Ezekiel Elliott’s success is an indictment against the Dallas Cowboys

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - JANUARY 05: Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TEXAS - JANUARY 05: Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) /

Ezekiel Elliott’s impressive resume is a sight to behold but that may actually be an indictment on the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive philosophy and something to fix – not flaunt.

There are a lot of hot takes surrounding Ezekiel Elliott and his importance on the Dallas Cowboys. Twitter has been on fire with these takes and those that dare question Zeke’s value have been summarily drowned in cumulative statistics and vast lists of Zeke’s wide range of accomplishments.

His resume is impressive, to be sure. But instead of quieting the Zeke naysayers, his resume just illustrates a bigger problem. A problem with the Dallas Cowboys. Zeke’s personal workload amongst his Dallas Cowboys running back peers isn’t really a problem, but the sheer volume of plays dedicated to the running game is the problem.


Since Ezekiel Elliott entered the league in 2016, he’s been arguably the most accomplished running back in the NFL. Even with his six game suspension in 2017, Zeke has been the most productive back over the past three seasons.

This is especially impressive given the volume of elite running backs he’s competing against. Players like Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson, and Saquon Barkley have all been considered to be at, or even above, Zeke’s talent level at some point over the past three seasons. Yet none of them have provided the level of production.

Granted, Bell sat out an entire season, Johnson was lost for over a season, Barkley is just in his second year, and Gurley has a degenerative knee issue to deal with – Zeke’s cumulative numbers are impressive nonetheless.

Simply put, average players can’t do what Zeke has done.

Quality vs Quantity

The problem with Zeke’s stats are twofold:

  1. Based on historical data, passing attacks are overwhelmingly more effective in adding expected points than running the ball. Dedicating so many snaps to the running game steal those fruitful opportunities and limit the overall ceiling of an offense.
  2. Cumulative stats like rushing totals, receiving totals, touchdowns, etc.… speak to the quantity of opportunities rather than the quality of play. Just because a running back led the NFL in rushing doesn’t mean he’s the best. It just means he had more opportunities.

Advanced stats brought the devaluation of the running back position because they finally defined quality. 20 carries for 100 yards looks fine on paper but without context we have no idea how successful the running game really was.

Passing Game > Running Game

Defining what makes a play successful or not depends on the person and his/her preferred metric. Some prefer expected points added (if a play increased the offense’s expected points, the play has improved the offense’s chances of scoring and left them in a better situation than before). Others like Football Perspectives and NextGenStats deem a successful play on the down, distance, and percentage of yardage gained (like 40% on first down, 75% on second down, 100% on third down).

Whatever metric you prefer, you quickly discover how much more fruitful the passing game is to the running game – even when you factor in incompletions, sacks and interceptions. The passing game is head and shoulders better than the running game (and yes, my Dak hating friends, this holds true even when you have a below average QB and an elite RB).

Whatever metric you prefer, you quickly discover how much more fruitful the passing game is to the running game – even when you factor in incompletions, sacks and interceptions.

According to Cowboys Stats & Graphics, on early downs, when the win probability is between 25% and 75% the Dallas Cowboys passing attack had a 49% success rate with +0.16 EPA per play. Their rushing attack had a 41% success rate with a +0.02 EPA per play. Those numbers aren’t debatable. The rushing attack was a fraction of what the passing attack was last season and it’s not even close.

And that’s why the call for a “balanced attack” is so laughable. Given what we know now, the balance should probably start at a 75/25 split between passing game and running game. To see Zeke’s rushing totals speaks to the archaic philosophy the Dallas Cowboys have been following, and next to nothing about how good Zeke is/isn’t.

The problem isn’t Ezekiel Elliott, it’s the role he’s asked to play. Even as a pass-catcher Zeke was one of the least effective targets on the team (He finished the season with a negative EPA). That’s not something you want to hear about your leading receiver from 2018.

Related Story. How the Cowboys top pass catcher was also their most ineffective. light

The Dallas Cowboys are leaning on the running game far too much. And since Zeke represents roughly 90% of the Dallas rushing attack, he’s the one getting the most blame. But it really shouldn’t be on Zeke. It should be on how he’s used and the position he plays. Running the ball into eight man fronts and catching the ball at or behind the line of scrimmage on third downs is not the situation players typical excel in.

Yet, it’s what the Cowboys keep asking him to do:

Next. What EPA tells us about the Dallas Cowboys offense. dark

Ezekiel Elliott’s resume is extremely impressive but it doesn’t necessarily speak to his greatness. If anything, it speaks to the Dallas Cowboys outdated approach on offense and/or their apprehension towards trusting Dak and the passing game.

  • Published on 07/18/2019 at 11:01 AM
  • Last updated at 07/18/2019 at 13:09 PM