ARLINGTON, Texas – It feels strange to describe Sunday's performance from Ezekiel Elliott as "vintage." For as long as he's been in the NFL, the guy is only 26 years old.
But here we are, and rightfully so. Because for all the hand-wringing about Elliott's contract and his level of play, this pounding of the Carolina Panthers looked like it came straight out of 2016.
"By the end of the game, those guys didn't really want any more of the run," Elliott said afterward. "What'd we run for, 250 today?"
He was close. The official tally in this 36-28 win was 245 rushing yards. It was the third-highest tally of Elliott's time on the team, trailing only two separate drubbings – a 2019 beating of the Rams and a 2017 blowout of the 49ers, both of which saw the Cowboys eclipse 260 yards.
For all the hype about the Cowboys' weapons in the passing game, it's the latest evolution of a devastating rushing attack. Since foregoing the run in the shootout loss to Tampa Bay, the Cowboys are averaging 201 rushing yards per game in these three-straight wins.
"We're doing very well getting that running game going, especially, well I guess the past three weeks," Elliott said.
With all due respect to Tony Pollard and his 67 yards on 10 carries this week, Elliott was the centerpiece against Carolina. It was obvious from the second possession of the game, when he touched the ball five times for 35 yards – highlighted by a 19-yard romp to start things off – and finished by scoring the game's opening touchdown.
That drive alone saw the Cowboys run for 67 yards on a Panthers defense that had only allowed 135 total rushing yards to this point in the young season.
"They're a good defense, they bring a lot of different fronts to the table," Elliott said. "They run a lot of different things, so they're going to change it up on you. So it's kind of hard to get a bead on what they're going to do. But they hadn't seen an offense like us this year."
All the usual hallmarks were there. Elliott spent most of his afternoon pinballing off tacklers, contorting his body and gaining extra yardage with each hit he took.
"I mean, you feel them, but they've got to feel me, too," he joked.
Most importantly was the game-breaking speed that fans and media have long lamented had gone missing from his game. Elliott juiced his yards per carry in a big way midway through the third quarter, when he burst through a hole off right guard and romped 47 yards down to the Carolina 6-yard line.
It was Elliott's longest run since his rookie season, when he electrified crowds at AT&T Stadium with runs of 55 yards against Detroit and 60 yards against Cincinnati. And even though the Cowboys scored on the next play, Elliott confided to Dak Prescott that he could've gotten it a step farther.
"I'm like '100%, you could've ran by that guy,'" Prescott said. "Don't think you can't. You've got the speed, you put in the work for it."
At the rate things are going, Elliott will have other opportunities to show that. With Pollard's continued success behind him, Elliott has only taken 64 of 124 carries to this point in the season – just 52% of the workload.
Elliott said he can already feel that difference, and Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said it's something he plans to keep in mind as the season moves along.
"You think about those things, and I think the best thing that we do have going is Zeke doesn't have to go out and carry it 30 times every week or 25 times a week," he said.
As fun as it was to see Zeke turn back the clock on Sunday afternoon, it's all the more enticing to think this could be a trend.