Because Ezekiel Elliott began his career with such an incredible stretch, criticism about his play and behavior on the field has been somewhat limited.
That changed after Sunday's 42-17 loss to the Denver Broncos. Elliott had just eight rushing yards on nine carries, and while Elliott's own head coach blamed running game woes on an inability to throw the ball effectively in his news conference afterwards, the NFL's 2016 leading rusher did not receive a pass from a pair of Hall of Famers.
Here's a conversation between LaDainian Tomlinson and Deion Sanders on GameDay Prime from Sunday night on NFL Network:
Tomlinson: "Zeke, to his credit, he didn't have any room today. Like he was running, getting hit in the backfield, making moves in the backfield, but all that is OK. I didn't like the way he quit today. I didn't like that. He absolutely quit on his team today. And there's going to be times where you are not going to have room to run."
Sanders: "Explain what you mean by quit now because people can misconstrue that. Explain what you mean by quit."
Tomlinson: "So on a couple of plays, first his attitude on the sideline. Clearly, he didn't have any type of communication with his teammates. There was no eating today. But also he didn't want to talk to his teammates. Sometimes when things are going wrong as a leader of the team, as a captain, you gotta step up and rally the troops. You gotta go to the offensive line and say 'Hey man, I know it's tough but let's keep battling, let's keep fighting.' You gotta go to the quarterback and say 'Hey man, I'm not getting it done today. You gotta step it up.' You gotta rally the troops."
Sanders: "I don't know if he's mature enough at this point to do that. Especially with the cloud over his head right now."
Tomlinson: "But they need him to do that. Because last year he led the league in rushing. Everybody is looking at him now as the top dog. So if you want to be the top dog, you gotta do it on and off the field."
Speaking on NFL Total Access on Monday, Tomlinson clarified and elaborated on his comments:
"It's constructive criticism. This young man has the opportunity to be great, maybe one day to even have what it is to be Hall of Fame great. This situation was about his effort on a particular play. Had nothing to do with his demeanor on the sideline or his apathy on the sideline ... I've been there, I've been frustrated on the sideline. This is simply an effort thing ... it's the effort of showing your teammates that you're part of this, that you want to be good and help them out in these types of times.
"Your natural reaction as a competitor and as a player, when you see that, is to go get them right away. If that was me, I'm thinking right away, 'I'm going to run him down, I'm going to strip the ball and get it back, and if I don't strip it, I'm going to hit this guy so hard that he's never going to want to intercept the ball again.' The fact that he looked at Chris Harris, turned around and walked away, that's quiting on your team.
"I don't know the last time I've seen that type of effort on a play like that."
Tomlinson went on to discuss the responsibility of running backs after an interception occurs:
"It's our job as running backs to go make that tackle. My running backs coach, Clarence Shelton, always told us the running backs are always supposed to chase the guys down, make the tackles for one specific reason: You don't want the quarterback being involved. The linemen are usually too slow to catch a DB, and it's up to the running backs, who most of us have played defense at some point in time throughout our career, to go chase that guy down and make that tackle."
Tomlinson wasn't the only one who noticed Elliott's reaction to the interceptions. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said the team will address the issue with the running back.
"Those two plays are not indicative of the kind of competitor that he was, and we have to get that addressed," Garrett said Monday. "I'll certainly address it with him, we have to address that with our entire team. That's not the way we play."
This version of the Dallas Cowboys lost just four times last year. Elliott finished with the rushing title, Dak Prescott won Offensive Rookie of the Year and Garrett won Coach of the Year. While it's far too early to assume that this shock-to-the-system loss will have long-term ramifications for the Cowboys, it does pose a challenge they've yet to face head on together.