Dallas Cowboys: Should the offense feed Zeke in 2021?

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports /

Ezekiel Elliott arrived at Cowboys Camp this summer in noticeably good shape. Coming off his worst season as a pro, he changed his approach to the game. Instead of sturdiness, he focused on explosiveness, and the Dallas Cowboys offense will clearly be better off for it.

The question entering Week One is what the offensive identity should be for this football team. Should they be an air-it-out club we saw briefly last year or should they be the hard-nosed run-based attack that we saw have so much success back in 2016?

With Ezekiel Elliott in great shape and Dak Prescott coming back from injury, should the Dallas Cowboys be committed to feed Zeke?

This question (and versions of this question) is something we’ve discussed multiple times this offseason already. And with Zack Martin out early, La’el Collins’ health possibly a season-long concern, and Dak Prescott’s arm somewhat unproven, it seems like a good question to ask again now – just days away from the season opener in Tampa.

Should “Feed Zeke” be the mentality of this offense in 2021?

Before we answer that, let’s look at how effective the run game can be. In 2019, Zeke and Tony Pollard combined to tally 1812 yards on 387 carries, averaging 24 runs/game for 4.68 yards/carry. That season they were one of the better teams in the league on the ground and they have Ezekiel Elliott and their mostly healthy offensive line to thank for that.

But to add the proper perspective to that, the Dallas Cowboys run attack produced a success rate of 43 percent on the ground for an average expected points added of -0.017. The raw numbers looked impressive but once we add context it’s not so wonderful.

Success rate: A play that successfully increased the offenses chances of scoring points is a successful play

Expected points added (or EPA): The degree in which said play increased (or decreased if the number is negative) the offense’s chance of scoring.

Comparatively the passing attack posted a total of 4902 yards through the air as Dak Prescott threw his way to No. 2 in the NFL in yards and 4th in QBR (arguably the best QB metric that’s widely accepted). The passing game operated with a 48.7 success rate and produced an average EPA of 0.192.

Since Zeke and Dak have played together, the passing game has roughly been 4x more fruitful than the running game (in EPA adjusted for non-blowout situations).

So side by side we can see the passing game was almost 6 percent better in success rate and .209 better in EPA (remember, the run play EPA was actually a negative number). 2019 wasn’t singled out for its uniqueness either. Since Zeke and Dak have played together, the passing game has roughly been 4x more fruitful than the running game (in EPA adjusted for non-blowout situations).

All things being equal and all players being healthy, it’s really a no brainer on what the identity of this offense should be. The passing game is far more helpful to the team than the running game. And that isn’t unique to Dallas, it extends league-wide too. Only two teams last year were better on the ground than they were through the air and both of those teams had highly unattractive QB issues on their hands (WASH and NE).

As we mentioned above, the uncertain status of the offensive line threatens to throw a wrench in plans for Dak’s comeback. So with the O-line at less than 100%, should Dallas use the ground game to protect Dak and lean on something safer?

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We saw firsthand last year what works behind a cruddy O-line and what doesn’t. Before he was hurt, Dak Prescott was humming as a passer, on pace to blow all NFL passing records out of the water. Behind the same line Zeke and the running game struggled. They were a net negative for the team (running hurt the team far more than helped) and couldn’t overcome the injuries along the offensive line.

You see, Dak was largely resistant to the O-line’s struggles while Zeke was completely dependent on the O-line. That’s not abnormal either, most running back success is a product of the system, which is why we see countless examples of backups and street free agents replacing starters with little-to-no falloff in production.

It’s also worth pointing out, poor offensive lines don’t immediately equate to a proportionate rise in sack rate. Sacks are a QB stat that follows passers around regardless of the offensive line in front of them.

For more on that check out: Can a beat-up O-line keep Dak Prescott safe?

The correlation everyone points to is how successful the Dallas Cowboys traditionally are when Zeke gets over 20 carries per game. But we know by the numbers that teams who are winning tend to run the ball more – not teams that run the ball more tend to win. There’s an important distinction there.

With all of that said, feeding Zeke doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Getting Zeke 20 carries per/game is optimal if 10 of those carries happen in the fourth quarter while Dallas preserves their win. As long as those late-game runs are successful, then by all means, feed Zeke.

But to willfully call plays that are almost guaranteed to be less successful than passes downfield, all in the name of “Feed Zeke” is living in the past and even obtuse given all we know.

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“Feed Zeke” to ice the game and preserve victory? Yes, please.

“Feed Zeke” on early downs in the first half? Come on…we know better than that.

  • Published on 09/06/2021 at 16:01 PM
  • Last updated at 09/06/2021 at 15:15 PM