Why the Dallas Cowboys can win without Ezekiel Elliott

Here’s why the Dallas Cowboys can win in 2019, even if Ezekiel Elliott’s holdout continues and Dak Prescott is forced to do it without him.

Ezekiel Elliott has drawn a line in the sand. Unless he’s been given a new contract that’s satisfactory to him, he will not be playing football for the Dallas Cowboys.

It’s hard to argue that Ezekiel Elliott is anything but the locomotive on this Dallas Cowboys train. Over the past three seasons, he’s led the NFL in rushing attempts, rushing yards, and total touches. He even led the Dallas Cowboys offense in receptions last season. Zeke hasn’t just been a MVP candidate for his team, but for the entire NFL.

So when Zeke threatens to holdout into the regular season, people obviously take notice and adjust team expectations accordingly. But is that fair? Do the Dallas Cowboys suddenly face long odds now that No. 21 is staying home? Can Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys win without their locomotive?

At first glance, this situation is reminiscent of Emmitt Smith’s infamous holdout. Coming off a repeat rushing titles and a Super Bowl victory, Smith asked for the sun, moon , and stars. Team Owner Jerry Jones called his bluff, and rolled into the regular season sans his team MVP. That 1993 Dallas Cowboys team went on to lose the first two games, leading Jones to blink, and Smith to a payday.

Last season, the Cowboys maligned passing game provided 8x the production than that of their heralded running game.

But these are not yesterday’s Dallas Cowboys. This is not the running game rich 90’s nor is it the defending champs. Like Emmitt, Zeke seems like a helluva back, but the game has changed and NFL now highly favors the passing game. The stakes aren’t as high either. Dallas is not the defending NFL champs. They only won one playoff game in 2018. They don’t have proof that their ingredients and their recipe are blue-ribbon caliber.

Dak without Zeke

Something we discussed last week when going through the Dallas Cowboys offseason priorities is that Dak without Zeke is actually pretty damn good. Many Dak-deniers like to point out Prescott’s lack of success without Zeke in the lineup, bringing up that horrendous stretch Prescott had during Zeke’s suspension in 2017.

But what they fail to point out is Tyron Smith was also out during some of that same stretch. And things didn’t get better for Dak until Tyron came back – not Zeke. They also fail to acknowledge Dak is 4-0 over the last four games Zeke has missed, and in those Zeke-less games the Dallas Cowboys offense actually improved in their points production, averaging 31 point per game without Zeke (that would have made them the third highest scoring offense in the NFL last season).

The reason for that is simple…

Passing is King

Passing produced more points per attempt than rushing. Analytics tell us what our expected points are at any point of the game based on down, distance, and time. It tells us on early downs, the Dallas Cowboys average .16 expected points per passing attempt and .02 expected points per rushing attempt (per Cowboys Stats and Graphics).

In other words, the Cowboys maligned passing game provided 8x the production than that of their heralded running game. Let that sink in.

Handing the ball off to Zeke as many times as the Dallas Cowboys do, steals opportunities from the passing game and limits the ceiling (and lowers the floor) of the offense overall. It can drain the clock, sure, but if it doesn’t convert for first downs or score points (two things rushing the ball has a statistical disadvantage in achieving), it really saves more clock for the opponents, rather than burn it.

As we discussed last season, rushing the ball doesn’t limit possessions at all. Converting and moving the ball does. Doing what works best (passing) is what really limits possessions. If rushing the ball is reserved for short yardage situations and times when a defense is spread out and deep, EPA will likely rise in both areas of the game.

Not a simple replacement

Something I’ll dive into more in coming days/weeks is that finding success without Zeke is not as simple as plugging someone like Alfred Morris or Tony Pollard into Zeke’s role. The role has to change. Zeke’s too good to be seamlessly replaced.

The Dallas Cowboys know this too. That’s why they ran their offense considerably different in those four wins without Zeke.

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Next: A Deeper Look at Dallas' RB Stable Behind Zeke

The Dallas Cowboys may be without Zeke for a portion (or more) of this season but they’ve proven they can win without him. In fact, no Zeke means a more potent offense because it means less poor-producing running plays and more fruitful passes downfield.

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