Dallas Cowboys: Why Dak looks like a better quarterback WITHOUT Zeke

Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /

As crazy as it sounds, Dallas Cowboys quarterback, Dak Prescott, appears to actually be better without the NFL’s leading rusher, Ezekiel Elliott, on the field.

Before you grab the pitchforks and light the torches, hear me out here because what I’m saying isn’t heresy or a shameless attempt at clickbait. I’m not saying the Dallas Cowboys are a better team sans Ezekiel Elliott. I’m not even saying Dak Prescott the quarterback is definitively better at his job without him. I’m saying there’s a reason Dak looks better without him (because you must admit, he really does).

Zeke, in my honestly biased opinion, is the best running back in the NFL. While an argument can be made one or possibly two players rank ahead of him on the NFL’s hierarchy, no one would be dumb enough to suggest Zeke is anything less than great.

Why would the subtraction of an undeniably great offensive player positively impact the performance of the quarterback?

Because the Dallas Cowboys play-calling, Dak’s progressions, and Dak’s final decisions are all different without Zeke on the field.

Zeke the Great

Over the years Ezekiel Elliott has served as a safety blanket to both Dak Prescott and the coaching staff. With the ability to break tackles and take any ball to sticks (or even the house), Zeke is nearly always seen as a viable option. So it’s only natural he’s both the leading rusher and leading receiver on this team.

Unfortunately, his greatness has been a crutch, and this Dallas Cowboys offense has been a little too willing to just feed Zeke both on the ground and in the air. They’ve been too content grinding on first and second down, and then just checking the ball down on 3rd and long, rather than insist on a potentially more advantageous play downfield.

Look, Zeke is the best at what he does but based on actual numbers from this season, feeding Zeke isn’t nearly as fruitful as Dak keeping the ball or Dak throwing the ball downfield.

Successful plays and EPA

Successful plays and EPA (Expected points added) are something we’ve talked about for a while. Whether a play is deemed successful or not depends on the down, distance, and yardage gained.

For instance: If Zeke runs for 3 yards on first down the play is qualified as “unsuccessful” because four yards is what’s needed to statistically put the Dallas Cowboys in a more advantageous position on second down.

This refers to the expected points added on the play (or EPA) Explains ESPN’s Alok Pattani:

"“Based on statistical analysis of 10 years of NFL play-by-play, ESPN has created a formula that assigns an “expected points” value to the team with the ball at the start of each play based on game situation. Expected points (EP) accounts for factors such as down, distance to go, field position, home-field advantage, and time remaining.”"

From this we learn, as good as Zeke is, the Dallas Cowboys find success more often with someone not named “Zeke” (53% success rate) than with someone named “Zeke” (39% success rate). Kinda crazy, right?

Pass More

Now, that doesn’t mean the Dallas Cowboys can’t feed Zeke heavily some games. When playing against a high powered offense and/or teams that appear to be Dallas’ superior, controlling the ball, draining the clock, and limiting positions is the wise way to go. If only to limit the opponent’s sample size thus increasing the odds of an upset.

The problem isn’t Zeke, it’s how we use Zeke.

Just more often than not, it’s passing downfield that produces the points. It’s certainly more likely to dictate the winner than whether or not a rushing attack is successful.

Because as we can see below, whether or not a team can run the ball (or stop someone running the ball) has fairly little impact on who wins the game.

Enter the coloration/causation debate on successful rushing days and it’s relation to winning: Hint: winning leads to good rushing days more often than good rushing days lead to winning.  

We saw first-hand on Sunday how a nice downfield passing game helped the Dallas Cowboys score points. Yes, the Giants stink, but Tampa Bay who we played a week before, stinks worse against the pass, and yet,with the old game plan and Zeke, we failed to exploit them like we did New York. The problem isn’t Zeke, it’s how we use Zeke.

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Rod Smith and Darius Jackson combined for only 18 rushes and two receptions. That’s a pretty small workload for the running back position yet the offense thrived. Now imagine if Zeke replaced those fellas without getting any extra touches. He’d probably gain twice as many yards as them just because he’s great, and the passing game still would have hummed.

The main takeaway is passing is statistically more advantageous than running even with Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott as the subjects in question. So a smaller workload for Zeke would do this offense well more often than not.

At the end of the day it’s all about finding the right balance for the situation. For too long we’ve believed 50/50 is the right balance and for too long we’ve been wrong. This is a passing league and the more shots downfield the more likely you are to score points (and yes, that even factors in increased odds of a turnover).

Next. Why Blake Jarwin's performance was no fluke. dark

The Dallas Cowboys can win a Super Bowl with a run-heavy offense and a great defense, it’s just a lot harder to do it that way than it is to go pass-heavy.

  • Published on 01/02/2019 at 18:01 PM
  • Last updated at 01/02/2019 at 14:38 PM