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Learning from the mediocrity of Dak and Zeke in 2018

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The duo was strictly middle-of-the-pack in per-play production.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Test question: You are an NFL offensive coordinator, and for your next play, you have two basic options. Put the ball in player A’s hands, and expect, on average, 4.7 yards, or give it to player B knowing the average gain will be 7.4.

It seems rather simple. Even if you factor in the situation, you want to gain more yards, right? Oh, sure, you will have to mix things up at times because defenses adjust and you have to keep them uncertain what is coming. But over time, you would expect to lean towards B. Even make him the real foundation of your offense.

This is a real-world example, based on 2018 season stats. Player A is Ezekiel Elliott when he ran the ball. B is Dak Prescott throwing. Oh, and here’s something else about those numbers. Both were not top ten figures. Elliott was 18th in the league in yards per carry, while Prescott came in 19th for yards per passing attempt.

And yet, the Dallas Cowboys rode those less than impressive numbers to the NFC East crown and a playoff win. Now, they are looking to extend both players, with Prescott targeted to get done this summer, while Elliott will likely be handled in 2020. Is that smart?

Well, yes. For a whole bunch of reasons, some of which are the purpose of this article.

First, however, let’s go back to that first point. Note that the figure on Prescott is based on attempts, not completions. When he got the ball into a receiver’s hands, the average gain went up to 10.9 yard per completion.

If you have even wandered within sniffing distance of football social media, you have probably noticed that there is a raging debate about the relative value of running the ball versus passing. When you look at the numbers, it seems glaringly obvious that passing gets you more than running. Yet the concept of “establishing the run” still dominates the thinking of many coaching staffs. There are a lot of sophisticated analytics that come to the conclusion that this is wrong, but you don’t need advanced statistical analysis to figure this out. Even factoring in incompletions, teams gain more per pass play. It is a simple fact. Now, add in that Prescott completed 67.7 percent of his passes, and the odds of moving the sticks on any given set of downs are pretty good even if you don’t run the ball at all.

Yes, you can also make the counter argument that you can do the same, albeit with more plays, by handing it off to Elliott. But the more plays, the more chances there are for miscues. It is just logical that if you can accomplish your goal with fewer plays, your chances are better of ultimate success.

This is where the idea comes up that running the ball is misused. For those run-first teams, they hand it off more on first down. And that is where it is less likely to succeed. 4.7 yards leaves the team with over five yards on second down. Now you are having to lean towards the pass, and the defense knows it. But if you pass on first down, you are ON AVERAGE going to only have a bit over two and a half yards to go. That is a great time to hand it off. And if you are doing that, Elliott is a pretty good weapon to deploy.

I write all that knowing that few will change their minds on this particular argument. It is important to note that this does not say that Elliott is not valuable. It just says he is less valuable in the way he was used much of last season, and much more so in those short yardage situations.

Now, about those poor rankings from last year. Those both clearly need to improve. That is a key task for new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. We are all hopeful that he is up to the task of replacing Scott Linehan and the stale, predictable offensive approach that drove us all crazy at times last year.

Maybe, however, Moore already has a big advantage. Looking back at 2016, when Linehan was also the offensive coordinator, the numbers for both Prescott and Elliott were much, much better. Elliott was sixth in YPC at 5.1, against defenses that knew the offense was focused on using his legs. Prescott was even better. His 8.0 YPA ranked fourth overall.

What was the biggest difference around them? The offensive line in 2016 was considered the best in the league, so good that an award was basically created to honor them. But in 2018, with Travis Frederick out, La’el Collins struggling during the first half of the season under line coach Paul Alexander, and rookie Connor Williams learning on the job, along with some injury problems for Tyron Smith, it wasn’t the same at all. Now, things are hopefully going to be back on track.

There are also some other things that could lead to improvement, like starting the season with three legitimate starting wide receivers in Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Randall Cobb. The return of Jason Witten is also hoped to be a plus.

So Moore has what appears to be a significantly improved offensive roster to deploy, including a starting QB who is reportedly much better at seeing the defense and handling the offense, and a running back who still has superb ability. As much as we like to heap blame on Linehan, he was having to work with some real limitations last season. Now, Moore faces almost none of those issues.

It is still unknown just how much Moore will change things up, especially given that he is still running Jason Garrett’s offense. But just a shift towards more passes on first down could have significant impact. Add the deception he is expected to employ to put the defenses off balance, throw in an observed emphasis on deeper throws in the OTAs, and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that this offense could really explode.

It doesn’t have to, of course. This is a team that got to the postseason after a 3-5 start. There are obviously some good things to work with and improve upon.

All these moving, interrelated parts make for a fascinating picture. Don’t expect it to all be humming along early, either. There may be some growing pains, but the Cowboys have three games to start the season that are very winnable, and where they can afford some miscues, just as long as there aren’t too many. Plus they no longer have the specter of an Elliott suspension looming over their shoulder. An apparently improved defense also will help.

One more thing could be very important. During the OTAs, just about all the beat writers that cover Dallas were very impressed with the strides Prescott had made as a practice player. That will accelerate the process of making changes and getting them to work.

Those poor stats from last year were a bit surprising, and reflect just how much volume plays in season totals. (Another place that the defense can help tremendously by getting the ball back.) This year will go a long way in telling us whether Prescott and Elliott are truly top-level performers or just average ones who need a lot of possessions to get anything done.

I’m betting on the former.