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Crunching Cowboys stats: Running backs matter - in a way

No Zeke, no problem.

San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys
He gone.
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Coming into the San Francisco 49ers game, the Dallas Cowboys were without starting running back Ezekiel Elliott. He is the straw that stirs the drink. The team would be in dire straits without him. At least, that is the way he has been described by certain influential persons with the Dallas organization named Jones.

But what we got was a rare convincing win. Yes, it was against another team that has been struggling. Yes, this one was, like the previous week’s victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, largely because of the sudden flurry of takeaways, with seven over the past two weeks for a team that was getting almost none in the first dozen games of the season.

Yet the offense worked without Elliott. It didn’t have to work much, because all those turnovers meant that the Cowboys started four drives inside San Francisco territory, three of them inside the 30. That really skewed some stats for this game. However, you can only work with the game situation as it unfolded. Even under the incredibly favorable conditions, where the Cowboys led almost all game and never trailed, there is still some evidence that the importance of Elliott to the team is overstated, at least within the Star. Here is the case for that.

Running game context

Some may look at the total rushing yards and think that the Cowboys really weren’t able to do anything on the ground. They only totaled 87. One big play accounted for nearly half that.

But the passing game only put up 204 yards. With that incredible field position advantage, Dallas just didn’t need to go very far. They put up 34 points, not counting the “Oh, look what I found” touchdown return in the waning seconds by CeeDee Lamb. There simply was no need to grind things out and get big yards. And since the 49ers had to go much further for their points, with an average starting field position of their own 24, they used up most of the clock, with the Cowboys only having the ball for 25:04.

The lack of yards wasn’t just about the efficiency of the running backs, either. Dallas only had 22 running plays, which includes scrambles by Andy Dalton and his happy feet. There were 34 actual passing attempts in the game, plus two sacks. That is a ratio you would expect to see for a team that was playing from behind, not one that had a lead for most of the game, sometimes of two scores.

Even more telling is the play distribution on early downs. On first down, the Cowboys attempted a pass 14 times, while only running it 12. (This is based on a hand count, so any errors are on me.) That was even more pronounced in the first half, as they were slightly more apt to hand it off later in the game with seven first down runs after halftime. This is the kind of play-calling we want to see from Kellen Moore, stressing the defense with unpredictable decisions. It was especially gratifying to see that even when the Cowboys were down close, they still were throwing the ball on first down frequently. And effectively.

Second down was even more tilted to the pass, with a two to one ratio in favor of throwing. That is at times dictated by distance, but still is encouraging. Even with a less dynamic quarterback than Dak Prescott, Moore is keeping the pass dialed up on early downs.

That raises an intriguing question. Was there more freedom to lean to passes on first down because there was not a highly-drafted and richly-compensated running back to feed? We obviously don’t know, but the numbers certainly make that possible. Also possible is that this offense and coordinator are better without Elliott, not worse.

That is controversial, but I have a fairly thick skin after a decade of doing this.

Big play Pollard

Tony Pollard, naturally, stepped into the starting job, with Rico Dowdle his backup. Pollard would have a solid day with 69 yards rushing on just 12 carries, with the total obviously boosted by his 40-yard, tackle-breaking touchdown. It was also hurt a bit by two handoffs inside the three-yard line, with his first touchdown of the day at the end.

But he was the biggest offensive weapon of the game, adding 63 yards on six catches, including another long play, this for 30 yards. It highlighted his speed and elusiveness. That is 132 total yards and two scores, totaling 45% of the offense and half the offensive touchdowns.

When is the last time Elliott did that? Has he ever?

It was clear that the game plan was designed to include some heavy doses of Pollard, as on the first, short scoring drive (22 yards) he was the only player to get the ball, on three carries and two receptions. He was targeted nine times, more than any other receiver.

Does this mean he is more dynamic that Elliott? More effective? It is hardly conclusive since it was just one game. But it is rather suggestive. As our Matt Holleran wrote, the team needs to find a better mix of the two once Elliott returns. And as others are beginning to speculate, it may be more than balance that would be best for Dallas. Pollard may just be the better option.

There are some who respond with how 70 of the total yards from scrimmage for Pollard came on just two plays. But those two plays were three of the biggest for Dallas in the game. If, as he has begun to demonstrate, Pollard is able to do that with some regularity, isn’t that more valuable than just piling up a bunch of shorter gains on a lot of carries? That was the approach with Elliott in many games, especially in the Jason Garrett era. An argument can certainly be made to lean toward a back who is demonstrating an ability to break big ones, something that seems to have fallen precipitously off for Elliott.

Or, as has already been mentioned, the decision to keep giving the ball to Elliott might have been direction from on high. The Cowboys were finally forced to try something different this year as Elliott missed his first ever game due to injury. They were very fortunate to have such a capable backup, combined with a play-caller who showed a great grasp of how to maximize him.

It seems unimaginable that Elliott would not be the starter when he is healthy again. That does not mean it would be the right decision. There is also the consideration that we need to see Pollard continue to perform well, but that tweet embedded above shows that he is off to a good start.

Is this a brewing running back controversy for the Cowboys? Perhaps. One thing is certain, Pollard was the offensive star for the Cowboys, and needs to be utilized fully if the team wants to win the last two games.