Dallas Cowboys: Respect Zeke’s name, but not his cited stats

Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images) /

Dallas Cowboys star RB, Ezekiel Elliot, took to twitter last week demanding respect

In “I respect your point, but not your arguments for that point” fashion, we should all put some respect on Ezekiel Elliott’s name. Responding to critics, the recently maligned Dallas Cowboys running back posted a string of statements on Twitter calling out critics and offering proof to the contrary.

Unfortunately that “proof” was nothing more than the same old tired argument that confuses quantitative value with qualitative value.

It’s nothing new for people to misunderstand and misuse statistics. The fact a football player did isn’t surprising since we see so called “experts” do the same thing on television nearly every day. But the prevalence of the offence doesn’t make it any more acceptable because it just perpetuates the problem.

In Zeke’s thread he cites his rushing totals as his primary argument to be respected. But all high yardage totals prove is a player had a ton of opportunities. It says little about how good that player actually played. Zeke has the best totals since 2016 largely because he’s had over 130 more carries than his closest challenger. Go down the list each year and you can see totals are directly linked to opportunities.

Look, a running back could rush for 100 yards per game over the course of a season, easily win the rushing title with 1,600 yards, and it would still mean little about the quality of his play. What if he averaged 30 carries per game (that’s 3 YPC) ? What if he played behind the best O-line in football (didn’t break or elude tacklers)? What if he just had more opportunities and better opportunities than everyone else?

When we use rushing totals (weekly or yearly) we’re only really speaking to his volume since hefty totals are inevitably linked to heavy workloads. This applies to the passing game as well. High passing totals say nothing about the context in which the yards were collected. Throwing for seven yards on 3rd and 10 is much easier than throwing for five yards on 4th and 4.

When Zeke’s primary argument to his greatness is that he gets fed the ball, it should be a red flag to anyone looking for his qualitative value. Sure, we can deduce a player wouldn’t post enormous totals if he was bad at his job, but who actually thinks Zeke is bad? Just to be given those opportunities you have to be a good running back. What it doesn’t speak to is how good that running back played. And that’s were so many people, including Zeke, get mixed up.

In Zeke’s case, he’s expected to post enormous totals. He’s been fed the ball on early downs, the Dallas Cowboys have the 3rd best offensive line in the NFL, and Zeke is basically given 4.1 yards per carry from that line before he’s ever asked to anything but follow the blocks.

Looking at Next Gen Stats we see offensive lines set the expectation for yards (each team is different since each team has different O-lines) and Ezekiel Elliott ranked 12th in the NFL in rushing yards above expectations. This measurement of quality combines film review with data and gives us the best of both worlds (analytics + film = the truth). It’s a young and generally unvetted form of measurement but it does a much better job of proving quality of play than that of rushing totals.

Does that mean Zeke’s just the 12th best RB in the NFL? Of course not. All carries are not created equal and a converted short yardage carry is considerably more valuable than your average carry above expectation.

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Zeke also holds enormous value in his ability to stay on the field. He has no weakness to his game and keeps opponents guessing. Think about it – when a team with a platoon of RBs brings in their best pass protector/ top receiving RB, you expect them to pass. When a team brings in their bruiser you expect a run between the tackles. When they bring in their change-of-pace guy you watch for runs to the outside. And so on and so on. You don’t know what to expect when Zeke’s on the field.

When Zeke tried to make his argument as to why we should put respect on his name he should have made his case with his success rate. Or with his elusively rating. Or yards after contact. Those speak to his actual ability to perform.

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Put some respect on his name because he’s clearly a good running back, just don’t respect his argument as to why, because totals don’t speak to greatness, only opportunity.

  • Published on 07/24/2020 at 11:01 AM
  • Last updated at 07/24/2020 at 10:42 AM