First off, I should say that I was on record before the draft as wanting Jalen Ramsey over Ezekiel Elliott. I have entrenched myself firmly in the "anyone can run behind this line" camp as well as in the"give me Paul Perkins in the 4th over Elliott in the 1st" camp. But there is a groundswell of opinion among Cowboys fans that Elliott at pick number four is a waste of value and that those who claim Elliott will restore Dallas to the glory of 2014's running game are simply basing their beliefs on hope and moonshine.
Allow me to argue otherwise.
Let us start with a matter that bears no controversy: Ezekiel Elliott is a better running back than Darren McFadden or DeMarco Murray, is eight years younger than they are, and costs significantly less than keeping Murray would have. So plain and simple, out of the gate, Dallas is significantly and unarguably younger, better, and less expensive at running back than they would be having kept Murray. They are also both much younger and better than they were last year, albeit a little more expensive.
Another argument against the pick is that Dallas didn't need to spend their capital on a running back. And this specific statement is correct. Dallas didn't need it at all. But in the eyes of the brain-trust and, specifically, Jason Garrett, this was the best way to improve their team. The question is, can we prove that this move was worth the pick.
There are two steps to that, and the first is to prove that last year was inadequate, despite being the ninth-ranked rushing team in the NFL. The overall numbers don't show a significant difference. The 2014 Cowboys had 508 rushes for 4.64 yards per carry. 2015 saw 408 rushes for 4.63 yards per attempt. We can probably pin the lower number of attempts on the poor quarterbacking leading to fewer plays over all as well as playing from behind late in games, so it's looking fairly bad for the Elliot pick at the moment.
But what about situations where the quarterbacks and leads had less impact? To minimize those effects, I took a look at first down rushes in the first half of games. These were the downs that Dallas was trying to maintain its identity as a rushing team against stacked boxes, whether with Murray, Randle, McFadden or whoever.
In 2014, the Cowboys had 170 such attempts averaging 4.64 yards per carry. The 2015 Cowboys had 134 such attempts for 4.77 yards per carry. But before we grant victory to those who claim the pick was a waste, we should examine more closely. Darren McFadden carried 72 of those running plays for a meager 4.01 yards per attempt. Furthermore, if you examine the whole team after Joseph Randle (who only played six games) it becomes downright ugly: 73 rushes for 4.08 yards per carry, while McFadden had 54 of those for 3.9 yards per carry.
By comparison, Murray had 143 of Dallas's 170 first down/first half carries for 4.72 yards per carry. Murray made his stable of running backs better, McFadden made his worse. Please note that I am not trying to take away from the job McFadden did, and I am certainly not suggesting the Cowboys should have signed Murray, but there is a clear drop off in running performance that would affect the entire team. Alfred Morris, by the way, had 75 first down/first half rushes and averaged 3.32 yards per carry. Granted that was with Washington, but there's no reason to believe he's a savior here either.
Looking at short yardage situations does not improve the picture. Morris is significantly behind either of Dallas's backs, so I'm leaving him out from here on. On running plays needing three yards or less, the 2015 Cowboys slightly out performed 2014 (70.0% to 68.8%) and McFadden was very close to Murray, too, with Murray enjoying a very slight advantage in success rate. But Murray also had about 30% more attempts, and to have a slightly higher success rate on a much larger sample is, in itself, a sign of greater consistency. But the big difference is that Murray scored nine touchdowns in these situations to McFadden's three.
And that's where it gets ugly. Now, in fairness, Murray had a real threat from Dez opening up his short yardage, and there's not a lot I can do to allow for that. But the "goal to go" numbers speak pretty clearly. Murray had as many "goal to go" touchdowns in 2014 as the entire Dallas running back corps* had total touchdowns on the season. And half of that total, by the way, belonged to Joseph Randle in the first six games. Two of McFadden's three touchdowns came in that era, too. Dallas, in fact, had only 2 rushing touchdowns at all after Randle played his last snap: one by McFadden and one by Robert Turbin.
But back to the "goal to go" scenario. Murray was 8/24, or 33%. Dallas in 2015 was only slightly less effective at 6/19, or 32%, but once you remove Randle from the equation Dallas was 3/15 or 20%, and post-Randle Dallas was 1/12 or a pitiful 8.3%. Again, there's no way to predict how much effect a healthy Dez and Romo would have had on this, but it is abundantly clear that those who saw issues with Dallas's short yardage rushing attack late in the season last year were not viewing an illusion.
So what does Ezekiel Elliott bring? Well, I'll have to save that for the film in my next post, but I'll leave you with a teaser about one of the things that Elliott does bring. Only two running backs in the last three years have scored on a run from more than 10 yards out: DeMarco Murray and Joseph Randle, and Randle has more than Murray despite Murray's enormous advantage in touches.
Disclaimer: All statistics in this piece pulled from Pro-football-reference.com and their play finder search. Any error is the fault of the author's failing eyesight. (I would say poor math skills, but I'm actually pretty good...)
* -- pet peeve here. It's not "core" y'all... it's "corps" as in "the Marine Corps" meaning "body" or "group of people"