Dallas Cowboys: How Ezekiel Elliott became the new Tyrone Crawford

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports /

It’s clear Ezekiel Elliott is not living up to his contract with the Dallas Cowboys

Tyrone Crawford has had a tough career with the Dallas Cowboys fanbase. The highly paid defensive lineman has never quite reached the expectations of his contract (at least from a statistical point of view), and fair or not, fans never forgave him for it.

Finally in the final year of his contract, Crawford’s tenure in Dallas is almost over, and Cowboys Nation is turning their attention to a new man falling short of his big contract expectations: Ezekiel Elliott.

In the 2019 offseason, two years before they needed to, the Dallas Cowboys signed Ezekiel Elliott to a mammoth six-year, $90 million extension. At a time they should have been locking up the most valuable position in football, they were needlessly re-signing one of the most easily replaceable positions in football.

But it’s not just about poor allocation of resources and irresponsibly premature commitments. It’s about not living up to contract expectations. Fans are rarely concerned with contract amounts if the player is performing. It’s when the player’s performance dips, when fans start to bemoan the money.

And underperform, Zeke is…

Ezekiel Elliott isn’t just struggling to live up to the standard of being one of the highest paid running backs in football. He’s struggling to just stay on the right side of the NFL Mendoza line (He’s 46th in yards per carry and 49th in yards per touch).

Tony Pollard has been running behind the same offensive line for two years and he’s producing a higher EPA, higher YPC, better elusive rating, more YAC, all at about 10 percent of the cost.

Every year Zeke has been in the league his rushing yards have decreased: From 108.7, 98.3, 95.6, 84.8 to 64 yards per game here in 2020, his production has dipped. While one can argue rushing yards are a product of opportunities and NOT proof a running back is (or isn’t) good at their job, but it’s important to illustrate he’s not just declining statistically, but the Cowboys are relying on him less.

You could argue Zeke’s still accomplishing something since he’s on pace for a 1,000 yard season behind a very dysfunctional line. But since Zeke currently has a rushing success rate below 50% with negative EPA, is that really a good thing?

Expected points added, which measures how helpful or how harmful a given play was, is alarmingly low when Zeke’s handed the ball. His season total of -35.6 points is 185th in the league and a clear indication his runs have hurt the team far more than they’ve helped the team.

As Troy Aikman recently said,

"“He doesn’t have the same kind of burst…what I see is just not the same acceleration through the hole as I once saw. If that’s because of injury, if that’s because of just the wear and tear on his body over the course of his career, I really don’t know.”"

The numbers support Aikman’s observations. Zeke isn’t delivering the same explosiveness he used to. Like his rushing totals and yards per carry, his explosive plays have also been on the decline each year. For the year, Elliott only has three breakaway runs (+15 yards) which is 41st in the NFL. His breakaway run rate is at 1.4% (55th in the NFL). Running lane or not, he’s basically 3 yards and a cloud of dust.

And my friends, it’s not because teams fear Zeke and are stacking the box to stop him. According to player profiler, the average number of defenders in the box facing him this season is 6.4. That’s 60th in the NFL. Teams fear back-ups more than they fear Zeke.

While an argument can be made he’s just a product of his offensive line and it’s not his fault that he’s playing poorly this season, I’d agree – in some part. The fact that replacement running backs routinely produce the same as the starter they’re replacing, tells you specific running backs rarely matter and paying large sums of money to a replaceable part is insane.

But in 211 carries, Zeke has six fumbles and only 11 broken tackles. His rushing yards after contact are also low this year – all of which falls on him and not the offensive line.

And keep in mind, Tony Pollard has been running behind the same offensive line for two years and he’s producing a higher expected points added per play, higher yards per carry, better elusive rating, more yards after contact per play, all at about 10 percent of the cost.

No, Pollard probably couldn’t carry the load like Zeke and handle 20+ carries per game – But is Zeke really “handling it?”

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Some will point to Jaylon Smith’s or DeMarcus Lawrence’s  contract as worse, but those pale in comparison to Zeke’s albatross of a contract. The Dallas Cowboys could get out from Jaylon’s deal as early as this offseason if they wanted to. He’s playing slightly better recently so they’ll probably give him one more season before they consider doing such a thing.

And Lawrence has actually been playing quite brilliantly this year. His sack totals aren’t high but overall grades are top-5 and pass rushers are ultimately paid for pressures – not sacks. It’s fans that are so hung up on sacks.

Ezekiel Elliott has taken the role of “most underachieving player for the money” this season and it’s really not even close. The offensive line deserves blame for their deficiencies but Zeke hasn’t done a thing to help the situation and in metrics that measure individual performance, he’s largely in the bottom half of the league.

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In Defense of Crawford: Despite the constant criticism, Craw served a vital role on the Dallas Cowboys over the years. His leadership and versatility made him the second best linemen most years and unlike a certain running back, he was pretty darn irreplaceable.