Ezekiel Elliott’s return could change Cowboys’ rushing leaderboard

Statistically speaking, there’s a clear top-3 in the history of Cowboys running backs. Ezekiel Elliott moved into that pantheon during his previous seven-year run in Dallas, but still significantly trails legends Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett in a couple of areas. But with his return to the organization in 2024, Elliott has a chance to finally enter the top two in one very important category.

With Smith and Dorsett both playing in Dallas for over a decade, they had more time and carries to rack up statistics. Smith, obviously the as the NFL’s all-time leader as well, is on top with 17,162 rushing yards with the Cowboys. Dorsett trails him with 12,036 yards, and Zeke is well behind both at 8,262 yards. So no, Elliott probably isn’t moving up from third here.

Similarly, Elliott is firmly behind them in carries. Fairly proportionate to the margin in yardage, Smith’s incredible 4,052 career rushing attempts tops the list and Dorsett’s second with 2,755 carries. Again, playing in far fewer seasons, Elliott is third at 1,881 attempts. We can’t see the future, but it’s a safe bet that he won’t get the opportunity to change that standing.

However, when it comes to putting points on the board, Elliott has done that at an exceptional rate during his career. His 68 rushing touchdowns in Dallas may be a far cry from Emmitt Smith’s record of 153, which like most Smith records are unlikely to be broken. But surprisingly, despite all the extra time and carries, Dorsett only had 72 rushing scores with the Cowboys. Simple math; Elliott only needs five touchdowns this year to pass him.

Despite his one-year break from the team, and even changing jersey numbers, Elliott’s stats going forward still count towards the all-time marks. With the well-established intent for Zeke to be a goal-line weapon for the Cowboys now, most would project at least five touchdowns for him in 2024. He never had less than six during his previous run, even in his suspension-wrecked 2017 season or when he started losing touches to Tony Pollard. In fact, despite career-low carries in 2022 (not counting his year in New England), Zeke still had 12 rushing touchdowns.

Now, we can’t ignore that Elliott only had three rushing scores during his one-year sojourn in New England. But the Patriots were one of the worst offensive teams in football, especially in terms of scoring. They were tied with Carolina for the fewest redzone trips, which directly impacted Elliott’s ability to do his job. They also had the worst rate for ending drives in points, and one of the higher rates for drives ending in turnovers.

Barring something catastrophic, this Cowboys offense is going to be much better than that. Elliott will get many more chances to punch it into the endzone; much closer to his 2022 role than the offensive famine he endured in New England. We still have to see what the running back rotation will actually look like, but at minimum, Dallas is going to turn to Zeke when they’re sniffing the goal line.

Some have tried to diminish Elliott’s legacy with the Cowboys, but there’s no denying where he stands among their all-time rushers. Even in the modern, pass-focused NFL, Elliott was able to put up numbers to rival the legends that came before him. Now, thanks to his surprising return to Dallas, he has a chance finally pass Tony Dorsett in a key rushing category. It will only further cement Zeke’s standing on Dallas’ Mt. Rushmore for running backs.


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