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Running away from success: The Cowboys’ Zeke conundrum

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Dallas has changed its offensive coordinator - but will it change what really matters?

Wild Card Round - Seattle Seahawks v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

We have a problem. The Dallas Cowboys are a team that has been built around the running game, with massive investments in the offensive line and a star running back. Yet more and more analysis shows that running the ball, particularly on early downs, is inefficient and leads to failure. Now, with Ezekiel Elliott indicating an interest in getting an extension negotiated, the Cowboys face a dilemma. Do they stick with a plan that all data and logic show to be counterproductive, do they shift their approach and try to use Elliott in a more effective manner, or do they consider moving on from the player who many deem to be the best overall talent on the roster?

These are some radical thoughts, and frankly some do not accept the basic premise that running the ball on first and ten greatly reduces a team’s chances of advancing and scoring. Yet source after source finds this to be exactly what happens. One very detailed examination came from the FiveThirtyEight website early last season. Here are some of the results of their study.

To be clear, teams are certainly passing more often than they used to. Leaguewide passing attempts per game have risen from 32.3 in 2008 to 34.2 last year, and the increase in volume has not been accompanied by a decrease in efficiency. Leaguewide yards per attempt have increased slightly from 6.9 to 7.0, and more touchdowns are being scored by passing relative to running than at any time in league history. Completion percentage is up from 61.0 percent to 62.1 percent, and the interception rate has fallen from 2.8 percent to 2.5 percent. Yet despite all these positive indicators, teams remain unwilling to break old habits and throw in many classic rushing situations.

The biggest culprit is first down, the most traditional run situation. It’s here where NFL coaches are consistently missing an opportunity to pass, particularly against defenses that have stacked the box or are playing at least seven defenders close to the line of scrimmage.

This establishes a key part of the argument. The idea is not that running is bad. It actually is a crucial part of the game and can yield very positive results when done the right way at the right time. If you haven’t clued in to it, that second paragraph is what makes this so pertinent to Dallas. Scott Linehan lost his job, and one of the perceived reasons was that he just kept running Elliott into those loaded boxes. He had the attitude that he could impose his will on the opponent even if they knew what he intended to do. That worked brilliantly in 2016, when Elliott was a new factor and the offensive line was at or near its peak performance level (with 2014 rivaling it).

It was often a pretty dismal failure in 2018 with a line incorporating a rookie left guard, a backup center, and All-Pros at left tackle and right guard that had some injury issues to deal with.

Now the question is whether new OC Kellen Moore is going to do things differently, or is he going follow Linehan’s blueprint, perhaps at the behest of head coach Jason Garrett? Garrett is the architect of the Dallas offense. Will he be willing to pivot from what he has built over his tenure as head coach, or risk being victim to stubbornness the way Linehan was?

Here, at least, there is hope. First, consider what is a successful way to utilize the run, as outlined by Marcus Mosher at Pro Football Weekly.

Remember a few months ago when I wrote about Sean McVay’s offense and how he uses logic to defeat his opponents? The crux of that piece was that McVay will only run the ball when it’s in his favor to do so. McVay doesn’t believe in running the ball just to keep balance or to set up the passing game. Instead, he will only run against defensive fronts that give him an advantage. That thought process and game theory is starting to become more mainstream in the NFL.

The more I study some of the best offenses in the NFL, the more I am blown away at just how smart they are compared to the rest of the league. The best teams in the league find a personnel grouping and exploit it. A perfect example of this the way the Rams have used Todd Gurley. On the season, Gurley has 198 carries out of “11” personnel (3 WRs, 1 RB, 1 TE). Can you guess how many carries he’s had in every other personnel grouping? Zero.

That’s right. Every single carry Todd Gurley has taken this season has been out of “11” personnel — and for a good reason. Across the NFL, the average yards per carry out of “11” personnel is 4.91, per Sportradar. That is a significantly higher yards per carry than out of “12” personnel (2 WRs, 1 RB, 2 TE), (4.32) for example.

To me, it is pretty clear that the Rams are putting Gurley in a better position to succeed than most of the runners in the NFL.

I am very receptive to this way of thinking, because I loathe using “heavy” sets like 12 personnel, especially when the team does run out of them rather than trying to cross up the defense with a pass. Running the ball on third and short, for instance, makes perfect sense if you do not allow the defense to load up the box because they know what is coming. That is why 11 personnel is so functional. It allows you to run or pass. Give Dak Prescott the option to change the play based on what the defense is showing him, and trust him to throw when it has a higher chance of success, and the lame offense we saw last year suddenly can be one of the high-powered affairs that got four teams to the championship round in the playoffs this year.

That is why Moore offers a real chance this can happen. I keep coming back to this quote, used in the article linked in the previous paragraph, to pin my hopes on.

In 2014, quarterback Dan Orlovsky joined the Lions as a free agent to be Matthew Stafford’s backup. Moore had spent two years as the No. 3 quarterback with the Lions after signing with Detroit.

One day, Orlovsky remembers sitting in the quarterbacks room with Stafford.

“We’re grinding on this one thing for like 20 minutes, maybe longer. Kellen comes in after lunch, sat down casually and just within a minute or two gets up and points his finger on the screen, ‘Look, you can do this, which will make this guy do this and then that guy will do this and we can do this,’” said Orlovsky, who is now an ESPN analyst. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Uh-oh, this is a smart dude.’ I’m going in thinking I’m a shoo-in for the backup job and it’s, ‘Oh, this kid is really smart. He’s going to make me earn this job.’ But my main thing was, ‘Dude, how did your brain work like that?’ That was an example, to me, that he was probably going to be a good coach one day.”

That certainly sounds exactly like what Sean McVay and others have done to make their entire offense perform at very high levels.

This is one reason why it may be wise to hold off on an extension for Elliott. First, the team needs to see what it can do this year, including with him. It could, and really should, mean that the offense is no longer run through him. The passing game is the engine that teams need to use in the modern NFL, with all the rules favoring it.

And if the Cowboys can exploit this properly, they will have a real advantage over most of the league. Again, from the FiveThirtyEight article.

Even accounting for the potential negative outcomes of a dropback like sacks and interceptions, passing on FANS (First (down) Against Neutral or Stacked (boxes)) keeps a team “on schedule”3 in the down and distance more often than a run. Incredibly though, there were 31 NFL teams last season (2017) when facing this situation on first down — looking down a defense that was clearly gearing up to stop the run — that chose to run more often than they passed.

This is still very dependent on Moore and perhaps how much autonomy he has as OC. But he has three valuable commodities to work with: An offensive line that is expected to be healthier this year with the hoped-for return of a 100% or close Travis Frederick, arguably the most talented running back in the NFL in Elliott, and a good quarterback in Prescott who, it is hoped, will improve under the tutelage of new QB coach Jon Kitna. With proper utilization, Elliott may see fewer carries, particularly on early downs, but higher yards per carry as he faces fewer defenders when he does get the ball.

Of course, his usage should also be dictated by the fact that Elliott is still the most productive running in the league.

Except, maybe he isn’t.

Football Outsiders uses their own metric, DYAR, or Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement, to judge how effective players are. And for the 2018 season, Elliott only ranks ninth in the league. This does not appear to be because of his own abilities and talent. It is another condemnation of how he was used in the inefficient Dallas offense under Linehan.

Taking all this into consideration, Elliott certainly has great value. He is just being misused, like hauling dirt for your lawn in a Porsche Carrera. There is no need for him to change, just maybe to accept a somewhat different role in the offense - a role that could well lead to more big plays and points for him.

How the new offensive staff handles all this will largely dictate the success or failure of the Cowboys this year. The parts are there if they can be put together properly. The biggest concern is that too much of the old way of doing things carry over and we still see Elliott being run into loaded boxes. Use formations and motion to empty out the box, or throw the ball when the defense moves into single coverage to stop the run, and the offense should thrive.