He has played hard and he has produced.
He has lauded teammates when the team wins, and he has stood — sometimes seemingly by himself — and faced the media after the most painful of losses.
But a few years ago, things started to change.
Ellis blew out an Achilles tendon, and perhaps his grip on his position, as well, in the process. He began to fear for his playing time, and his starting role. He publicly resisted when Bill Parcells wanted to move him from his comfortable defensive end spot to outside linebacker — a move that helped him earn his first Pro Bowl appearance. He complained last year about "security," insisting his issue had nothing to do with money, and wore his displeasure on his sleeve until Jerry Jones "reassured" him — which presumably meant more money in his contract was guaranteed.
In 2007, the Cowboys drafted Anthony Spencer out of Purdue in the first round. Spencer plays the same outside position Ellis does — obviously nobody's going to unseat DeMarcus Ware for a while on the opposite side of the field — and again, Ellis felt threatened.
Now Ellis is upset about the number of snaps Spencer has gotten in the team's optional team activities (OTAs), upset to the point that he stopped showing up for the not-so-optional workouts.
Eventually, his agent met with head coach Wade Phillips, and his ego was massaged a little. Now, there are reports that Ellis feels better — more secure — after the meeting, and is open to returning to the team.
If Ellis wasn't as well-liked and respected as he is, and if he didn't team with Ware to pose one of the most dangerous pass-rushing linebacker tandems in the NFL, the easy answer would be to scream "cut him!" After all, he's in his 11th season, and he's not as healthy or as fast or as strong as he once was, and his annual mini-camp mini-drama is tiresome, at best.
The team, after all, is doing to him exactly what it did when Ellis arrived: he showed up as someone's replacement. He didn't dominate immediately, but he took someone's job, and now the team is preparing — and rightly so — for the day when Ellis isn't there, or is there and can't play.
Spencer might not start right away this season, but he will get more and more playing time … and again, not at Ware's expense.
He's one of the faces of the team, and has been for a long time. A lot of people, around the team and the league, were genuinely happy for him when he earned his February trip to Honolulu. But he doesn't have a lot of those trips left in him, as he clearly is on the downward side of his career.
None of that matters anymore. People are tired of hearing reports that Ellis is complaining … again. Fans and coaches and teammates alike are curious to know if Spencer could handle Ellis' job … quietly. In other words, his act is wearing thin.
If cutting him doesn't happen, there also are calls for a trade — the fashionable suggestion at the moment is to ship him to Miami for Jason Taylor.
The fact is, however, that it's very likely he goes nowhere. Should he? Maybe. But the financial ramifications and the lack of a proven backup dictate that he won't be cut, no matter how much he annoys management, and NFL graybeards rarely get traded.
The man who might hold the key to whether or not Ellis stays in Dallas, oddly enough, is offensive coordinator — and head-coach-in-waiting — Jason Garrett, who just about everyone assumes is a rubber-stamp replacement whenever Wade Phillips vacates the head coach's office, whether it's by his own choice or if it's Jones who makes that decision. Despite his youth, Garrett clearly has Jones enamored with him, and might well take the head coaching job one day only after certain assurances are made about his role in decisions, including those regarding personnel.
The fact is that players — almost all players — make more money than their coaches, and usually a lot more money. Players are in demand, by fans, sponsors and media. After all, people don't buy team visors because their favorite coach wears one, but stadiums are filled with more players' jerseys than ever before. When push comes to shove, players who have any clout usually win out.
Because of that, it looks like Ellis will win this struggle, and likely will be in Dallas as long as Phillips is. Once Garrett takes over … that will be interesting to watch.