The Dallas Cowboys and running back Ezekiel Elliott finally came to terms on Wednesday morning on an eye-popping six-year, $90 million contract extension that makes Elliott the highest-paid running back in NFL history.
The deal ends a long, ugly holdout between the team and the team’s star player, a holdout during which some criticized team owner Jerry Jones for letting it last so long.
Just a few hours after the all-night negotiating talks ended, Jones was on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to ring the opening bell on behalf of oil and gas firm Comstock Resources, and to tout the kickoff of the NFL’s 100th season.
In an interview from the NYSE floor with Yahoo Finance, Jones defended his approach to the Elliott contract situation, and said he’s happy with the result.
“Zeke will hit the ground running,” Jones said. “We didn’t deliberately let anything drag on. Anyone knows it’s a negotiation. And I’d rather be answering why it went on too long before the first game—and got done—than to be sitting there in the third game not having it done... I may be almost $100 million lighter, but I’m happier.”
Zeke Elliott is far from the first star athlete to use his leverage as a way to hold out for a big new contract. But this situation was a compelling sign of a shift in power in the way NFL contracts get hammered out: star players are no longer afraid to create a spectacle, anger team management, and even miss playing time in order to get the largest sum they can.
Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney did the same to the Houston Texans, and got his money from the Seattle Seahawks. Running back Le’Veon Bell did the same to the Pittsburgh Steelers and missed an entire season to prove a point, then got his money from the New York Jets.
In the NFL, player salaries are not guaranteed. (An NBA or MLB star who gets hurt can sit on the sidelines for an entire season and still get paid.) Team owners like Jones have the power. But stars like Elliott are proving that the power dynamic can reverse when a team is up against a corner.
The Cowboys set a record with Elliott’s contract, making him the highest-paid running back ever, just one month after Cowboys COO Stephen Jones said on Dallas radio: “We’re damn sure not going to be a market-setter.”
The current NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement expires after the 2020 season.
Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.