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The Zeke conundrum: He is a great running back, but may be wrong for the Cowboys

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PFF graded him poorly, and they may be on to something.

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The Dallas Cowboys have some big contract decisions to make. They need to re-sign DeMarcus Lawrence, extend Amari Cooper, figure out whether to pay Dak Prescott now or later, and might want to use some cap space to get a big name (like, say, Earl Thomas). And Ezekiel Elliott has started making noises that he doesn’t want to be left out of the party. He is entering the fourth year of his rookie contract, and the team can utilize the fifth-year option, but that doesn’t seem to meet his expectations. There have been reports that he is considering a holdout if he does not get a new deal.

The Cowboys have made Elliott the focus of their offense since drafting him in 2016. They have won two NFC East titles since then. So they should pay him.

Or maybe not.

During the past three years, the offense was of course under the management of Scott Linehan, who fully subscribed to the “run first” idea. And while the Cowboys have racked up a nice win total in that time, going 32-16 in the regular season, they have also failed to make much noise in their two postseason appearances, just notching a 1-2 record there. Meanwhile, Linehan is gone, partly because of his conservatism and reported friction between him and the rest of the coaching staff over the offensive plan, while the passing game has become the driving factor for the most successful teams in the league.

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 the team has newly minted offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, and all the talk is about getting the most out of Prescott and the passing game. Maybe they need to back off from using Zeke so much. It is frequently argued that more running leads to less success in pro football, and there is a lot of data to support that idea, such as this article from FiveThirtyEight. Meanwhile, Elliott has had one of the heaviest workloads of any running back in the league, which is one of the reasons he thinks he should get more money now.

But recently, Pro Football Focus put up an article explaining why they only gave Elliott the 30th best grade among running backs in 2018. A lot of people are wary of PFF and their methodology, but that article goes into how they drew their conclusions. When viewed with an open mind, it makes some good points.

The ranking drew a lot of protest from Cowboys fans, since Elliott was the league’s leading rusher. That, however, may be more a function of how often he got the ball, rather than what he did with it. He had 304 carries, which was 43 more than the second most prolific runner, Saquon Barkley. But Zeke only ranked 18th in yards per carry, at 4.7. Admittedly, some of that may be because he faced defenses that knew he was going to get the ball on many plays. That was the fault of Linehan and the plays called. Still, it points to a lack of effectiveness from him. The team was not getting what it invested that high draft pick for.

That is the crux of PFF’s argument. They go into a lot more detail and use some other ways to measure Elliott’s contribution, and when they attempted to account for the defenses he faced and the blocking ahead of him, he still was not getting it done.

He’s not as good as he should be

We use a Massey-type rating system using PFF run-blocking and run-defense grades to adjust our play-by-play grading by opponent and rank offensive lines in run blocking (they are what help Mike Renner create lists like these). The last three seasons, the Cowboys offensive line has ranked fourth, second and sixth, respectively.

While offensive line rankings correlate well (r = 0.52) with EPA per running play, the Cowboys actually performed worse than would be suggested by their offensive line, finishing 12th in EPA generated as an offense per run play (-0.06 per). The Cowboys offense averaged -0.02 EPA per Zeke run (-0.04 if you count playoffs), which is still lower than one would expect with an offensive line that effective.

And earlier in the article, they offer a conclusion that is even more pertinent to the question of whether Dallas should pony up and pay Elliott like he wants them to.

Of course, we at PFF think Zeke is good, but all backs are

A caveat, though: I personally think all running backs in the NFL are good. Or, at least I think that the rushing production function in the NFL is not very sensitive to how talented a running back is. In our article on the replaceability of running backs in the NFL, I showed that the skill of the running back (as defined by PFF grades above or below average) does not predict play-by-play rushing success once one adjusts for situation, offensive line grades, run concept and the number of defensive men in the box.

This was never more apparent than when Zeke was out in 2017, when both Rod Smith and Alfred Morris filled in admirably. Dallas was actually twice as efficient running the ball in the six games that Elliott missed via suspension, averaging +0.04 expected points added (EPA) per run play during that stretch.

The PFF article goes on, delving into broken tackles, long plays, fumbles, and his work as a receiver, and it all adds up to the fact that Elliott’s contributions to the offense are all about volume, and little else. In short, he is no exception to the idea that running back is the most replaceable position on any NFL team.

This may seem like an attack on Elliott as a star player, but it isn’t. He has shown he can take a game over, but that is not a consistent thing. Clearly, he has been bottled up in key situations.

What this is definitely striking at is the whole concept of “run first” for the Cowboys. The game plan has appeared to put a lot of emphasis on the idea of “staying on schedule” on offense. Simplified, that means getting at least four yards on first down, at least half the distance needed on second, and then converting on third. But that comes with the need to sustain a lot of long drives, and that is hard to do with consistency. There is a large body of evidence that Dallas simply been out of step with the best NFL teams. Both analysis like the articles cited here and which teams got the farthest in the playoffs this year argue that passing the ball effectively is the true route to success in the NFL. Not defense, not “staying on schedule” offensively, and certainly not making a running back the engine of your offense.

That raises the question of whether the Cowboys made a mistake in drafting Elliott fourth overall. The facts support exactly that.

(A disclaimer. I was among those who supported the move when it happened. The league was moving more and more to the passing game, and most teams were putting their resources into throwing the ball on offense and stopping the pass on defense. I thought the idea of being strong where the rest of the teams were weak, both offensively and defensively, was a good idea. I now think that it has not worked, and probably can’t, even if a team has the best offensive line and running back in the league.)

So going back to the idea of how eager the Cowboys should be to make Elliott one of the highest paid backs in the NFL, or even the top one, the answer is simply “No”. They should not extend him early, and should use the fifth-year option. If he does hold out, he should be allowed to. And, as they did with DeMarco Murray when he had just won the rushing title, Elliott should be allowed to go into the free agent market if he does not want a deal favorable to the Cowboys.

It would be great if he and the team could come to an agreement without overpaying him, but the signs are not favorable. There is a good chance that the team will give him too much money. However, they may also be looking at the workload they have subjected him to, and stand firm. That hardly seems fair to Elliott, but the Cowboys should not let past bad decisions handcuff them in the future.

Elliott may think he is too important to the offense for the team to not give in to what he wants, but all that evidence says that he isn’t, that Dallas could succeed without him. If Moore does bring a new, aggressive approach to the passing game, then we should see the team not have to depend on Elliott to move the ball.

He would be likely to find some team that still clings to the idea that you have to establish the run and is willing to pay him accordingly. Murray certainly did. That would be great for him.

He is a great running back in many aspects. He just may not be so great for Dallas’ hopes of winning championships.