott’s release came partly because the Cowboys didn’t want to insult him.

Even the most unabashed, #21-wearing Zeke fan alive would have a hard time justifying the $16.7 million hit to Dallas’ salary cap that he would’ve counted in 2023. Not after a career-low 3.8 yards per carry and losing RB1 status to Tony Pollard.

Granted, Elliott has reportedly been playing through knee issues the last two seasons. But even though he’ll only be 28 this July, Zeke’s heavy workload since entering the NFL in 2016 has led to many doubts that he’ll ever get back to the Pro Bowl and All-Pro form of his early career.

To push forward toward championship contention, and especially needing to fund Pollard’s $10.1 million franchise tag, Dallas could no longer afford to pay Elliott like a franchise back. But instead of offering him to stay at a reduced salary, Jones recently told the media that the Cowboys felt such an offer would be demeaning to Zeke’s legacy and relationship with the team.

Instead, Dallas released Elliott as an early June-1st cut just ahead of the new league year. The move frees up $10.9 million cap space effective in June, which the Cowboys will use to pay for their incoming rookies, perhaps sign a few more veteran free agents, or perhaps work into contract extensions for CB Trevon Diggs or WR CeeDee Lamb.

It’s hard to see how this decision avoided an insult to Elliott. Whether you release the guy or offer him a pay cut, you’re still sending the message that you no longer think he’s worth what you were paying him. Some players might be even more offended that their team didn’t even try to keep them at reduced compensation, content to just move on without them.

Even Emmitt Smith was insulted on Elliott’s behalf:

Obviously, the Jones family knows Zeke far better than we do. Stephen went on to say that letting Elliott see what he could do on the open market was a tactic, perhaps opening the door to Zeke returning to Dallas at a new, highly-lowered price if he doesn’t find a satisfying offer elsewhere.

But if there was any real thought of Elliott playing in Dallas in 2023, why did they just give his #21 to new CB Stephon Gilmore? Maybe Zeke stating his desire to wear #15, his college number, is the fallback position.

When you really break it down, the Jones’ efforts to sell this decision and their continued support of Elliott is really just placation. They made a tough business decision, and for very valid reasons, but don’t want to look like the bad guys again in their handling of a beloved Cowboys icon. This is all spin.

Like Emmitt before him, or DeMarcus Ware, Jason Witten, Larry Allen, and so many others, Ezekiel Elliott will be wearing another team’s jersey after a great run in Dallas. These moments never feel good, but they’ve happened with even more legendary players and pillars of franchise history.

For now, take everything the Jones family says about Zeke with a grain of salt. They genuinely love the guy, but don’t buy into the notion that they’re still angling for him to return.

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