Dallas Cowboys: Would you rather three 1k WRs or 1.5k for Zeke?

Ezekiel Elliott #21 (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)
Ezekiel Elliott #21 (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images) /

Let’s play a little Dallas Cowboys ‘would you rather’, shall we…

We’re less than a week away from the Dallas Cowboys 2020 season opener which means it’s time to set some goals and expectations. To Cowboys fans, it’s a time where we set benchmarks for specific players that are indicative of a winning team.

Defensive interceptions, passing totals, rushing totals, TD:INT ratios are just some of the stats fans are marking as key performance indicators (KPIs) of a successful team. Today we look at two of those KPIs and decide which is more important.

Dallas Cowboys Would You Rather

WYR: Three 1,000 yard receivers or 1,500 rushing yards for Zeke?

This was the question we recently posed on Twitter and the responses were a little surprising. For years we’ve been trying to debunk the idea that reaching a certain threshold in rushing somehow leads to victory. And it seems that hard work is starting to pay off…

High rushing totals do not lead to wins

Being ahead on the scoreboard leads to more more running. Running the ball does not lead to being ahead on the scoreboard.

We’ve all heard it from all over the NFL world: “Teams that run the ball 20+ times win 75% of their games!” This dangerously incorrect take confuses correlation with causation. As the numbers overwhelming show, being ahead on the scoreboard leads to more more running. Running the ball does not lead to being ahead on the scoreboard. That’s an important distinction to make.

Passing is King

For years I’ve been championing the importance of the passing game. Year after year the passing game consistently offers more in expected points than the running game, yet year after year fans and media alike preach the merits of a run-first mentality and a balanced run/pass approach.

On the Dallas Cowboys specifically, this completely ignores the fact Dallas was 4x more profitable in expected points added, throwing the ball than they were rushing the ball. In fact, last season Dallas had a negative EPA on first down runs, meaning they hurt the team more than helped the team when they handed the ball off on first down.

So when the results of the poll started showing an appreciation for the passing game, I was immediately overjoyed. People preferred the idea of having three receivers tally 1,000 yards each, more than the idea of having an NFL rushing leader! We’ve come a long way Cowboys fans.


As discussed in the first section, big rushing totals don’t lead to winning – but there is a correlation. That’s why we could look at the numbers after the game and reasonably conclude if the Dallas Cowboys won or lost based on Ezekiel Elliott’s totals.

For instance:

  • Game A we see Zeke ran for 110 yards on 27 carries
  • Game B we see Zeke ran for 75 yards on 13 carries.

Game A he only averaged 4.07 yards per carry while Game B he averaged 5.8 ypc. We have to ask “If Zeke was running for nearly 6 ypc why did he only have 13 carries? Probably because the Cowboys were behind on the scoreboard and they needed to air it out to catch up.

In the same way we look at Game A’s lack of success. Here we ask – “with a ypc below his career average, why did the Dallas Cowboys keep feeding him the rock?” Probably because they had a comfortable lead and were just trying to kill the clock, right? Game B was the more efficient performance but Game A was more likely in a winning effort.

Numbers without context don’t mean much

The takeaway is that numbers without context don’t mean much. There’s nuance in these types of benchmarks that we need to consider. The poll itself was a bit of a trick question. It was designed to spark conversation regarding players stats and their meaning.

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I’d say if Zeke finished the season with 1.5k yards on the ground it likely meant good things for the Dallas Cowboys. Mike McCarthy is a pass-first coach and if Zeke did this well it probably meant Dallas played with a lot of leads.

Now, if I saw that total on a Jason Garrett team I’d be much more uneasy. Despite having a top rated offense last season Dallas was near the bottom of the league on first downs. That’s because they inexplicably ran the ball often on first down.

This illustrates it’s not how many yards you gain, but rather how you get those yards. If half of Zeke’s yards come on first downs in the first three quarters of games, then that means very bad things for the Cowboys. If most of his yards come in the second half then that indicates Dallas is winning games.

Related Story. Do the Cowboys need Zeke to win?. light

Next. The Cowboys must fix first downs in 2020. dark

Before setting goals and expectations think about what you’re really trying to achieve and why correlation doesn’t always mean causation.  It makes all the difference.

  • Published on 09/09/2020 at 11:39 AM
  • Last updated at 09/10/2020 at 08:26 AM