The big news in the last full week before the Dallas Cowboys head out to Oxnard to start training camp has been a possible holdout by star running back Ezekiel Elliott. We all are hoping it doesn’t come to that. This has been a very positive offseason for the team, and not having your star running back report would throw a sizable shadow on things. Fortunately, the management has been very good at heading off these things of late, and Jerry Jones also has to remember what happened when Emmitt Smith didn’t report or play the first two regular season games in 1993.
There has also been a heated debate over just how important Elliott is to the offense. He has certainly been a workhorse and the most productive running back in the league over his first three seasons. Nothing coming out of the staff indicates that he will no longer be the foundation of the offense. Countering that is the analytics argument that passing plays are, in most cases, much more likely to lead to points than runs, and that Elliott’s impressive numbers are more volume stats than anything. Out of that grows the question of just how much to pay him.
This isn’t an attempt to resolve that feud. Let’s just go with the stipulation that Elliott is probably the best running back in the league. Add in that it is absolutely for the best if the current discontent on Elliott’s part regarding an extension can be resolved. That still leaves the burning question of just how effective he will be under new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore.
How about a lot more?
A couple of months ago, we addressed the issue of Moore fully incorporating Elliott into his plans. Since then, we’ve heard a lot about how different things looked in the OTAs, with an emphasis on spreading out things and deeper throws. Now with the latest kerfuffle, it seems a good idea to look a bit deeper into all that.
First off, having the offense spread out across the width of the field has to benefit the running game. We were sick of seeing Elliott run into eight man boxes in 2018. Too often the play would fail. Further, those are very punishing for the ball carrier, which seems like something that should be avoided for a player who gets more touches than any other back in the league. Widening the offensive set draws defenders out of the box, which should lead to bigger holes and more yards before contact. Being less predictable with your play-calling, especially related to personnel packages and formations, will have a similar effect. If he does it correctly, Moore will put his team on the field in a way that could be a run or a pass. Ideally, Dak Prescott will then be able to use audibles, play action, or run/pass options to take what the defense is giving him. If it is going to be congested in the box, throw it. If the defense leaves things sparse, hand it to Zeke. Minimize those crashes into all the big bodies on defense, with a few defensive backs thrown in for good measure.
Successfully employed, that should mean that the yards per carry go up for Elliott. He is simply outstanding when you give him a little space to work with a full head of steam. For most defenses, the interior linebackers are the backbone of the run defense, but they can’t just wait at the line of scrimmage if there is a credible threat of a pass. Get one or two of them involved in coverage, and Elliott can feast.
Just as important, Moore needs to use Elliott in the passing game on something other than screens and dump-offs. If Elliott is formidable when he is working against a linebacker, he is kinda terrifying when he gets a defensive back isolated. When he releases out of the backfield, he should never settle down short of the first down sticks, but should run a route that moves them if he gets the ball in his hands. That can be either by catching the ball past the yard to make or by catching it while moving forward, depending on timing. While screens will still be a potent part of the arsenal for the Cowboys, they just have to start looking at completing more passes past that yellow line we can see on our TV screens.
We all anticipate a lot of creativity in the use of rookie Tony Pollard, but Elliott has the speed to be a great receiving option as well. And he certainly can catch the ball reliably. For proof, look no further than last year, when he led all Dallas receivers with 77 catches.
But there was a problem with that. He also had the lowest yards per reception of anyone but the now-departed Rod Smith and fullback Jamize Olawale and his two catches on the year. The wide receivers all averaged over ten yards per catch (except for Terrance Williams, who also only netted two grabs), and the tight ends had an average of nine or more. Elliott only averaged 7.4.
To put it bluntly, he is just better than that. Clearly, he was not used in a way that maximized his talent. Last year’s offense basically treated the backs as an afterthought in the passing game, with too many of those three yard receptions with seven to go. Elliott is capable of being so much more than a safety valve. Besides, Jason Witten is back, and he is frankly better in that role with his craftiness and game awareness.
As always at this time of year, we run the risk of tallying too many fetal fowls. Still, so far, Moore has lived up to expectations. The problem is that the OTAs were just not sufficient to draw any solid conclusions. Now, the team is nearly ready to fly to California for the real work of getting ready for the year. Practices and preseason games will give us much more usable data on how the offense will evolve.
If he does it right, however, Moore could be a marked boost for Elliott. He should get him more yards each time he has the ball in his hands, whether it is on a handoff or a catch. Zeke can be a dominant player. All the evidence from 2018 point to him being misused. If Moore puts him in better position to succeed, Elliott will indeed be the engine that drives the offense. And that will be just great.