This may surprise some folks but the Dallas Cowboys top pass-catcher in 2018 was the one of the team’s least effective pass-catchers and here’s why…
Many expectations are being thrust upon Dallas Cowboys’ first-year offensive coordinator, Kellen Moore. From adding more pre-snap motion, to employing more creative packages, to increasing early down passing, to less overall transparency, Cowboys Nation is demanding a lot.
One item many are overlooking is regarding one of the most used (and least effective) weapons in the passing game: Ezekiel Elliott.
To revisit our end of season analysis of the offense, check out: What worked and didn’t work for the Cowboys offense in ‘18.
With 77 receptions last season, Ezekiel Elliott was the Dallas Cowboys’ top pass-catcher. Yet, despite leading the team in both targets and receptions, Zeke was one of the least effective weapons.
How could that possibly be, many ask. The guy’s the best player on the team. He racked up 567 yards through the air and added three receiving touchdowns. How is that anywhere close to ineffective?
Because quantity does not equal quality. We hear that all the time – we all understand it – but for some reason we’re quick to ignore “quality” when talking statistics in sports.
Consider this: if Player A finishes a game with seven receptions for 87 yards, we’re inclined to call that a good receiving day. Just like if Player B finishes a game with two receptions for 17 yards, we’re inclined to call it a poor receiving day.
Calling Zeke’s contributions in the passing game ineffective isn’t an opinion; it’s a conclusion based on facts and probability
But what if every one of those receptions Player A made was a check-down on third down and only one of them resulted in a first down? And what if that lone catch for a first down occurred as time expired in the second half and never came close to putting the team in position to score?
Now what if Player B extended drives on both of his receptions, converted third downs and moved his team into enemy territory? Suddenly the second player looks considerably more effective, right? That’s because it’s numbers with context – a necessary additive to any sports stat.
It’s that context that lets us make the bold statement, the Dallas Cowboys top pass-catcher was also one of the least effective. It’s that context that drives “expected points” and puts values on every play.
Calling Zeke’s contributions in the passing game ineffective isn’t an opinion; it’s a conclusion based on facts and probability (He finished with a negative EPA receiving). Again, check out the linked article above for further explanation.
It’s important to point out, this is no indictment on Zeke. He’s the last one to blame. It’s really about how we use Zeke that’s the problem, and correcting that will come down to the offensive coordinator and signal caller.
How Zeke was (mis)used
Harken back to 2018, if you will. How often did you see Zeke running routes? How many times did you see him motion out, run a pattern behind the sticks, and become a legitimate target downfield? Not very often, right?
That’s because the average depth of target for Elliott was zero. Yes. Zero. Zeke’s average catch point was the line of scrimmage. That’s a tough place to be effective especially when it’s without blocking, late in the play, as a check down, on third down.
I mean, how much do we expect Zeke to accomplish in expected points if we’re throwing him the ball at or behind the line of scrimmage 90 percent of the time? Frankly, it’s amazing he’s found the kind of success he has, considering the circumstances.
A check down to Zeke on 3rd and long may be technically better than nothing but it’s essentially the short yardage equivalent of a Hail Mary. Throwing to the line of scrimmage on 3rd and long is a low percentage play that basically concedes the drive. Throwing to Zeke on any down late in a play a poor way to improve a team’s situation.
How to improve
I’m not going to pretend the answer to this problem is obvious or simple, because it’s neither. Zeke is getting the ball a lot because better options downfield have failed and giving it to Zeke as a checkdown seems like it’s better than nothing.
But if the vast majority of passes to Zeke provide negative EPA, wouldn’t he better served doing something different? How about those times Dallas keeps a TE back to help pass-protect. Let’s have that TE run a route downfield instead. Zeke, arguably the best pass-protecting RB in the NFL, can surely pick up the slack protecting Dak Prescott.
How about instead of drifting off as a checkdown option, Zeke runs a delayed route – downfield. It will give Dak a late option once he’s already moved through his regular progressions.
The Negative Impact
Admittedly, there’s a negative impact of moving Zeke away from being the primarily checkdown option. Since he’d no longer be there as an emergency safety value for Dak, Dak would be forced to throw more passes away, take more sacks, and even throw into coverage more often.
The numbers say throwing downfield, risks and all, are more worthwhile than playing is safe and checking down to Zeke.
But even factoring in all of the negative consequences and rate in which they occur, it’s still a net gain in EPA if Dak can convert just a few of these plays. Heck, Dak could perform at a below average rate and it’d still be preferable over checkdowns, when all is said and done. That’s because the benefits of downfield passing far outweigh the consequences.
It’s not Zeke’s fault that he’s the ultimate crutch. He can turn nothing into something on any given play so the temptation to dump it off to him is too great to ignore. Removing such an option occasionally, Dak would be inclined to look downfield a fraction longer.
Staying in the pocket just a fraction longer may increase the chances for worse play, but it also gives the team the best hope at actually having a successful play. Again, the vast majority of those checkdowns to Zeke were negative EPA plays anyway, so we’re really only talking about a marginally longer punt.
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It’s also important to point out the difference between a designed screen (that’s also behind the line of scrimmage) and a checkdown. Screens are designed plays with blockers. Dallas has found great success in designed screen plays to Zeke. Designed plays are completely different from checkdowns.
Dak Prescott finished the 2018 season as the 22nd ranked passer in EPA per pass attempt. That essentially tells us he was below league average in delivering worthwhile passes. Much of that can be pinned on the high frequency he targets Zeke because passes to Zeke undeniably pull down his average (his sacks also did him a disservice).
The numbers say throwing downfield, risks and all, are more worthwhile than playing is safe and checking down to Zeke. Based on the facts of last season the Dallas Cowboys leading receiver was also their most ineffective. It’s not the pass-catchers fault, it’s the Cowboys’.
- Published on 06/28/2019 at 12:00 PM
- Last updated at 06/26/2019 at 14:40 PM