FRISCO, Texas — The impact of Ezekiel Elliott on the Dallas Cowboys can't be argued, particularly considering he racked up a laundry list of honors in his seven-year career, and that includes leaving having rushed for more yards than every running back in team history not named Emmitt Smith or Tony Dorsett.
And barring a U-turn that sees Elliott take the field again for the Cowboys in 2023, something owner and general manager Jerry Jones continues to leave the door open for, his 8,262-yard mark is where things will stay as Tony Pollard and a group of young backs take the mantle.
The move to release Elliott was never about anything more than the money, though.
"I don't think you can just go out and replace Zeke," said head coach Mike McCarthy ahead of OTAs on Thursday. "Business, capanomics, that's real. You have to make decisions and sometimes those decisions factor into the next decision or two that's coming down the road. [The coaching staff was] going over short-yardage and goal line again last night and [Zeke] just jumps off the tape, so this isn't about replacing Zeke."
If anything, it was about the aforementioned tossing of the keys to Pollard, who is currently on a franchise tag with a mid-July deadline to sign a longterm deal, alongside newly-signed Ronald Jones and rookie fifth-round pick Deuce Vaughn — as both Malik Davis and Rico Dowdle also look to make waves with fullback Hunter Luepke ready to pounce from the shadows.
"It's really about opportunities for our young guys," said McCarthy. "It's Tony's opportunity to be the lead back, so we're just getting all of those guys ready. Deuce is the new guy and it's been cool to see him implemented in the things that we've been doing here the last week. The group will look different because [Zeke's] presence is not there."
Pollard continues to rehab from a broken leg suffered in January but is tracking well and was on the field for several reps with the first team on Thursday before retreating for treatment from the team's training staff. Vaughn primarily got work with the second team as Jones saw work with that unit and the starters on occasion — the Cowboys making sure Davis and the others got into the mix as well.
One thing is for sure and that's the fact it will not be easy supplementing Elliott's impact on the field, and that's not accounting for his leadership in the locker room as well.
Elliott finished the 2022 season having rushed for 876 yards (one year removed from surpassing the 1,000-yard mark despite playing through a torn PCL in his knee) to go along with 12 touchdowns.
He'll be missed, but there's no time to mourn in Dallas, because if they want to take the next step toward returning to The Promised Land in February, the task of figuring out who's ready to be the next big star in complement to Pollard has already begun.