FRISCO, Texas – It really is remarkable to stop and reflect on the difference that a couple of years can make.
At the risk of the oft-discussed "jinx," it has been an incredibly quiet offseason for a team as popular as the Dallas Cowboys, and for a player as talented as Ezekiel Elliott.
Perhaps "quiet" isn't the right word. After all, the Cowboys' All-Pro running back has been a mainstay on social media, going on fishing trips with teammates and taking selfies with fans at Dallas Stars games.
To the point, though: it has been the polar opposite from 2017, when Elliott was coming off a sensational rookie season – and seemed to often find himself in the news for the wrong reasons. That year seemed to be mired in never-ending controversy, ultimately resulting in Elliott's six-game suspension from the NFL.
As the Cowboys gear up for their 2019 spring practices, that feels like a distant memory. And Elliott's boss seems to have taken notice.
"He's a bright soul, I call him," said Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones on Tuesday. "There really is no doubt that some of those things that, frankly, reflect his spirit of positiveness, his spirit of being alive – those kinds of things took some adjusting."
Heading into his fourth season with the team, Elliott has grown into the leadership role befitting a top 5 draft pick and a two-time All-Pro. He mentioned during the 2018 season that the departure of longtime veterans like Jason Witten and Dez Bryant prompted his transition into that role, giving pregame speeches and holding teammates accountable.
"I wouldn't say it makes it easier, I just think it makes you have to," Elliott said back in December. "Because, why would I give the pregame speech if Witt's going to give it, you know what I mean? So I just think it kind of forced me."
That's not lost on Jones – nor the rest of his players, apparently. In a sport with bonds as strong as a football team, Jones said the Cowboys' locker room knows exactly what it has in Elliott.
"I think that Zeke has always had a wonderful heart," Jones said. "These players can see through anybody, and all you've got to do is go in the locker room and you'll see that Zeke is inspirational. He's inspirational, not only with what he does on the field, but what he does around the locker room."
Jones should know better than most that it won't only carry weight in the locker room – but also the negotiating table. With two years remaining on his rookie deal, Cowboys officials have made it clear the Elliott is a priority to get a new contract. As recently as Friday, chief operating officer Stephen Jones said the running back was "the straw, if you will that stirs our drink."
Elliott's talent on the field is the obvious part of that equation, but his conduct off it is important, as well. Jones said so himself on Tuesday.
"We want to make sure that how the players that the Dallas Cowboys are paid, and it is pro football – that it reflects everything," he said. "At the end of the day, they've got to be great teammates and help each other have a successful team, which is what our fans want."
Whatever the narrative might have been two years ago, Elliott seems to have picked up his end of that bargain.