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Is David Johnson A More Valuable Back Than Ezekiel Elliott?

Is Zeke MVP material, or not even the best NFL running back this season?

Dallas Cowboys v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

In the wake of Derek Carr turning in a stinker of a performance on Thursday Night Football, the door is wide open for another man to grab the lead in the race for the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award for 2016. Scribes all over the country were given fresh material for daily musings, a chance to ponder all sorts of MVP possibilities.

Into that open door Bill Barnwell strode with a feature story touting David Johnson as a better MVP prospect, indeed as a better running back, than Ezekiel Elliott.

I don't think you can vote for Elliott as MVP if he's not even the best running back in football, and there's a reasonable case to be made that the best running back in football this season is David Johnson.

Fair enough, Johnson is a very talented back. Let’s take a look at Mr. Barnwell’s argument.

He begins with a comparison of the two doing the primary thing that RB1s are asked to do, carry the football forward and score touchdowns for their teams. Zeke has carried the ball 263 times for the Cowboys and he has amassed 1,285 yards. The Dallas running back has found paydirt 12 times. On the other hand, Johnson has carried the ball 228 times accruing 1,005 yards and 11 scores. Zeke, with his half-yard per attempt advantage over Johnson, wins this debate hands down. Even Barnwell concedes this point.

It’s when you get to the passing game that Barnwell finds a difference. David Johnson has hauled in 64 passes for 704 yards and four scores. That is a credible performance in anyone’s book. Zeke, on the other hand, has caught 28 balls and accounted for 322 yards as a part of the Cowboys aerial attack. He has also scored one touchdown. Zeke again maintains a half-yard per attempt advantage here as well, but is trailing in scoring touchdowns from the receiving angle.

There is one point of difference when discussing the two running backs as receivers, Johnson is actually used as a wide receiver, often. The Arizona offensive philosophy differs from the one employed by Scott Linehan and the Cowboys. From the article:

Johnson moves around the formation and runs route combinations alongside Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd like he's a wideout. Bruce Arians has no qualms about believing he has a mismatch with Johnson against just about any other player on the defensive side.

That, my friends, is not an argument in favor of Johnson being a better running back. It is a statement that Bruce Arians style of offense differs from the style favored by the Dallas Cowboys. In the Cardinals offense, Johnson is the #2 receiver. In the Cowboys offense, Elliott is the #5 receiver. There is little doubt that if the Cowboys chose to employ Zeke as a wide receiver and use him as a primary threat there, his numbers would also skyrocket. They just don’t need to do that, they have plenty of other weapons they can use there.

That same argument nullifies the position that Johnson has 102 more yards from scrimmage with one more overall touch. Given the Cardinals dismal performance this season and their comparative lack of depth, Johnson has to carry a bigger burden of the load because there is little else in the cupboard for the team to fall back on besides Larry Fitzgerald. This leads Barnwell to conclude that Johnson is a more important part of the Arizona offense when he is compared to Elliott’s value to the Cowboys.

But is that true? Perhaps, but consider this. When teams face the Dallas Cowboys they are forced to respect Elliott as a threat to take each carry to the house. In that role the rookie draws a lot of attention from the defense that would be allocated to covering Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and the rest of the Cowboys offensive weapons. When you face Arizona you defend against David Johnson because who know he is going to get the rock. When you face Dallas you defend Zeke because he might. With the full arsenal that the Cowboys have it is a matter of opinion which is the bigger threat.

The final argument is that the Dallas offensive juggernaut gives Elliott an advantage that Johnson does not have. That is a point that I will gladly concede. Elliott does find himself in an enviable position, but that does not degrade the talent that he brings to the table. At the end of the day the man was a top five NFL draft pick for a reason, and he is within striking distance of the NFL rookie rushing record for one primary reason. Ezekiel Elliott gets the job done week in and week out. He stands at the top of his position group because he is currently the best running back in the National Football League. While David Johnson is clearly a Pro Bowl worthy back, the man who is the All Pro is the back in Dallas.

Finally, let’s talk success. To my mind there is no argument that Ezekiel Elliott is the better runner, contributes more to the success of his team, and is more deserving of MVP honors. Football is a team sport. Individual numbers do not put Lombardi Trophies in the display case or Super Bowl rings on fingers. Sixteen times per season a team is given an opportunity to notch a win or a defeat. Elliott and his teammates have won on 11 of their 12 opportunities this season while the Cardinals and David Johnson have struggled along to a record of 5-6-1. Players who show true value help their team to win.

What Barnwell has done with this post is to re-write the age old Emmitt Smith vs Barry Sanders debate and bring it into the current day. The name of the game is winning. An old coach once said “Winning isn’t everything; its the only thing.” Zeke and the Cowboys are doing that; Johnson and his teammates are not. Put up gaudy numbers and walk off the field with a ‘W” and you have done the job. Take the ‘L’ with similar numbers and you have failed.

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