In 2019, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott held out until he got a market-value contract with a structure that made it very hard for the team to dump him over the first four years of the deal.
It worked. It worked so well that he remains one of the highest-paid running backs in the league, even though he’s currently sharing the load with Tony Pollard.
Elliott wisely shrugs at criticism that he’s not earning his pay. He explained his position on Thursday in a session with reporters.
“You hear it but what really matters is what’s going on in this building,” Elliott said, via Calvin Watkins of the Dallas Morning News. “They’re not the one signing the checks. They’re not the ones sending the wires. So I mean I don’t think it matters.”
Indeed it doesn’t. And the Cowboys are signing the checks because they have no choice. Elliott, by withholding services, leveraged a structure that essentially guaranteed him four years of pay. With rolling guarantees that vest at least a year in advance, Elliott still has a base salary of $12.9 million for 2022 already guaranteed for skill, injury, and cap.
In other words, the Cowboys are stuck. They could trade him after 2021, but he’ll still get the money. They could cut him after 2021, but he’ll get the difference between whatever someone else pays him (much less than $12.9 million) and the $12.9 million.
If, as it seems, Elliott has begun to be less effective and if the Cowboys had the flexibility to cut the cord or squeeze him to take less, they would. Thanks to Elliott’s holdout, they can’t.
Meanwhile, Pollard is under contract through next year. In early 2023, the Cowboys will have to decide whether to keep Elliott at $10.9 million, to sign Pollard to a new contract, or to move on from both of them.
After the 2014 season, after DeMarco Murray set the team’s single-season rushing record of 1,845 yards in 2014, the Cowboys shrugged and let him leave via free agency. It’s possible that they’ll cut Elliott, let Pollard leave, and start all over again come 2023.