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Ezekiel Elliott’s absence shows value of an elite running back

Ezekiel Elliott’s absence challenges the “anyone can run behind the Cowboys’ line” meme.

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Dallas Cowboys v Washington Redskins Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The 2017 Dallas Cowboys have now gone five games without the services of 2016 All Pro running back Ezekiel Elliott. And after three weeks of historically bad offense (22 points in three games) the Cowboys offense has bounced back the last couple of weeks (68 points). These five games now gives a reasonably good-sized sample to evaluate the impact of Elliott’s absence on the team’s performance.

We currently stand 30 games into the “Dak/Zeke” era. The Cowboys are 20 - 10 during that time. But we can segment those 30 games into those with Zeke and those without. For our purposes we’re going to count the games this way:

  • With Zeke: weeks 1-15 of 2016, the playoff game against Green Bay and games 1 - 8 of the 2017 season (24 games)
  • Without Zeke: weeks 9 - 13 of the 2017 season (five games)
  • Excluded: game 16 of the 2016 season (season finale against Philadelphia which was a glorified exhibition where Zeke sat and Prescott saw little playing time).

Let’s compare the per-game averages with and without Zeke:

In terms of basic production (points, yards, first downs) the impact is clear and undeniable. Each metric has declined dramatically. This matches the eye-test as even casual observers can see the offense isn’t nearly as good without Elliott.

Obviously, if total yards are down rushing and/or passing yards have to be down and in fact both are. Note also the dramatic increase in turnovers. Summarizing:

Points: down 9.7 (-35%)

Yards: down 97 (-23%)

First downs: down 5.2 (-23%)

Rushing yards: down 32 (-21%)

Passing yards: down 66 (-28%)

Turnovers: up 0.7 (+75%)

Note that without Elliott the Cowboys still average 120 rushing yards per game. That would translate to 1,565 across 13 games which would rank ninth in the NFL. That’s because, as many predicted, the combination of Alfred Morris, Rod Smith and the Cowboys’ outstanding offensive line is still an effective unit. Alfred Morris and Rod Smith are good running backs and thus even without Elliott the running game is still productive.

But it’s not elite. And the poor results we see above (25% declines in points and yards) is the difference between good and elite.

When the Cowboys decided to draft Elliott with their highest draft pick since drafting Troy Aikman with the number one pick in the 1989 draft Dallas decided to build an elite running game at the expense of a more well-rounded team. Many clamored for Jalen Ramsey to boost an ever-struggling defense and Ramsey has already established himself as an elite cover corner (Pro Football focus ranks him #2 among all cornerbacks).

But we’re also seeing that, when available, Elliott is exactly the difference-maker the Cowboys’ brass hoped for when drafted. This was pretty evident throughout 2016 as Elliott ran for 1,600+ yards and 15 touchdowns. Still, there were claims that “anyone” could run behind the Cowboys’ elite offensive line and be successful. And that’s probably true to an extent. The Cowboys’ running game without Elliott is “top-10” successful but it’s not elite. And that is the difference between scoring 28 points per game and 18.

Now, obviously it’s not as simple as that. The Cowboys were also missing Tyron Smith for some of those games and that no doubt affected the team. But even Sunday when the team racked up 450 yards and 30 points anyone watching would agree the offense wasn’t remotely as good as the unit that was steamrolling opposing defenses earlier in the year.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this as Dallas Cowboys fans. The 1993 Super Bowl champions experienced a similar drop in performance when elite running back Emmitt Smith missed all or part of four games:


  • Points: down 13.4 (-48%)
  • Yards: -11 (-3%)
  • First downs: -2.2 (-10%)
  • Rushing yards: -50 (-35%)
  • Passing yards: +39 (+18)
  • Turnovers: +0.8 (+67%)

In 1993 Troy Aikman actually threw for more yards but the running game, with Derrick Lassick getting the bulk of the carries, really struggled. This, along with the current team’s experience, shows how defenses are forced to play an elite running game differently even than a good, top-10 running game. While the 2017 running game has been good and the 1993 passing game actually improved... the net effect was a dramatic decline in points scored and turnovers committed.

Realize, without Emmitt Smith the 1993 Cowboys offense still had the following players:

QB: Troy Aikman

FB: Daryl Johnson

WR: Michael Irvin, Alvin Harper, Kevin Williams

TE: Jay Novacek

Offensive line: Mark Tuenei, Nate Newton, Mark Stepnoski, Kevin Gogan, Erik Williams

That’s seven players who made the Pro Bowl that season. And yet without Emmitt Smith the offense could barely score 14 points per game.

In short, an elite running back just makes things easier for the offense and harder for opposing defenses.

So, it’s pretty clear Ezekiel Elliott is an elite running back and has performed as such through the early part of his career. What’s remarkable to me is how Elliott profiles very similarly to Hall of Fame running backs in the Super Bowl era.

(Some player’s rushing yards were adjusted to a 16-game schedule).

Some shared characteristics of these running backs:

  • A big-time college player who enjoyed sustained college success. Only Franco Harris and Terrell Davis weren’t big college stars.
  • If possible, entered the NFL early. All but three HOF running backs who were eligible to leave school early did so.
  • Drafted high: 13 of the 16 players above were selected in the 1st round, 11 were drafted in the top 10 and 9 in the top 5. You might find a Hall of Fame running back outside of the top-10 or the first round but your odds are very low.
  • Enjoyed immediate success: 12 of the names above ran for 1,000+ yards their rookie season, 11 ran for 1,200+ yards and 7 ran for 1,400+ yards. Ten earned Pro Bowl honors their rookie season. More impressively 6 earned 1st-team All Pro honors.

The one thing that doesn’t show up on the above table is what eventually distinguished these players from running backs who enjoyed short-term success: longevity. The NFL record books are full of running backs who came out of nowhere and enjoyed a season or two of high-level performance. But it’s interesting that most of those who made the Hall of Fame proved durable and capable both in college and then into the early part of their pro career.

Elliott certainly has the pedigree you’re looking for when trying to identify a runner who will enjoy high-level, long-term success. It’s in vogue these days to dismiss the value of running backs; after all we’ve seen non-first-round draft picks enjoy dominant seasons. DeMarco Murray (4th round), Le’Veon Bell (2nd), LeSean McCoy (2nd) and Jamaal Charles (3rd) have all enjoyed both monster seasons and some amount of long-term success. Bell has a shot at the Hall, and I guess McCoy could have a shot at the Hall of Fame (not likely in my opinion) but the others will not. Elite running backs go to the Hall of Fame because there’s a difference between them and good or even great running backs.

We’re seeing that in Dallas right now.

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