Dallas Cowboys: Why Ezekiel Elliott may leave Dallas

Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys(Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys(Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) /

Over the years, the Dallas Cowboys offense has lived and died on the back of Ezekiel Elliott, but recent news indicates that may soon change.

Like a lot of Dallas Cowboys, Ezekiel Elliott is a somewhat polarizing player amongst the fan base. Majority love him and consider him the key cog in Cowboys machine. But there’s a growing segment of the population who are coming around to the idea a running back may not be as important as we once thought it was.

Ezekiel Elliott is under contract through the 2019 season and the team will likely give him the pricey, but noncommittal, fifth year option in 2020. But in roughly 23-months Zeke will be looking to be fed and I think we can all agree he’s looking for a pretty significantly sized meal.

NFL.com recently estimated Zeke will re-set the market at running back. They said he’ll make anywhere from $14-$16 million annually with total guarantees exceeding Gurley’s ridiculous $45 million. While this money pales in comparison to what DeMarcus Lawrence just signed for and for what Dak Prescott’s expected to make, it’s a pretty staggering figure given the position in which he plays.

The RB position has changed

The age of advanced stats and detailed analytics has ushered in a new brand of football.  They exposed a handful of “truths” as nothing more than long-standing myths.

Myths like these:

  1. Running the ball leads to winning
  2. Establishing the run makes play-action work
  3. Rushing is more consistently helpful than passing.
  4. Rushing the ball limits possessions
  5. Zeke is a generational talent who cannot be replaced.

All of these items we once considered cold hard facts, have been largely debunked. Myth No. 1: Running the ball leads to winning is misrepresenting facts. Yes, teams that rush the ball 20+ times per game are more likely to win the game. But that’s because teams run the ball more when playing with a lead and pass the ball more when trailing. Context matters quite significantly here.

Myth No. 2 was the belief rushing the ball is what makes play-action work. The facts are, establishing the run does virtually nothing to help the play-action work.

Play-action just inherently works. Linebackers aren’t factoring is YPC when they decide whether or not to bite on what appears to be a handoff. They are playing instinctively and will respond to what they are seeing .

Myth No. 3 assumes positive yardage is always a good thing. It’s not. If a play didn’t increase the odds of the offense scoring on the drive, it is an unsuccessful play.  In almost all situations a team is better off 1st and 10 than they are 2nd and 6.

This means roughly half of all rushing attempts are unsuccessful in helping the offense. This even holds true to the “generational talents” of Zeke, Saquon, and Todd. By running the ball (in non-short yardage situations) the team has more than a 50% chance of hurting themselves in expected points, all without the reward of what a pass downfield offers.

Myth No. 4 indicates that running the ball runs time off the clock and limits possessions. But what really limits possessions are sustained drives and nothing sustains drives like running the best play for the situation. While the direct proportion is different for every team, passing is overwhelmingly better at converting than rushing (save for short-yardage situations).

Related Story. The best way to limit possessions may surprise you. light

Myth No. 5 makes an exception for generational talents and speaks to their irreplaceability. It’s true, there are always exceptions to the rule when you’re dealing with generational talents. But based on the numbers, this probably isn’t the case. The impact of the position isn’t good enough to justify this enormous contract, especially since the market has tanked on all non-elite RBs.

Pro Football Focus did a tremendous piece regarding the replaceability of the running back in today’s NFL. I highly encourage reading it here.

It’s not Zeke, it’s the position

Why would Dallas even consider using their second round pick, let alone moving up in the second, if to only draft a back-up? The answer is they wouldn’t.

The question isn’t whether or not Zeke is great. It’s whether the running back position is worth massive investment. It’s a question that’s been asked and answered. By the numbers, RBs are just not worth it. Not even guys we call “generational”, a term that’s grossly overused – You can’t consider three guys the same age (Gurley, Barkley, and Zeke) all generational talents. All three are batting around .500 when it comes to successful vs unsuccessful plays. Just about every downfield option beats that in expected points.

Signs from the Cowboys…

Dispelling long-standing beliefs is difficult, even if statistical facts are staring us in the face. A sizable chunk of fans, sports analysts, and even coaches are afraid to entertain the possibility that running backs aren’t as special as we once thought.

So, are the Dallas Cowboys one of those teams who are changing with the tide?

It’s tough to say because we know little-to-nothing about Kellen Moore’s philosophy. But we have seen the Dallas Cowboys deviate from the narrative that they are one of the NFL’s predominant run-heavy teams.

According to Cowboys Stats and Graphs, Dallas was the middle of the pack last season in non-obvious situations. When chances of winning are between 25% and 75%, they only ran the ball 42 percent of the time when down and distance was 1st or 2nd and 6 (17th in NFL).

Another sign – the Dallas Cowboys invited arguably the second best running back in the draft to be one of their 30-visitors this year. As many know, the Dallas Cowboys take these visits very seriously and if they invited someone, the interest should be regarded as sincere.

Standing out on their list this year was Alabama runner Damien Harris. Considered by most as a first round prospect, Harris has the potential to fall into the second given the devalued nature of the running back position. While it’s unlikely he’ll slip to Dallas at 58, Dallas will have the ability to package picks and move up into the late 40s should they feel compelled.

Why would Dallas even consider using their second round pick, let alone moving up in the second, if to only draft a back-up? The answer is they wouldn’t. They would only make an investment like this if they had significant plans for the pick.

After years of interest in typical scat-back/change-of-pace runners, the Dallas Cowboys have stated their desire to add a well-rounded work horse type of ball carrier this year. Someone who can carry the load should something happen to Zeke.

But what if this sudden desire for a workhorse has more to do with Zeke’s pending contract situation and surviving in the post-Zeke era than it does in rounding out the depth chart?

We don’t know much about Dallas’ true intentions with these upcoming contracts. We know they said they plan on signing Zeke long-term but honestly, they kinda have to say that.

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The NFL is changing and we can thank advanced stats and long-term analytics studies for that. What was fact yesterday is myth today and the teams that refuse to adapt will be left holding the bag. Could Kellen Moore bring a more pass-happy offense? Might this shift in philosophy devalue the rushing game even more? Only time will tell but the facts are the facts and the Dallas Cowboys are showing some curious behavior in their draft prep.

Someone is going to pay Ezekiel Elliott but that may not be the Dallas Cowboys.

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Given the replaceability and shrinking impact of the running back position, the Dallas Cowboys may be more interest in running him into the ground and replacing him rather than re-upping long-term.

  • Published on 04/12/2019 at 12:41 PM
  • Last updated at 04/15/2019 at 12:20 PM