FRISCO, Texas – Two games into in his professional career, after getting benched for the first time in his football career, Ezekiel Elliott was asked by a reporter what he's learned about the NFL.
"The scrutiny," he said. "It's there for sure. That's probably the biggest thing."
Four games into his professional career, Ezekiel Elliott now leads the NFL in rushing with 412 yards.
He's now tied for the third-most rushing touchdowns (3).
He's already one of five players in Cowboys history with consecutive games of at least 125 rushing yards.
A lot can change in two weeks, especially for a 21-year-old rookie with remarkable talent.
Just as he preached patience with his running landmarks after those first two games, when he averaged 3.3 yards on 41 carries and was taken out in the fourth quarter of Week 2 for fumbling twice, all fans needed was a little patience with Zeke.
Yes, he was the fourth overall pick in the draft, the earliest selection by the Cowboys franchise since Russell Maryland was taken No. 1 25 years ago. The expectations couldn't have been bigger, and Zeke was used to the spotlight at arguably the best college football program in the country.
The scrutiny after two games surprised him a little. Indeed, Ohio State is a magnifying glass and the NFL is a microscope.
What changed these last two games? Was he motivated by outside critics? Or did he simply need more time on the field?
Maybe both, but mainly rookies just need experience. Even top-five picks.
Remember, Elliott tweaked his hamstring on Aug. 2, the second competitive practice of training camp. He sat out 10 practices and returned Aug. 16, the second-to-last practice of training camp. For those scoring at home, that's four practices and one preseason appearance for a dozen or so plays.
That's very little time for Zeke to gain a rapport with the offensive line, learn the tempo of the offensive scheme, understand the speed of NFL defenses. My Talkin' Cowboys co-host, Nate Newton, saw Emmitt Smith go through the same transition in 1990, and he's been saying since camp – even before Elliott got injured – that the rookie would need a few regular-season games to adjust.
The reason is simple: in high school and even in college, elite backs don't necessarily have to follow their blocks as closely or make their cuts as precisely. Most defenses aren't talented enough to make them pay. Elliott discovered that he probably needed to be a little more disciplined with his runs. And, he was making a system change. There are different mechanics to running in a college spread offense.
The results the last two games were outstanding. This past Sunday against San Francisco the offense set a physical tone and dominated time of possession (36:27 to 23:33). Elliott got stronger as the game wore on – 98 of his 138 rushing yards came in the second half.
A quarter into the season, he's showing he can be the every-down back the Cowboys drafted him to be. He has played 190 of 290 offensive plays (65.5 percent). He leads the NFL in carries (94; 23.5 per game) and is on an early pace for 376. Smith holds the franchise rookie record with 241.
So far the offense is much better on third down – a 50-percent overall conversion rate, up from 34.1 percent last season; 80 percent on third-and-1, up from 42.1 percent last season.
And, through four games, Zeke has more first downs (27) than anybody in the league. Darren McFadden led the team last year with twice that total (52).
He won't be a 100-plus yard rusher every week. Sunday's opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals, will present a challenge with one of the league's dominant defensive fronts.
But we're seeing the type of special talent he is, both as a runner and as a blocker.
Just took a little time, and a little patience.