Dallas Cowboys: Do we really want more passes to Pollard and Zeke?

Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)
Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images) /

Between Ezekiel Elliott dropping weight to increase explosiveness, to Tony Pollard taking snaps as a slot receiver, Cowboys Nation has been abuzz with exciting new possibilities in 2021. The Dallas Cowboys fixed many of their issues on defense this offseason and perhaps by expanding how they utilize their running backs, they could take their offense to a new level as well.

At face value, getting the ball into some of your best playmakers’ hands seems like a good strategy. But as you and I know, face value isn’t always reality and increasing the number of targets to Zeke and Pollard may actually be a bad thing.

The Dallas Cowboys need to realize their running backs are their least efficient passing targets.

Yardage alone tells us the Dallas Cowboys are better served throwing the ball to their receivers. The top-3 WRs here pull in nearly twice as many yards per target (which accounts for completion percentage) and running backs even take a backseat to tight ends in regards to yards/target.

All pass completions are not created equal just like all yardage isn’t created equal. Some are hugely beneficial to the offense and others barely move the needle. Heck, as we’ll soon see, some are even counterproductive and straight-up harmful to an offense’s scoring chances.

Grading which passing plays are positive and which are negative isn’t always easy to do. Luckily for us we have EPA to help us valuate these plays

For the past few years the Dallas Cowboys WRs have vastly outscored the Dallas RBs in yards/target and EPA/play.

Expected points added (EPA) measures the degree in which you’ve helped (shown by a positive number) or hurt (negative number) the team’s scoring chances on a given play, within the context of the game (down, distance, etc…). It adds the context of a situation rather just raw data you see in a stat column.

For instance: If a receiver catches a ball for six yards on a 4th and 7 play, that play was unsuccessful and actually harmed the offenses chances of scoring. Just like a catch for three yards on a 4th and 2 play is successful since it extended the drive and helped the offense’s scoring chances. In the stat column, the six yard play looks better, but in reality, the three yard play was far more fruitful and should be graded as such.

That’s why we use EPA. It tells the real story.

As is common in the NFL, the Dallas Cowboys receivers outperform running backs more often than not. In fact, Ezekiel Elliott only posted a positive receiving EPA in 10 games last season. Those other games, he logged a negative EPA, meaning he hurt the team when he caught the ball.

For those thinking Tony Pollard is better, think again. Pollard only had six games with a positive pass-catching EPA. None of this is abnormal either. For the past few years the Dallas Cowboys WRs have vastly outscored the Dallas RBs in yards/target and EPA/play.

Across the league, WRs and TEs consistently outperform RBs in yards/target and receiving EPA. Even the best pass catching RBs in the NFL (Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara) pale in comparison to a normal starting NFL WR in EPA/play.

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What about lining Tony Pollard up in the slot?

Reports from mini-camp were that Tony Pollard was seeing time inside at the slot. Part of that was a result of a numbers crunch at WR and a simple solution to the multiple WR absences, but it was also an example of how Kellen Moore can create mismatches and get both of his star RBs on the field at the same time.

Based on last year, Pollard took 58 snaps at receiver already. Therefore, it’s not exactly groundbreaking to use him in that regard again in 2021. But should they?

It stands to reason, if Pollard or Zeke run routes as a receiver they’ll see an increase in their yards/target as well as EPA. And for the most part that proves correct since their average depth of target increases as a slot receiver. But looking at the numbers below, the Dallas Cowboys would still be better off throwing the ball to their WRs or TEs…

Not all passes to RBs are bad

It’s important to point out, not all passes to running backs are bad. A well designed screen pass can be a thing of beauty. Not only can it pick up valuable yards, but it can slow down a hyper aggressive pass rush and offer up hidden benefits down the line.

A pass to a running back can also serve as a last ditch effort to salvage a play. If the receivers can’t get open and the pocket is closing, a dump off to a RB is better than a reckless heave-ho downfield or taking a sack, or even a throw out of bounds. It gives the play a chance when all other options have been exhausted.

So the takeaway is this – the Dallas Cowboys don’t need to concoct ways to throw more balls to their RBs. Passes to WRs and TEs are much more fruitful and RBs passes should be called sparingly.  But a screen call here or there still has a place.  And as a last resort, passes to Zeke and Pollard are certainly better than nothing.

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We shouldn’t want the Dallas Cowboys to throw more balls to Ezekiel Elliott or Tony Pollard. They offer much less in yards and expected points than Coop, Gallup, Lamb, Schultz, and Jarwin, and they should be targeted accordingly.

  • Published on 06/15/2021 at 11:01 AM
  • Last updated at 06/15/2021 at 11:16 AM