FRISCO, Texas — Ezekiel Elliott was finishing the early stretching at the first practice since ending his long holdout with the Dallas Cowboys when the star running back was called to the front of the group.
Cheers rose from teammates Wednesday before Elliott led a brief set of jumping jacks to get the workout moving again.
The two-time NFL rushing champion is back with the Cowboys thanks to a new $90 million, six-year extension that makes Elliott the highest-paid player at his position — and just in time for the regular season. Dallas hosts the New York Giants on Sunday.
“It was really hard. Super hard,” Elliott said of an absence that was in its 41st day, covering all of training camp and the preseason, when the final breakthrough came before dawn the day of the most important practice so far leading to the opener for the defending NFC East champs.
Elliott said the support from teammates on display for reporters was the same thing he was getting behind the scenes since the Cowboys reported to California for camp without him July 25.
“Calls, texts,” Elliott said. “I mean, one of my teammates told me don’t come back without a deal. I mean, just support like that from this group of guys meant everything. It definitely would have been harder if things were the opposite.”
Elliott will get $50 million guaranteed. The $15 million-per-year average on the extension surpasses the $14.4 million Todd Gurley got from the Los Angeles Rams last summer. Gurley’s guarantee was $45 million.
The stalemate with the two-time Pro Bowler came with the Cowboys holding high expectations coming off their first playoff win with Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott. They have won two NFC East titles in three seasons together.
“I think it’s immediate,” center Travis Frederick said when asked about the impact of Elliott’s return. “We talked when he wasn’t around that things move on. You’ve got to live with what you have, but you certainly want him out there.”
Prescott and receiver Amari Cooper are also seeking long-term contracts in the final year of their rookie deals. But getting an agreement with Elliott settles the most important issue as the Cowboys try to get past the divisional round for the first time since winning the last of the franchise’s five Super Bowls during the 1995 season.
Elliott held out with two years left on his rookie contract, at $3.9 million this season and $9.1 million in 2020. The fourth overall pick in the 2016 draft wanted to be the highest-paid back after getting those two rushing titles in only three years.
Now the 24-year-old is, with a contract that totals $103 million over eight seasons.
“I’m $100 million lighter as of this morning,” owner Jerry Jones said on CNBC in New York, where he and his son, executive vice president Stephen Jones, rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. “Zeke has been arguably our best player. We’re glad to get him booked in.”
Even when he was suspended for six games over domestic violence allegations in 2017, Elliott still had the best per-game rushing average in the league. He’s the fifth back since the 1970 merger to win at least two rushing titles his first three seasons.
But the off-field issues were part of the backdrop as the impasse dragged on, although Jerry Jones, also the team’s general manager, said more than once he didn’t consider Elliott’s personal problems to be factors for a new contract.
Jones jokingly said “Zeke who?” in response to a question from a reporter after a second straight solid preseason showing from rookie fourth-round pick Tony Pollard in Hawaii. Pollard would have started against the Giants if Elliott hadn’t signed.
A few days later, though, Jones sternly said he had earned the right to joke about Elliott after the 2016 All-Pro’s representatives took offense to the remark. The owner strongly supported Elliott during a court fight over the suspension.
”I mean, that’s so far behind us,” Elliott said of Jones’ tongue-in-cheek remark. “We signed a deal, so there’s no point in talking about that other stuff.”
As the regular season drew closer, Jones took an increasingly hardline stance publicly, finally calling out Elliott during his radio show last week for not honoring his existing contract.
But Elliott’s agent, Rocky Arceneaux, told reporters the sides were close to a deal after Elliott landed at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport on Tuesday. Elliott spent almost the entire holdout trying to stay in shape in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
”Just not being here,” Elliott said of the toughest part of his absence. “I was where I was, I was isolated. I ate about the same food every day. Things got old real quick. It was mentally draining.”
The same food? “Habanero shrimp. Grilled wings. Chicken Caesar salad,” he said with a smile.
Elliott wasted little time having an impact after rising to stardom at Ohio State. He won the rushing title as a rookie while Prescott earned NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors after Dallas won a franchise-record 11 straight games and was the top seed in the NFC.
The Cowboys lost to Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay in the divisional round, then missed the playoffs in 2017 after losing their first three games during Elliott’s midseason suspension.
With a boost from the in-season trade for Cooper last season, Prescott and Elliott got a wild-card win over Seattle. The Cowboys then lost to the Los Angeles Rams, falling to 0-6 in the divisional round since finishing the 1995 season with a Super Bowl win over Pittsburgh.
Elliott’s absence wasn’t unusual in one sense — he didn’t play a snap in the preseason last year, either. But this was the first time he missed any practices in the summer. Elliott, who has averaged 22 carries and 102 yards per game, expects to handle his usual load against the Giants.
”Everybody loves Zeke,” coach Jason Garrett said. “He brings great energy and juice, so we’re excited to have him back. The guys, I think, have handled any situation and all situations really well this offseason, whether it’s the business side of football, injuries, whatever it is.”
The most pressing issue on the business side is settled.