Ezekiel Elliott, the Commanders Sale & Other Stories You Don't Care About

May 22nd 2023

Mike Tanier

Remember Ezekiel Elliott?

You know: the two-time rushing champion who signed a $90-million contract with the Dallas Cowboys in one of Jerry Jones’ moments of tipsy arrogance (Jerrah has 30 such moments per day, 50 on weekends) back in 2019 and instantly became the poster child for overpaid, overrated running backs? The Cowboys released Elliott in March, just before the start of free agency, and there has been silence ever since: no rumors, little intrigue, few even of the “Five Ideal Landing Spots for Ezekiel Elliott” listicles folks like me are expected to write whenever a big-name player is on the loose.

Elliott was spotted last week at the stadium formerly known as Heinz Field in Pittsburgh – I refuse to learn the names of these new sponsors – for a charity event hosted by his Ohio State teammate Ryan Shazier. Pittsburgh Steelers bloggers did their best to make a story of it, but Elliott isn’t even very good clickbait these days. The only fans who get really excited when a big-name running back is available these days are, well, Cowboys fans. And maybe Bills fans. But for the most part, only casual fans care all that much about Zeke, and casual fans are watching the NBA playoffs right now, not the NFL waiver wire.

Elliott’s lack of newsworthiness is a prime example of the paradox of the NFL’s spring doldrums: only stories surrounding the most compelling superstars/personalities are likely to gain web traffic, and therefore get approved by editors. But those stories don’t really interest the fans that are currently paying attention: hardcore fantasy gamers seeking 17th-round sleepers and junkies desperate for the latest on the Carolina Panthers linebacker depth chart.

After two decades in this industry, I’m conditioned to focus on big names and trending topics in a hopeless search of nonexistent web traffic this time of year. In other words: I CANNOT STOP WRITING ABOUT TOPICS NO ONE CARES ABOUT.

So bear with me as I get ten of such topics out of my system.

10. Ezekiel Elliott’s Next Job

For the record, Jerrah said that the “ship has not sailed” on a Zeke/Cowboys reunion three weeks ago. The ship in question, of course, is the S.S. Cutty Sark.

9. Matt Ryan’s Non-Retirement

Ryan announced last week that he is joining the CBS broadcast team for 2023, but he made a point of saying that he was not retiring. That’s right: Ryan is leaving the door open in case some team desperately wants Kingdom of the Crystal Skull-era Harrison Ford to run their offense next year.

Most quarterbacks who enter the booth remain coy about their retirement status, even if they don’t plan a Jay Cutler-like mini-comeback: it’s good for their early-middle aged egos to hear their names bandied about every time Geno Smith or Derek Carr gets a hangnail. Ryan sounded a little extra-thirsty in his non-retirement post – hey, if Tom Brady says no, call me – but you cannot blame a guy who is only three injuries away from a Kyle Shanahan reunion and an NFC playoff run.

Speaking of which …

8. The Brock Purdy/Trey Lance Controversy

It’s not that we don’t care. We just don’t care now, during whisper-down-the-vine season.

The Athletic’s Matt Barrows reported last week that private quarterback tudor Jeff Christiansen helped Trey Lance achieve a “breakthrough” by showing him film of Patrick Mahomes, who is also a Christiansen protege. Sounds like an infomercial for a quarterback coach disguised as news to me!

(I am not criticizing Barrows. I’ve done the same thing. These quarterback gurus have a knack for SEO-friendly self-promotion. And no such story has even been written about a quarterback whose career is going well).

As for Brock Purdy, Rich Eisen said that his healthy return would be “the best scenario” for the 49ers on his podcast last week. Given the choice between a former seventh-round pick who can probably barely throw a ping-pong ball across the table right now and the quarterback equivalent of Buckethead from the post-Slash Guns ‘n’ Roses (who, like Lance, performed in public about four times in 20 years), I might side with Purdy, too. But it would be lovely to see evidence of either of them throwing a football in a live setting first.

7. The Peacock Playoff Game

No one – okay, maybe 0.001% of all denizens of the digital age – subscribes to the Peacock streaming service. Whereas Paramount Plus remains on life support thanks to Trekkers, Peacock has nothing to entice subscribers except reruns of The Office, which are also available on about 200 basic cable channels, and only about 30 of which are actually funny.

So fans should be seething mad at the thought of purchasing a streaming service no one wants just to watch one measly Wild Card game.

Except that no one is really going to buy Peacock just to watch one measly Wild Card game.

The Amazon Thursday night package which debuted in 2022 was different. First, Amazon Prime Video is a more palatable streaming service than Peacock because it features shows folks actually watch. Second, a whole season’s worth of games is a greater enticement to subscribe than one game.

But it’s a playoff game! Sure. Last year’s Saturday night Wild Card game was a classic: the Jacksonville Jaguars 31-30 comeback against the Los Angeles Chargers. But that classic featured two fringe-of-the-fringe Super Bowl contenders, not to mention (non-coincidentally) two of the NFL’s smallest fanbases. You might go to a bar to watch Trevor Lawrence vs. Justin Herbert. You may hang out at the house of a pal whose wife has a major John Krasinski fetish to watch the game. But you aren’t buying Peacock just to watch it.

As for me, whose literal job is to watch football games and who could write a Peacock subscription off my taxes: unless directly assigned the game, I will just watch it the following Sunday morning on NFL Plus. If the game was on Paramount Plus, however, I would be all-in.

6. The Washington Commanders Sale

Billionaire Josh Harris’ bid to purchase the Washington Commanders is apparently just a teensy bit fishy. Harris’ $6-billion offer is well above the NFL’s debt limit: like all billionaires, Harris and his partners are experts in spending other people’s money. Harris also owns a little cut of the Steelers, which he will have to sell.

Meanwhile, another gazillionaire named Brian Davis is suing Bank of America for $500-billion (read that number carefully) for allegedly finegaling with his bid for the Commanders somehow; I’ll just link to the article rather than risking the ire of some dude who files $500-billion lawsuits when he’s miffed.

Also, Dan Snyder still has some sketchy vaults that he wants to remain sealed forever, and he’s not above pushing desks in front of doors to keep the league and/or any new ownership away from those vaults.

It’s all complicated, grimy and dull. Harris has been an NHL/NBA owner long enough to pass the not-an-actual-supervillain sniff test, and he could borrow money from the Skrull Empire for all anyone cares so long as he wrests the team from Snyder.

The Commanders sale is very important news in an esoteric, bird’s-eye-view way: Harris will soon become one of the NFL’s most power individuals. For the casual fan, however, the sale boils down to economic deities heaving financial lightning bolts across Mount Olympus at one another, and we’ll be happy as long as Snyder ends up cast into Hades.

5. Saquon Barkley’s Contract Situation

The Saquon Barkley story is what the Ezekiel Elliott story would be if only one fanbase cared about him. The New York Giants franchise-tagged Barkley for just over $10-million, Barkley is signaling dissatisfaction, an OTA/minicamp holdout is likely, and everyone involved seems to just be going through the motions of a contract controversy.

It must be hard to be a staunch traditionalist Giants fan these days, as most Giants fans are. On the one hand, the Joe Schoen/Brian Daboll administration has earned praise for its financial responsibility, and nothing is more financially responsible than making sure to not overpay an oft-injured, high-mileage running back. (Except just getting rid of him, but let’s not get carried away). On the other hand, staunch traditionalists know that analytics are for wimpy nerds and that running backs like Barkley win Super Bowls! (The first ten or eleven of them, at least, maybe). Barkley takes therefore end up in so tepid – PAY THE MAN, BUT NOT THAT MUCH, OR MAYBE NOT – that they never catch on.

4. Quinnen Williams’ Contract Situation

The Quinnen Williams story is what the Saquon Barkley story would be without the casual fan/fantasy angle.

Williams, like Barkley, is chafing under the franchise tag and likely to skip all but the mandatory portions of OTAs. Williams, unlike Barkley, has real long-term on-field value and will probably earn a whopping extension as soon as the New York Jets complete their never-ending Aaron Rodgers appeasement duties.

Rodgers’ current 2024 cap hit, you see, is $107-million. That’s a phony-baloney figure, but it must be addressed before the Jets can budget for any big-ticket items, including their Pro Bowl defensive lineman, beyond this season.

Eventually, Joe Douglas will smooth the giant wrinkle in the Rodgers contract and get a Williams deal done. Until then, the Williams contract dispute serves as little more than a Jets media palate cleanser: look, we’re not just following the weirdo quarterback around like lovesick puppies. Here’s a defensive lineman story!

3. The Detroit Lions Gambling Scandal

Receivers Jameson Williams (wow!) and Stanley Berryhill (who?) received six-game suspensions from the NFL for allegedly gambling on non-NFL games while within an NFL facility. Receiver Quintez Cephus and safety C.J. Moore received one-year suspensions and were released by the Lions. Commanders defensive lineman Shaka Toney was also disciplined.

So where is the outrage, on either side?

It turns out that the “how DARE the hypocritical NFL suspend players for gambling when profiting from gambling” angle, which received extensive beta-testing during Calvin Ridley’s 2022 suspension, is too self-consciously idiotic even for Twitter. So is the “Tsk-tsk, the NFL made a deal with the devil and here we are” Ned Flanders angle now that your weekly church bulletin may well be sponsored by a sportsbook.

Gambling is legal and socially acceptable across most of the country, but NFL players aren’t allowed to do it because they could impact game results and thereby double-tap the Golden Goose. The end.

The Lions scandal also doesn’t fit squarely with the Lions’ current status as rising-star darlings of old-fashioned football. It has therefore been politely ignored.

2. Anything Involving Kenny Pickett

Pittsburgh sports fans seem to care about little else except Kenny Pickett, while no other sports fans in the galaxy care at all about Pickett.

Pickett told reporters during his minicamp availability that some teams took him off their draft boards because of his hand size. Ben Roethlisberger admitted that he didn’t want Pickett to perform so well that fans forgot Ben Roethlisberger. Pro Football Focus placed Trubisky on its “breakout candidates” list. And the Steelers fan blogs I follow issue almost daily reassurances from pretty much anyone with credibility (coaches, film gurus, Steel Curtain guys, short-order pierogi cooks with strong opinions) that Trubisky is The Guy.

For the record: Pickett never claimed that some coach or general manager told him directly: Hey, we won’t draft you because of your dainty little hands; reading his quotes, it sounds like Pickett is sharing some passed-along wisdom, like something his agent told him just in case things went pear-shaped in last year's draft.

Roethlisberger, meanwhile, is an amusing quote, but we should probably place strict moratoriums on asking his opinion in the near future, as he is a prime candidate to go Full Favre. And ANY second-year quarterback with a starting job is going to end up on breakout candidate lists.

Pickett could have a breakout year. Until he does, he’s the third or fourth best quarterback in the AFC North, depending on where Deshaun Watson’s head is at. (Do NOT answer that). And he’s the least interesting of the quartet, by far.

Speaking of AFC North quarterbacks ...

1. The Joe Burrow/Justin Herbert Contracts

The Bradyfication/beatification of Joe Burrow has shifted into fourth gear.

The storyline out of Cincinnati is that Burrow is mindful of the Bengals’ need to also pay receivers Tee Higgins (soon) and Ja’Marr Chase (in 2024), and that he’s likely to price those salaries into his own contract negotiations.

Burrow never said he would accept any discount. And neither Higgins nor Chase really expects Burrow to take one. But everyone made soothing team-first remarks during recent interviews that can be shaped into Burrow-as-ideal-teammate/hometown discount narrative. Burrow may look like the boss’ nephew who just wandered in three-day yacht-club bender to fire you for hanging too many pictures of your children on your cubicle walls, but he’s really a humble, generous paragon of all-American sports virtues!

(Burrow seems like a swell fellow. But the machinery of the mythmaking isn’t hard to spot).

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Chargers general manager Tom Telasco claims that there is “no blueprint” for a Justin Herbert contract extension. Of course, not, T.T.: there’s a freakin’ .pdf file that you can print, white out the name "Jalen Hurts," add a few million bucks to, then pass across the desk to sign. Stop trying to pretend this is neurosurgery.

Both Burrow and Herbert will sign deals which look a lot like the Hurts and Lamar Jackson deals long before any meaningful deadlines approach. Until then, my colleagues and I will wring what drama we can from a story which only has one conclusion. Then we can forget about quarterback contracts and wait to enjoy a Herbert-versus-Burrow playoff game! Unless that's the Peacock game, in which case we'll just watch flonkerton instead.