Dallas Cowboys fans have heard the question over and over: Will Dak Prescott have a sophomore slump? The pages of this site have tried to answer that question many times, the latest being an excellent video breakdown of why Dak succeeded last year, and why that is likely to continue. So instead, maybe the question that should be asked would be about a sophomore slump for Ezekiel Elliott. And no, this has nothing to do with a potential suspension. For purposes of this article, we’ll take that possibility off the table.
Instead, we’ll look at what history says about rookie running backs who had phenomenal first seasons, and what happens to them the next year. Fortunately, we don’t have to do the legwork, since this article at CBS Sports already has the data. They charted the 10 best rookie seasons by running backs (besdies Zeke) and how they did the following year. Interestingly, out of those 10, seven of them had worse years in season two. The reasons for the decline basically fall into five categories. Let’s see if they might apply to Zeke.
This is the unknowable. Injury could strike at any time and derail a season. That’s what happened to Doug Martin of the Tampa Bay Bucs. After a stellar rookie campaign he tore his labrum in his second year and missed much of the year. There’s no way to guess about this issue, but it is always lurking.
Sometimes, it’s just hard to reach those heights for a second year. That's what happened to studs like Barry Sanders and Curtis Martin. Sanders’ decline was pretty minimal, in essence he had a very similar year to his rookie campaign, with the numbers down only a fraction. The one number that went up? Receiving yards. The same thing happened to Curtis Martin. His rushing numbers went down, but his receiving yards went up. As a bonus, Martin went to the Super Bowl that second year. With the Cowboys making noise about involving Zeke more in the passing game, this could be a very likely scenario for him in 2017. Fewer rushing yards, more receiving yards.
As long as Dak Prescott stays healthy, Zeke shouldn’t face this problem. Both Ottis Anderson and current Cowboy Alfred Morris suffered because their quarterback situation was a mess in their second year. Without the fear of a serious passing game, teams loaded up to stop the run. That shouldn’t be the case in Dallas in 2017.
Running Back by Committee
Mike Anderson burst onto the scene with the Broncos as a rookie, but by the next season was in a “running back by committee” situation. His numbers came way down. While the Cowboys might want to give Zeke a little more rest this year, there is no way he will be in a committee, so we can take this one off the table.
George Rogers had a brilliant rookie season for the Saints. He never was that great again. A bevy of off the field distractions and issues, including drug use, waylaid his career. Technically his sophomore season was interrupted by a player’s strike, but he wasn’t really playing well anyway. He did have some more decent seasons in his seven-year career, but he never reached those rookie heights again. With all the distractions and issues that Zeke has has over the past year, you hope he wouldn’t follow this path.
Then there are three guys who topped their spectacular rookie year, these are the guys you would like Zeke to emulate. Clinton Portis had a very similar second year to his first, and Edgerrin James added about 200 yards to his rushing total in his second year. Then there’s Eric Dickerson who ran for 2,105 yards in his second year. But, there are a couple of notes of caution there, his touchdowns and receiving yards went down that second year, and he carried the ball 379 times. Hopefully the Cowboys will not be giving Zeke 379 carries.
At the top of the article we talked about the “sophomore slump” but in Zeke’s case that would likely be a misnomer. If his rushing yards come down, it will likely be due to things like not as many carries, or more work in the passing game. It could also be because of a shuffled offensive line or teams just loading up the box and taking their chances with Dak, forcing the Cowboys to pass a little more. It likely won’t be a “slump” in the strict definition.
What’s your prediction for Zeke’s second season?