Longtime Cowboys star Ellis back for Thanksgiving
AP Sports Writer
IRVING, Texas (AP) – Greg Ellis spent the last few years bracing for his release from the Dallas Cowboys. So when it happened in June, it didn’t sting too badly.
He even started looking at the bright side – like finally getting to spend Thanksgiving with his family after 11 years of playing on the holiday.
Then he signed with the Oakland Raiders and Al Davis broke the news to him.
“Greg,” Davis said, “guess who you are going to play on Thanksgiving?”
“My wife was not too happy about that,” Ellis said, chuckling. “She was like, ‘Man, you leave Dallas and you STILL have to miss Thanksgiving with us?!”‘
Ellis and the Raiders (3-7) have the chance to jump-start a season that’s already included a pair of three-game losing streaks. However, they are 1-0 under new starting quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, having beaten division-leading Cincinnati this past Sunday. Now they have a chance to knock off another division leader.
Dallas (7-3) is vulnerable, too.
The Cowboys have been shut out over the first three quarters in their last two games, a loss at Green Bay and a 7-6 win at home over Washington. Quarterback Tony Romo was kneed in the back by the Redskins and is still sore. He also might be without his favorite target, tight end Jason Witten, questionable with a sprained left foot.
And, with Ellis now playing for the Raiders, the Cowboys will be facing a guy who knows all their favorite tricks.
“He’s done a good job for them,” Romo said. “He looks good on tape.”
Ellis was the player Dallas took instead of Randy Moss in the first round of the 1998 draft. While never dominant, he was always among the club’s sack leaders, first as a defensive end, then after being moved to outside linebacker.
He feared being set up to fail when forced to switch positions, but he ended up playing better than ever. He had a career-best 12 1/2 sacks and his first trip to the Pro Bowl in 2007, when he also was coming off a torn Achilles’ tendon; he ended up being the NFL’s comeback player of the year.
Part of Ellis’ motivation that season was that Dallas drafted Anthony Spencer in the first round to be his eventual replacement. Ellis remained the starter and pass-rush specialist last season by getting eight sacks, but he knew the Cowboys eventually would need to find out what they had in Spencer.
While he would’ve preferred finishing his career in Dallas, he appreciated being released in time to land another job.
“It was never anything personal,” Ellis said. “Some players make the mistake of getting mad with the owners, mad with the organization, saying bad things about the organization. But you have to understand that football does have a business side. … It’s just the circle of life in football. You can’t play on one team forever. Enjoy the years you are there, like I did. I just wish we’d won the big one while I was there.”
He wasn’t out of work very long.
The Raiders gave Ellis a three-year contract to play defensive end, then traded for Richard Seymour to handle the other end spot. Ellis has responded with five sacks in nine games, giving him 82 career sacks, eight among active players. He’s missed one game while having arthroscopic surgery on his left knee and getting over a shoulder injury.
Spencer, meanwhile, has zero sacks in 10 games for Dallas. DeMarcus Ware’s numbers are down, too.
“Greg’s impact on and off the field is immense,” Raiders defensive end Jay Richardson said. “He’s obviously a good player, a great player, he’s a heck of a pass rusher. But he brought a leadership that we really needed right now. He gave you a model to follow, both as a football player and as a man, I think. All the young guys look up to him in the locker room and say, ‘That’s how you want to do it.”‘
Ellis also could be setting an example of how to handle yourself before a grudge match.
On a 20-minute conference call with Dallas reporters, he insisted he had no idea that Spencer didn’t have a sack and that he is not trying to prove anything to anyone with his performance this season, or in this game.
“My intentions are to go out there like it’s another football game,” Ellis said. “I just want to do my best.”
Well, there was one swipe in saying how embraced he feels by the Raiders.
“I know I’m on a team that’s not trying to phase me out for no reason at all,” Ellis said. “I’m on a team that says, ‘OK, we got Greg here and we want to use him in a way that he can help us win’ as opposed to ‘We got somebody we just drafted and we want to get him on the field.”‘
Still, Ellis admits he won’t know until Thursday afternoon how emotional this game will be. It helps having playing Dallas in the preseason and that this game will be at Cowboys Stadium, not the building that was his home the last 11 years.
But there will still be stars on the helmets, many of them worn by guys who were his teammates and friends for many years.
And, of course, it will be Thanksgiving.