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Have Cowboys finally figured out how to use Ezekiel Elliott in passing game?

Let’s check the numbers to see how Zeke is performing and how the Cowboys are utilizing him.

Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

So, one of the objectives of the Cowboys’ offense moving into the 2018 season was to integrate Ezekiel Elliott into the team’s passing game. This took on greater importance when the team’s offseason moves at the wide receiver and tight end positions were less than successful.

Early returns were not promising as Zeke seemed no more involved in the passing game than he had been in the past. But since the acquisition of Amari Cooper, Elliott’s receiving numbers have increased dramatically:

We see the Cowboys did in fact start throwing the ball to Zeke more in 2018. So the team was trying, it’s just that they were failing as we see in the following:

Dallas was throwing the ball to Zeke more before Cooper arrived, but they were generating the same number of yards as in past years. In short, more targets, a lower catch percentage and fewer yards per catch.

Since Cooper’s arrival, however, Zeke’s numbers have skyrocketed:

  • 3.0 more targets per game (88% increase)
  • 3.1 more catches per game (124% increase)
  • 26 more receiving yards per game (108% increase)

Here are his numbers in table form:

We also see that despite more targets the passing plays involving Zeke are more efficient:

  • 15-point increase in catch percentage (73% to 88%)
  • Yards per target has increased from 7.1 to 7.8 (10% increase)

We also see Elliott’s receiving touchdown numbers have increased, but the sample numbers are so small I wouldn’t put a lot of faith in those numbers. Still, it’s comforting that his TDs have increased along with his targets, catches, catch percentage and yards.

Let’s see how Elliott’s increased role in the passing game has affected his role in the running game. The following charts use rolling 5-game averages to see if there’s been any effect.

We see that Elliott’s rushing attempts are in line with his career history, but below what he was asked to do towards his final games in 2017. Elliott’s rushing yards are similar - not as high as early in his career (when the Cowboys had an elite offensive line) but fairly consistent with what he’s done throughout his career. In short, his increased role in the passing game hasn’t cannibalized his production in the running game.

More importantly, the rolling averages show his dramatically increased role in the passing game. If you add both Elliott’s rushing and receiving numbers together we get the following:

This is a really interesting image:

  • Elliott was most productive early, reaching a career high of 810 combined yards in only his seventhth game.
  • After reaching more than 150 combined yards per game Elliott’s numbers then declined steadily until he “bottomed out” around 100 yards per game.
  • Since then his numbers have varied between 500 and 700 (100 and 140 YPG).
  • But recently we see his numbers have returned to the 780 range, the highest he’s been since early in his career.

In short, Elliott is currently as productive as he’s ever been in his Hall of Fame-path career.

So, can Cowboys fans declare victory and assume the Dallas coaching staff has suddenly discovered the fountain of success when it comes to incorporating Zeke into the passing game.

Anything but. First, this is five games; a small sample size. The chart above changes pretty dramatically even from one game to the next. Teams are going to be looking at tape and figuring out how to stop Zeke from getting those 50 receiving yards per game. In fact, a breakdown of the situations those yards have come in reveal some interesting insights.

I tracked every Elliott reception over the last five weeks and segmented them by down. I also graded each play as a “success” or “failure” based on the following:

  • 1st down: gained 40% of yards needed for a first down
  • 2nd down: gained 60% of yards needed for a first down
  • 3rd/4th down: gained a first down

The numbers are striking:

The Cowboys have been extremely successful throwing the ball to Zeke on first down recently. On second and third down, not so much (to put it nicely).

Here’s the play by play on passes to Zeke the last five games (with big plays in bold):

Here’s the summary table:


  • Zeke is getting more targets
  • He’s catching more balls
  • He’s generating more receiving yards
  • Passing plays to Zeke on first down are highly effective but not very successful on second and third downs.

None of this, however, addresses the issue of usage. Zeke is getting targeted more often in the passing game, but he’s also still carrying the ball as much as ever. Let’s check out what Zeke’s annual numbers would be if he maintained his pace from the last five weeks:

Just wow. These are eye-popping numbers:

  • 1,700 rushing yards at a 4.9 YPC clip
  • 800 receiving yards along with six touchdowns
  • Nearly 2,500 combined yards with 16 touchdowns

In short, Zeke has been putting up numbers that would set the NFL record for yards from scrimmage (2,429 set by Marshall Faulk in 1999 during the St. Louis Rams’ Greatest Show on Turf era).

However, he’d also be entering rarefied air in terms of usage. Zeke has been averaging 21 rushing attempts and 6.5 catches during this period (27.2 touches) which translates to 435 touches in a season. That would rank 12th in NFL history:

There’s a widespread belief that a running back with such a heavy workload is never the same again. You can read about these ideas here, here, here and here. Summarizing, here’s the key point:

A running back with 370 or more carries during the regular season will usually suffer either a major injury or a loss of effectiveness the following year, unless he is named Eric Dickerson.

Terrell Davis, Jamal Anderson, and Edgerrin James all blew out their knees. Earl Campbell, Jamal Lewis, and Eddie George went from legendary powerhouses to plodding, replacement-level players. Shaun Alexander struggled with foot injuries, and Curtis Martin had to retire. This is what happens when a running back is overworked to the point of having at least 370 carries during the regular season.

Now this cites number of carries, but further research has shown that whether counting carries or touches the results are similar.

This isn’t as simple as it looks however. The list above includes a number of players who, after the year cited, continued to be elite-level players for years. Fans of Emmitt Smith, LaDainian Tomlinson, Edgerrin James and Eric Dickerson weren’t complaining about a decline in production.

You can read a stronger rebuttal to the “curse of 370” here (bring your slide rule).

Regardless of whether you believe the curse or not, asking your unquestioned best offensive player to carry such a load is probably unsustainable. Meaning, while this production has fueled the current win streak - and it’s fun as heck to watch - it’s not necessarily the best long-term answer for the Cowboys’ fortunes. It is a positive development, however, that Zeke is now being used in a variety of ways that makes him more difficult to defend. That should be a positive as the team moves into December and (hopefully) January.

Bonus analysis

Dallas Cowboys’ fans have been spoiled by having four All-Pro-caliber quarterbacks (Don Meredith, Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman and Tony Romo) along with a bevy of elite-level running backs. I wondered how Zeke’s current season compares to past great seasons from great Cowboy running backs.

The first question: is Zeke’s load bigger than it has been for past Dallas Cowboys’ greats (note all numbers are pro-rated to each player playing a 16-game schedule):

And the answer is no. DeMarco Murray and Emmitt Smith both had seasons with more touches. Looking at it from a share of yards/touches perspective:


  • DeMarco Murray’s 2014 season was bananas. He handled the ball on more than 50% of the Cowboys’ offensive plays.
  • Check out Herschel Walker’s 1987 season: 42% of the team’s yards on 35% of the team’s touches.
  • Emmitt Smith’s greatness is confirmed: five straight seasons where he generated more than 35% of the team’s offense and handled the ball more than 39% of the team’s plays.

The following are all provided simply for reference and because I like comparing the great Cowboys’ against each other:

Elliott’s yards per attempt numbers in both 2016, 2017 and 2018 are higher than any Cowboys’ running back with at least 1,200 yards other than Emmitt Smith’s best season (1995) and DeMarco Murray’s record-setting season (2014).

Ezekiel Elliot is also younger than any of the other players shown here except for Emmitt Smith during his second season in the league (1991).

Elliott is also on pace for the most receiving yards by a Cowboys’ running back since Herschel Walker’s 1987 season, when he tallied 953 yards. Cowboys’ running backs with more than 500 receiving yards in a season:

  • Herschel Walker:

Walker’s numbers make you wonder what he could have done in the modern NFL with the spread formations and benevolent passing rules. Not hard to envision him being a perennial 2,000 player during his prime.

Also, how about Tom Landry being one of the first coaches to develop a dual-threat running back. A true pioneer.

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