There’s no such thing as bad publicity. If you view the NFL as an entertainment entity, then the old advertising credo truly applies. But if you view pro football as a year-round turf war, then your team truly represents more than a Sunday diversion.
Dallas Cowboys fans live the former much more than the latter. And with their first pick in the NFL draft (fourth overall), they continued that trend. The Cowboys picked Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliot, relying more on their recent history as pretenders, than their overall history as contenders.
The Cowboys of the last 20 years have been, well, largely laughable. Ever since Troy Aikmen led the famed “Triplets” to three Super Bowl titles in four years, the Cowboys have been a football punchline, doing all they can to shed their “America’s Team” moniker.
But we love the soap operatic sidebars that dominate the NFL. How else do you explain the unshakable loyalty of the Cowboys fan?
Dallas seemed to have a small portal into title contention. Instead of glamour-grabbing moves — like drafting Johnny Manziel — Dallas bagged offensive linemen who blossomed into Pro Bowl players, making that unit the best in the sport. When you’re shielding a brittle Tony Romo and plowing lanes for DeMarco Murray, you control the line of scrimmage, and should think inside out.
Then Dez Bryant caught that ball in Green Bay… until the refs decided he didn’t. And ever since, the Cowboys have folded like a lawn chair. Romo snapped his clavicle (twice); Bryant got hurt and perhaps a bit complacent after signing his fat contract and Murray left for Philadelphia.
The Cowboys drafting Ezekiel Elliot made sense on the surface. He comes from the most fertile football soil in college football; Ohio State made this year’s draft a de facto runway for their upperclassmen.
But Elliot is the one player whom no one would have picked in the top five.
Running backs have been so widely devalued — largely because of pass-happy offenses and rules that encourage them — that unless you have a transcendent talent on your board, you wait a round or two (or three) before bagging your backfield workhorse. Le’Veon Bell is the most complete back in the league, and he was drafted in the second round.
Of the top 10 rushers from last season, only Darren McFadden was drafted as high as Elliot. Latavius Murray was drafted in the sixth round. Last year’s breakout star, Davonta Freeman, was drafted in the fourth round. Frank Gore, who has over 12,000 career rushing yards, and may well end up in the Hall of Fame, was drafted in the third round. Chris Ivory, the NFL’s fifth-leading rusher last year, wasn’t drafted at all.
Only three rushers from the last 20 years were picked higher than Ezekiel Elliot — Ronnie Brown, Reggie Bush and Trent Richardson. That’s hardly a roll call for Canton.
Sure, if Elliot has the skill and will of Todd Gurley, last year’s rookie sensation, then this becomes a wise move. But the odds are against that. And when you consider the Cowboys made the pick, it’s even less likely.
Everyone is so quick to slap a label on each team’s draft performance. Frankly, we won’t know how any club fares until the fall, when they trot onto the gridiron. The Rams and Eagles sold the farm for two players who weren’t even invited to New York as Heisman Trophy candidates. Yet each team is banking on them as the next face of their respective franchises.
But if you love the Cowboys, you may loathe this draft.
Not only did they overreach for Elliot, they whiffed on the one quarterback they coveted, Paxton Lynch. They drafted a player in the second round (linebacker Jaylon Smith) who probably won’t play this year. Then they drafted another RB in the sixth round, making the Cowboys backfield more crowded than Penn Station at 5 p.m. And, of course, they picked a player (Rico Gathers) whose best sport is basketball.
The good news is, if you cherish America’s Team residing so high in the draft in 2016, you may very well see it again in 2017.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.