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Trying to sum up Ezekiel Elliott’s worth requires more than analytics

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Ezekiel Elliott’s the latest Cowboys player to have his value questioned.

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

With rumors swirling about a potential holdout from Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys running back is the latest player to see his value come into question. Would the Cowboys be making a mistake paying a running back a hefty sum of money? Are the Cowboys doing it all wrong by having a team that is built through a dominating run game? Isn’t the NFL a passing league, anyways?

Just as there are trends in the NFL, there are those that buck the trends, there is not one singular right way to build a winning football team. No two Super Bowl winners are going to be the same and there are many different routes to winning in the NFL. The Cowboys believe theirs is through elite offensive line play and running the football. Since bringing in Ezekiel Elliott, he’s won two rushing titles, the Cowboys have had three consecutive winning seasons, and won two division titles. Elliott is not the only contributor to that success, of course, but he is certainly a big contributor.

The link above is to an article written by FiveThirtyEight, where the author uses analytics to show that Ezekiel Elliott lacks in several areas. He uses last year’s production in the closing of games, short-yardage, and red zone to determine that Ezekiel Elliott is average at best in situational running, making it a mistake to make him the highest-paid running back.

Situationally, Zeke is profoundly average, but some perspective here is probably needed. Situational running, while important, is relatively rare. Around 5 percent of Elliott’s carries came in the red zone in 2018. 15 percent came in situations when the Cowboys were trying to close out the game, and 14 percent came on short-yardage runs in the open field. The majority of Zeke’s carries — about 65 percent — occurred in other situations. The problem is that those other situations turn out to be awful times to run the football.

Zeke ran 182 times in the first three quarters of games in 2018 on first and second down with at least 4 yards to go — situations when teams shouldn’t be running very often to begin with. Probably the clearest illustration of this folly is shown using an analysis I stole from Timo Riske of Pro Football Focus. On early downs when the outcome of the game is still in doubt, winning teams pass more often than the eventual losers.

Though analytics are a major part of the evaluation process, there are so many aspects of football that cannot be explained by statistics. The problem with relying on something such as WPA or “Win Probability Added per rush” as it’s used regarding Elliott, is that the very creator of the metric calls it a “narrative stat”:

“Stats are tools, and each tool has its own purpose. WPA is what I call a narrative stat. Its purpose is not to be predictive of future play or to measure the true ability of a player or team. It simply measures the impact of each play toward winning and losing.”

Out of the qualifying running backs used by FiveThirtyEight, Elliott was one of three running backs to have over 40 rushes. Todd Gurley was the only back in the Top-10. Royce Freeman topped the list adding .012 per rush in WPA, that’s on 12 total carries. What are the contexts in these games where Elliott is carrying the ball to close it out? There are some fine points being made but context is always king.

How well were the Cowboys’ offensive linemen playing at end of these games? We know there were ample struggles in the red zone both with blocking and playcalling. Are we sure we can make emphatic statements about Ezekiel Elliott’s value to his team without considering the other circumstances that may affect his production?

We come full circle back to trends in the NFL to which the Cowboys are not like their counterparts. Dallas is committed to running the football and that means the ball is going to be in the hands of Ezekiel Elliott a lot. When arguing the value of a second contract for Zeke, the questions to pose have nothing to do with red zone carries, closing out games, or short-yardage running.

The real question is how can the Cowboys get the most out of Ezekiel Elliott? You don’t draft a player of his ability fourth overall to be a one-trick pony. Prior to 2018, Elliott was severely underutilized and ranked 37th among running backs in receiving production. It’s documented that last year’s Cowboys made the most out of a dysfunctional offensive relationship between the players and the gameplan. One area where they did succeed was getting their best offensive player more involved. In 2018, Ezekiel Elliott finished Top-5 in targets, receptions, catch percentage, and yards per reception. Instead of picking apart individual stats though, look at where Ezekiel Elliott fits in to the Cowboys’ winning formula. That will give you all the answers you need. Ezekiel Elliott is tremendously valuable to the Cowboys offense and that’s the reason you pay the guy.