Why the Dallas Cowboys offense can be better WITHOUT Ezekiel Elliott

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - DECEMBER 16: Ezekiel Elliot #21 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - DECEMBER 16: Ezekiel Elliot #21 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /

Ezekiel Elliott found himself in trouble again and now faces suspension as a result, but here’s why the Dallas Cowboys offense may actually be better off.

Panic. Cowboys Nation is in full-on panic mode in the wake of Elliott’s latest trouble. News broke yesterday (complete with video) that Dallas Cowboys running back, Ezekiel Elliott, was, once again, involved in an incident that Commissioner Goodell could find punishable by suspension.

Entering a season with legitimate postseason aspirations, the news doesn’t get much worse than this to many Cowboys fans. But the numbers suggest a suspension may not be the death sentence some think it will be. And the Dallas Cowboys may actually improve on offense sans Zeke. Here’s why…

Before we unpack that last bold statement, let’s first offer an honest disclaimer: Ezekiel Elliott is arguably the best running back in the NFL. He’s a physical specimen, a phenomenal player, and quite possibly the best complete athlete on the Dallas Cowboys.

Zeke is great. The position he plays is the problem.

Zeke’s also not easily replaceable. I know many of us like to say “running backs are replaceable” and “running backs don’t matter”. And while partially true, these are statements largely made to spark a response by those who lean far too heavily the other way.

The fact is, Zeke can’t be seamlessly replaced by just anyone. He’s far too talented to expect a regular guy to slide into his role. But what if the problem is the role? And what if that role changed? Suddenly Zeke isn’t so irreplaceable…

The Dallas Cowboys Run Too Dang Much

The argument many running game enthusiasts make regarding the importance of No. 21 to this team, revolve around Zeke’s tremendous workload. And frankly, it’s hard to deny Zeke is the engine that makes this train move down the track. He dominated carries in Dallas and even led the team in receptions.

At the end of the day, the Dallas Cowboys aren’t better off without one of their best players. But they may be better off if this absence forces them to alter their run-heavy approach and shift to a more analytically-based pass-heavy attack.

Elliott led the NFL in rushing two out of the last three seasons, and he’d be 3-for-3 if it wasn’t for that unforgettable suspension in 2017. Last season he won the rushing title by such a wide margin he sat out the last game and still won by 127 yards.

While I always argue, rushing tiles are not a sign of greatness, merely a sign of volume (Zeke had 16% more carries than the second most used RB – so of course he won the title!), the number of carries undeniably speaks to this offense’s reliance on him.

But it’s that reliance that’s the biggest problem with this offense.  That’s because the success rate of Zeke’s runs are roughly 53.2% (meaning after a Zeke run, the Dallas Cowboys are often statistically in worse shape to score points than they were before he got the ball) as tracked by to football perspective.

The Dallas Cowboys are too quick to lean on their bell cow because their bell cow is so darn good. Even if it’s a mathematical mistake to give the running back the ball so much, the Cowboys can’t help but use their best weapon.

But without Zeke, that may change.

Early Downs are Passing Downs

The Dallas Cowboys aren’t quite the run-heavy team they’ve been in the past (Last season they finished in the middle-of-the-pack when it comes to early down rush rates).  But in a league slanted so aggressively towards the forward pass, even a 60/40 pass-to-run ratio is tragically too frequent to run.

This isn’t just a personal preference I speak of. It’s not a gut feeling. It’s not an unsupported wives tale we hear ESPN studio analysts repeated say (like “establishing the run”) It’s reality-based numbers built on years of play-charting, modeling, and running probabilities.

It largely comes in the form of something called “expected points”. Cowboys Stats and Graphs has been championing this for over a year now and thankfully provides most of my Cowboys-centric numbers for us. But analytics like EPA are nothing new or even controversial to those who understand it. They have been used by ESPN and many other sports statisticians/mathematicians for over a decade.

For a quick crash-course in what EPA is and why it’s paramount in any Cowboys running back discussion, please read: What EPA tells us about the Dallas Cowboys offense in 2018.

Again, it’s important to understand where the analytics are coming from and what they mean. It’s no coincidence most pro-running back folks don’t understand context-based stats and analytics like EPA and just lean on counting volume stats. So assuming everyone is up-to-speed on EPA and success rates, we can dive into the numbers:

The Positives of Passing Outweigh the Negatives

Passing on early downs yields 8x the EPA results that running the ball offers. And yes, this includes sacks, incompletions, and interceptions. Even with all of the possible bad outcomes that come with passing, the numbers (which are real numbers of historical data) say the Dallas Cowboys produced .16 expected points per pass and only .02 expected points per rush.

Now consider how poor the passing attack was last season before Amari Cooper was added. Do you think those passing numbers will get better (higher success rate) this year with Coop playing for a full season, Michael Gallup with a year under his belt, Jason Witten back in the fold, and Randell Cobb replacing Bease?

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Thanks to Konstantinos Pelechrinis, we learned last season passing efficiency explains 55%-64% of the win-loss variance while rushing efficiency only explains 5%-12%. As with all things, there are exceptions (see also Cowboys vs Rams playoff game), but far, far more often than not, the better passing team determines the winner. Handing the ball off to Zeke on first and/or second down should be the exception, not the rule.

Consider this: the best running backs in the NFL still only have a 50%-60% success rate on their runs. That means nearly half of all handoffs result in a negative EPA and hurt the offense’s chances of scoring. And scoring is typically the point, right?

Avoid Third Downs

Striving for manageable third downs is a flawed strategy since the offense is more likely to score on the drive sitting at 1st-and-10 than they are on your average 3rd-and-2. That means avoiding third downs altogether is the goal, and the best way to do that is to pass the ball early and often. And yes, Dak haters, this even applies to teams with average-to-below average quarterbacks.

As discussed last month in, Why Zeke may ultimately leave Dallas, we debunked some common myths about running back. We learned:

In coming days we’ll discuss when teams like the Dallas Cowboys SHOULD run the ball. Because there are clear situations that unequivocally call for the run (so let’s save the “what ifs…” and “what abouts…” until then).

The main takeaway today is the Dallas Cowboys have been far too reliant on their most skilled offensive player. They’ve been relying on him to carry the load and foolishly calling poor-producing plays accordingly.

At the end of the day, the Dallas Cowboys aren’t better off without one of their best players. But they may be better off if this absence forces them to alter their run-heavy approach and shift to a more analytics-based pass-heavy attack.

Next. Are we undervaluing Byron Jones and the CB position?. dark

Recent events may lead to an Ezekeil Elliott suspension. But that doesn’t have to hurt the performance of the team. If the Dallas Cowboys adapts to what the numbers have been telling us., they may even be better off in the end.

  • Published on 05/21/2019 at 12:08 PM
  • Last updated at 05/21/2019 at 13:09 PM