Why Ezekiel Elliott’s huge contract was worth it to Jerry Jones and the Cowboys

With one day remaining before meaningful NFL football returns, the league’s ultimate summer soap opera reached its finale when Ezekiel Elliott hopped on a plane and headed back to Dallas.

By Wednesday afternoon, Elliott will have been shown off at a press conference beside a beaming Jerry Jones, having inked a new contract that will make him the league’s top-earning running back. Now, finally, Cowboys Nation can head into the new season without having a collective panic attack.

Don’t think for a second that this story is done, however. The Zeke conversation is just getting started.

For every sports contract — but especially for the massive ones — the real news is not that the deal got signed, but how it plays out. That’s certainly how it goes with the NFL’s true blockbuster deals, the kind that require a franchise to stretch and extend and manipulate contracts, all in order to fit the whims of one player — the guy who they believe will make the difference between triumph and disaster.

Elliott’s deal is a whopper, a six-year extension worth $90 million with some juicy clauses tacked on. The fourth-year running back is getting $50 million guaranteed and leapfrogs Todd Gurley of the Los Angeles Rams to become football’s best-paid running back.

Fans are already fascinated with the Zeke deal, but not because a pro athlete got rewarded for excellence — and at least in part for threatening not to turn up to work — with a truckload of cash. The intrigue lies in how this affects the Cowboys moving forward. Jerry Jones is a man unafraid of the bold gamble, and he just went for it. Is this the move that nudges Dallas closer to a championship? Or does it have the potential to become an albatross?

There was plenty of noise around Elliott’s holdout, and there will continue to be — to add to the weirdness of the whole affair, even Dirk Nowitzki ended up getting accidentally caught in the crossfire of Zeke Mania.

But the deal is done, and at least for the moment, there’s an intense feeling of relief for the Cowboys and their fans.

“Make no mistake about it,” FOX Sports’ Jason Whitlock said on Speak For Yourself. “This is a shotgun wedding. Zeke knocked up Jerry a few years ago when he rushed for 1600 yards and 15 touchdowns. Jerry’s been crazy in love ever since. Jerry has bought Zeke the biggest wedding ring ever given to an NFL running back. Jerry just wants his real wedding day: another trip to the Super Bowl.”

If that happens, $90 million looks like a bargain. Truly, if Jones gets to stand on the field on a February Sunday and hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy, the Zeke contract will seem like chump change. That summer holdout in Cabo San Lucas? Just a blip. All that “Zeke who?” signing tension? Forgotten. All those concerns about overpaying running backs and resetting the market? Nonsense.

Jones is all in on the upside. He knew he was going to sign Elliott; he just wanted to see if he could get him at a more reasonable price. He couldn’t. Next comes the task of giving Dak Prescott the figure he’s looking for, but that deal should turn out to be a lot less problematic than this one. Then he needs to get Amari Cooper locked into place, but Jerry being Jerry, he likes his chances of pulling that one off, too.

Elliott was the one that worried Jones, and he got it taken care of. It sounds like a heck of a lot of money, because it is. But faced with a player determined to dig his heels in from the moment he eschewed training camp in Oxnard, Calif., in favor of the Mexican Riviera, it was the only way.

Strike that: it was the only way if he wanted his championship window to open now.

These are odd times for running backs. Jones could have stuck to his guns and refused to pay. The standoff could have continued. Just last year, Le’Veon Bell skipped an entire season although it should be noted that a similar holdout would not have enhanced Elliott’s bargaining position, as he had two more years remaining on his rookie-scale contract.

Statistically speaking, there’s little evidence that supports tying significant money to a running back. Elliott has led the league in rushing two of the past three seasons, but that didn’t help the Cowboys reach the Super Bowl — something America’s Team hasn’t managed since 20 years before Zeke joined the team. In fact, only two rushing leaders – Emmitt Smith (1992 and 1995) and Terrell Davis (1998) have led their teams to a Super Bowl championship.

Further, the leading rusher for the past five Super Bowl champions — and seven of the past 10 — earned less than $1 million in base salary.

Regardless, running backs are biting back at the notion that the high-toll nature of their position makes them less valuable in the long term. The very best have the leverage to land that big payday.

“Because he was silent and because of the way he went about business, he knew going forward he and Jerry Jones are business partners. To me, he went about it the right way,” NFL Hall of Famer Cris Carter said on First Things First. “He had unbelievable leverage; he pushed them to the edge. They wanted to get a deal done before week one. This worked out for Zeke.”

Elliott got what he wanted, but there’s only one way this turns out to be good business for the Cowboys, and that bar could not be set higher. For Jones though, the bar feels easier to reach today, and that’s why he wrote the check.