The Cowboys have one of the best offenses in the NFL. It is well balanced and dominating the flow of each game. Surely, this is the ceiling of expectations through the first month, regardless of which players have been available. The fact that it has been done without Tony Romo, however, is causing many to wonder if this is all a dream.
The offense has been led by a very talented offensive line, but the story that continues to dazzle the league is the rookie tandem at quarterback and running back: Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott.
They are young and confident and represent the possibility of a new era of Cowboys football. And with that in mind, I do find one element worth tracking when it comes to Elliott:
Through four games, the Cowboys have given him the ball 100 times, with 94 of those touches on the ground. Ninety-four carries is a pace of 376 for the year. Given that they also throw him the ball and love to utilize him for pass protection, he is taking as much contact as any running back in football during the first month of his career. The NFL last season had one player with more than 300 carries. His name is Adrian Peterson, and he was given the ball on 327 occasions. The year before, DeMarco Murray had a distant lead on the entire league when the Cowboys called his number for 392 carries under the premise that they were likely not going to retain him, so who cared about his long-term durability? In the past decade, there have been no seasons of 400 carries and only two above 360 (Murray, and Michael Turner in 2008). To repeat, Elliott is on a pace for 376 as a rookie.
Basically, aside from Murray, the entire league has decided that this type of pace for a running back is not good for their investment's future. There is a limit to how much a running back should be asked to run full-speed into the jaws of a NFL defense, and most of the league has decided it is closer to 20 carries a game than it is to 25, let alone 30 -- 400 carries in a season is considered insanity in today's NFL.
Elliott looks like he can handle it when he gestures to the sideline, imploring them to continue feeding him. He has everyone believing he can take on any workload. And he can, for now. He believes he can destroy any defender and his body is healthy. But, this is the "before" picture to his NFL career. If you like his performances, the idea should now be to use him properly, so that you want to keep him after his contract expires at age 25. Not only that, he isn't used to 16-game seasons followed by a month of brutal playoffs (someday, hopefully).
Emmitt Smith seemed to have no limitations to his workload. The Cowboys tried to run him into the ground and he proved he was the exception to the rule. But you could argue the Cowboys never had anything approaching Alfred Morris behind Smith, and thus they did it by necessity. Now, the Cowboys have a No. 2 option behind Elliott who is a proven NFL starter. He is not the player Elliott is, and therefore giving him 10 carries a game that you might have given Zeke could be a tough decision as it's happening, but the alternative may very well be burning through Elliott's miles in his first five seasons, and then drafting his replacement.
It is a small issue for now, but the temptation to feed him 30 times in a game (like Dallas did against Chicago) must be a rarity. And as convincing as he might be when he says he can run all day, you need to prevent him from making that decision for himself.
Feed him in moderation. You will be happy about this when he still has tread at the end of seasons and is 27.