Dallas Cowboys: Ezekiel Elliott sees the workhorse running back is dead

Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports
Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports /

This offseason, Ezekiel Elliott has rightly prioritized explosiveness over durability. The noticeably svelte Dallas Cowboys running back is moving quicker and looking more explosive. When speaking on the subject of Zeke earlier this summer, Dak Prescott had this to say “He’s in the best shape of his career.”

Statements like this are made about some guy, on every single NFL team, every single summer. In what’s the ultimate offseason cliché, “best shape of my career” usually amounts to something between “nothing” and “jack squat.”

But in Zeke’s case, it appears to be true. He really does look lean and mean. That’s good news for anyone who’s grown tired of Zeke’s plodding ways. What it also speaks to is the sixth-year running back is finally focusing on the right things for the Dallas Cowboys.

Ezekiel Elliott is wise to prioritize explosiveness this year because, for the Dallas Cowboys, durability is a low-value trait at RB.

That last sentence may be catching some of you off-guard and even a little puzzled. One of Ezekiel Elliott’s best traits over the years has been his ability to stay healthy. If it wasn’t for a suspension and a meaningless game, Zeke probably would have only missed one game as a pro. But this isn’t about his ability to stay healthy, it’s about his ability to be a workhorse (aka bell cow) and how that matters very little at this point. Especially not with such a fine running back working behind him.

Built like a truck, Zeke has been the prototypical workhorse at RB. The former Pro Bowler has built a reputation on his durability and availably. And while his explosiveness has dropped year over year, his durability has remained strong.

The O-line impacted the volume stats but Zeke’s bad year had more to do with him than the guys in front of him. He earned his ridicule.

But coming off the worst season of his career, Zeke appears to have finally seen the light. Without an All-Star offensive line working in front of him, Zeke struggled to even look average last season. Such is the argument as to why “running backs don’t matter”. They’re too much at the mercy of the big guys in front of them.

But what became the real indictment against Zeke was how Tony Pollard performed right next to him running behind the exact same offensive line. Pollard outperformed Zeke in nearly all efficiency stats including yards created per touch and juke rate.

According to Pro Football Focus Zeke was just 21st in the NFL in missed tackles forced per attempt, 28th in yards after contact per attempt, and 43rd in stuff rate. He had a net loss in expected points (he hurt the team more than helped the team when he touched the ball) as opposed to Pollard who clocked a positive EPA for the season.

Some will argue teams feared Zeke more, so his yards were more well-earned, but the numbers just don’t support that narrative either. Tony Pollard actually played against more men in the box last year, facing an average of 6.75 defenders while Zeke saw just 6.5. To put it another way, 59 players in the NFL faced more men in the box per snap than Zeke did last year, so the idea teams fear him just doesn’t bear out.

Tony Pollard’s breakaway run rate (5%) was over three times more than Ezekiel Elliott (1.5%) last year and again, that’s with more men in the box for Pollard. For his career Pollard tied for the NFL best in yards after contact average (4.0) and best broken tackle rate (0.25). I’ll remind you, they played behind the same cruddy offensive line…

Pollard outperformed Zeke is just about every major category that the running back himself can control. Zeke got the volume stats but those don’t mean a thing. Those are counting stats for casuals (as they say), not the numbers educated NFL fans/players/coaches follow. The O-line impacted the volume stats but Zeke’s bad year had more to do with him than the guys in front of him. He earned his ridicule.

So Zeke dedicated himself in the offseason. Perhaps driven by public scrutiny, Zeke entered camp in noticeably svelte shape and has possibly regained that explosiveness Cowboys Nation hasn’t seen since his rookie season.

The workhorse running back is dead. There’s a clear emphasis on quality of yards over the quantity of yards these days and Zeke knows it.

As we’ve discussed in the past, the Dallas Cowboys don’t need a workhorse running back. They have two guys who can run the ball and complement this passing offense. Some will say a pass-first offense is a mistake and point to how run-heavy teams win more often than pass-heavy teams. But those are the same people who don’t understand the numbers and the meaning behind them.

As we know, when a team is leading on the scoreboard, they’re more likely to start running the ball more. Just like teams that are playing catch-up need to pass the ball more. Passing leads to points while running kills the clock (although it doesn’t kill the clock as much as you’d expect).

We also know teams are more successful passing the ball on early downs than running the ball. Over the past few years the Dallas Cowboys have produced 4x as many expected points on early-down passing plays than running plays. And they’ve had a higher success rate as well. In fact, Zeke has been more likely to hurt the team on early down runs than help the team. Let that sink in.

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So the Dallas Cowboys don’t need a durable back that can produce three yards and a cloud of dust 15-20 times per game. 3-4 yard runs hurt the team, they don’t help the team.

The Dallas Cowboys need an explosive back that can break off long runs and they need a reliable short yardage guy who can convert those high leverage situations. The awesome thing is – Zeke can be both of those men if he just dedicates himself. And it appears he has.

The workhorse running back is dead. There’s a clear emphasis on quality of yards over the quantity of yards these days and Zeke knows it. Hopefully he and Pollard can combine to form a nice complementary duo in 2021.

Must Read. Do other teams still fear Zeke?. light

Next. Cowboys: Is a pass-first attack wise?. dark

That’s why it’s so good to hear and see that Ezekiel Elliott is in such great shape. He’s clearly taken notice.

  • Published on 08/16/2021 at 16:03 PM
  • Last updated at 08/16/2021 at 16:12 PM