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Why the running back issue for the Cowboys matters

Jerry Jones had some major praise for Ezekiel Elliott. That could be a problem.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Dallas Cowboys
It’s not really about who is best.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

It has been a while since Jerry Jones has stirred the pot for the Dallas Cowboys. Which just meant we were due. He made a comment that got a lot of people’s attention with his assertion that Ezekiel Elliott is the best player on the team. Given that his performance so far this season has been a bit underwhelming, many took issue with it. But debating whether Zack Martin, Dak Prescott, DeMarcus Lawrence, or some other player is actually better (when healthy) overlooks something that is really just a subjective evaluation from someone who is prone to hyperbole. Because that part was not all that Jones had to say about the subject. Here is a more extensive quote:

Don’t worry about how Jerry has the players ranked in his mind. Worry about those two last sentences. They could indicate that there is a collision looming between the owner and his head coach, Mike McCarthy.

What Jones asserts there smacks of the idea that the Cowboys could just win more if they got the ball in Elliott’s hands more. It’s another form of the idea that if you give him 25 carries, or a similar number, the team will prevail. Without going into the whole causation versus correlation argument, let’s just stipulate that it really doesn’t work that way. Running backs tend to have a lot of carries in wins because teams tend to hand the ball off more when they have a lead, particularly two or more scores. In those situations, running the ball reduces the chance for turnovers and helps run the clock. Conversely, when a team is in a close game and needs to get some more points on the board, the coaches usually lean more on the passing game.

That actually has a good bit to do with why Elliott’s numbers are rather depressed this year, along with a hamstring problem he has been nursing. Dallas has trailed, often by a lot, most of the time this season. They were in catch up mode and had little choice than to have the quarterback du jour sling the ball.

However, one thing that a lot of us (raises hand) hoped that McCarthy was going to change about the Cowboys was the over-reliance on the running game, which since 2016 has meant Elliott. We grew increasingly frustrated with too many early down runs that often left the team in third and long. Passing more on first and second down was not only a way to reduce the predictability of the offense, there is a well-established argument that it is simply the more efficient way to play the game. Again, I won’t go into details on that, just state that it is a pretty convincing case.

If you are of like mind, we have seen some encouraging signs from the Cowboys so far this season. The enforced rotation of starting quarterbacks has probably distorted things a bit, but Kellen Moore seems to have a freer hand in throwing the ball early. It would have been nice if Elliott could have stepped things up under the circumstances, but the makeshift offensive line was another big problem in running the ball.

Those are things that will hopefully resolve, if not this year, then the next. What still remains to be seen is just how much pressure Jones might bring on McCarthy and Moore to establish the run. For those who aren’t aware, establishing the run is another antediluvian football concept that statistics and analysis have shown to be a false path. Some treat analytics as a dirty word as well, but it appears that McCarthy is at least more open to them than his predecessor. For some of us geeks, that is a good thing.

But McCarthy is not the one who decided to pay Zeke. Jerry and his son Stephen made that call, and now it certainly sounds like the elder Jones really wants to see more return on that investment. While he is often prone to speaking before he really thinks it over, this sounds more like him doing a little campaigning in the media. It could be that he does not want to go head-to-head with his new head coach, but wants the message to get through anyway. Or it could be one of those times where Jones lets the cat out of the bag with his incessant love of the microphone.

It is certain that Jones is more hands-on than most owners. He does, after all, also carry the general manager title, and it is not just window dressing. That makes his input something that is a bit hard to ignore. He doesn’t just make the final decision on who the team signs and for how much, he also writes the paychecks for his coaches.

This is a disturbing hint that the owner/GM and head coach do not see eye to eye on how to utilize Elliott. Frankly, teams already put too much emphasis on how much they pay players in assigning playing time. It would just amplify the mistake to also start tilting the play calling to have the money players getting more touches. Basically, that is exactly what Jones is proposing. There is no other way to interpret “more chances to expose him to the defense, and we’re going to do that.”

If McCarthy and Moore have some plans to get Elliott more involved because they think the line is gelling, or they feel he is back to full strength, it is one thing. There is certainly an argument to be made for taking some of the pressure off Andy Dalton, presuming he is the starter as expected this week. But it is another can of worms entirely if this is something that is being forced on the staff. Play calling and touches should be dictated by what helps the team the most, not who is making the most money.

Maybe this is all Jones telling us what he is hearing from the coaches. He certainly has done that before. If so, then this is not an issue. The problem is that it just doesn’t sound like something McCarthy would be doing. He is a passing guy, although not having Prescott could certainly be a factor in adjusting the approach.

Maybe this is seeing problems where they don’t exist, but this just is worrisome. It doesn’t seem likely that the Cowboys are going to win a lot of games going forward with a 1990s style offense of pounding the rock.

Or maybe this is just a backhanded way to tank.