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The possibly fatal codependency of the Cowboys and Ezekiel Elliott

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Ezekiel Elliott is not the cause of the offensive woes. How he is used is.

Green Bay Packers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Back when reports first surfaced that Ezekiel Elliott was considering the holdout that eventually materialized, I put up a post that posited Zeke is not really what the Dallas Cowboys need. It was, shall we say, a bit controversial.

Over recent history, we have seen the emergence of a growing analytics crowd, and the birth of the entire “running backs don’t matter” argument. Now, after three consecutive losses that looked nothing like the hope-inspiring string of wins to start the season, it is time to go back to that whole idea, which is basically centered around this line in the original piece:

So consider this hypothesis: Having a fourth overall pick as your running back and feeding him the ball may actually be holding Dallas back.

Now, of course, we can modify that to “$90 million running back”, which certainly doesn’t alter the thrust of the statement. And I think that after the embarrassing loss to the New York Jets, where the Cowboys stuck adamantly to running on first down even as they fell behind by two plus scores, the outrage over questioning Elliott’s value to the team is not going to be nearly as prevalent.

While we are still very much in the dark as to exactly how the entire idea of just pounding the rock became priority one for the offense in New York, it is reasonable to assume that part of the thinking was that it was needed to compensate for the absence of Tyron Smith and La’el Collins. Having Amari Cooper exit early in the game while Randall Cobb was already unavailable also did not help. The logic seems to have been that it was going to be harder to pass given the personnel that were missing. Jets DC Gregg Williams is notorious for his many and varied blitzes. An effective running attack is supposed to be one way to slow that down, although had Cooper been healthy, he would likely have been a better way.

The problem, of course, is that the rushing game was not effective, Williams just kept dialing up the blitzes and beating up Dak Prescott, and the team staggered to a two point loss.

Going a bit deeper, the Cowboys, despite the growing body of evidence to the contrary, still believe that the ground game is the best foundation for their offense. That analytics bunch is raging that this is contradicted by all the ways you can measure effectiveness of passing versus running, but Jason Garrett, at least, seems unconvinced. He is hardly alone, as Pete Carroll and other head coaches have said much the same thing, then gone out and employed a run-centered approach. This is despite the Cowboys, like the Seattle Seahawks, having a quarterback who, by all attempts to quantitatively and objectively measure him, is able to provide far more value throwing the ball than Elliott does running it. Dak Prescott is derided by some, but when he is properly used, he can deliver. The interceptions against the Green Bay Packers are pointed to as evidence he cannot be trusted with the main weight of the offense. But that seems to have been an aberration, compounded by some mistakes by his receivers. Those mistakes certainly continued in the Jets game, with several of his incompletions, especially in the first half, coming on balls that the receivers got their hands on.

There was plenty of evidence early, particularly in the game against that other New York team, that Prescott could be extremely effective passing the ball, and if you look at the rest of the games, they don’t exactly disprove that idea. The problem goes mainly to usage. When the team is insisting on establishing the run (a phrase that is right up there with “get of my lawn” in reflecting a certain outdated and narrow mindset), it is taking the ball out of the QB’s hands.

And when you have just handed a huge contract to a former fourth overall pick, there is an additional pressure to utilize him to get a return on your investment. That is a fallacy, but just because it is illogical does not stop it from influencing things. We know Garrett has long espoused the run-first stance, and with the Cowboys, the GM/owner is probably an additional cheerleader for feeding that star RB. We all have hoped that Kellen Moore would be an antidote to that old-school mentality, but when the guy you report to on the organizational chart and the billionaire who signs your paycheck both lean a certain way, it is hard to run against the wind. Especially when you are a rookie offensive coordinator.

So the Cowboys have a real desire to use Elliott heavily in the traditional running situations. That is where the “codependency” idea in the title comes from. It is perhaps a bit of a reach to use that metaphor, but look at this from the description of the behavior at the Mental Health America website. (In this, read the Cowboys as the “needy individual” that is caring for its star RB.)

The problem is that these repeated rescue attempts allow the needy individual to continue on a destructive course and to become even more dependent on the unhealthy caretaking of the “benefactor.” As this reliance increases, the co-dependent develops a sense of reward and satisfaction from “being needed.” When the caretaking becomes compulsive, the co-dependent feels choiceless and helpless in the relationship, but is unable to break away from the cycle of behavior that causes it.

It certainly looks like the Cowboys offense is on a destructive course, and let itself become dependent on taking care of Elliott by giving him all those carries in a game that just cried out for attacking downfield. They seemed to have felt they had no choice, and showed a real inability to break away from the behavior until the dwindling clock forced them to late in the Jets game. Meanwhile, in the postmortems, Garrett continues to pound the so far ineffective nail of better execution. If the plan is this badly flawed, no amount of “doing their job” is going to generate better results.

It would take a huge change in how they approach things on offense to reduce Elliott’s role despite the sunk costs. That would require some daring and courage, something that the head coach at least has not shown in this aspect of things. But if he and the rest of the staff persist on the current path, this season is threatening to spiral out of control.

The Cowboys are trapped by the decision to keep Elliott and make him the highest paid running back in the league. They can overcome it by leaning instead on their quarterback, who still in in line for a huge payday as well. So far, there is no evidence that we should be at all optimistic that is in the cards.