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Mike McCarthy signals that the Cowboys are ready to be smarter about Ezekiel Elliott

It should mean more touches for Tony Pollard

Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Ezekiel Elliott had by far his worst season of his young career in 2020, a common theme for many Cowboys players this past year. In response, Elliott showed up to training camp looking noticeably leaner, faster, and more determined than ever. Other players have been raving about his offseason prep routine, which reportedly included working out with Dak Prescott and other teammates at the quarterback’s own private football field.

So while Zeke is looking to bounce back in 2021, the Cowboys coaches are also looking to use him in a smarter manner. Early on in his career, Elliott was used at an alarmingly high rate, leading the NFL in carries two of his first three seasons with varying results. It’s also worth noting that, of those first three years, the only season in which he didn’t lead the league in carries was the year in which Elliott was suspended for six games; extrapolating his stats over a full 16 games would have saw the running back once again leading the league in rush attempts, by a wide margin.

But things took a stark change in 2019 when Kellen Moore took over as the offensive coordinator, and Elliott’s usage numbers decreased. There were several factors that went into this: Moore has proven to be more pass-happy than his predecessor, Tony Pollard joined the team that same year, and Dallas was frequently caught playing from behind or in very close games throughout the season, which led to more pass plays in general.

All of those trends continued in 2020, as well as the introduction of head coach Mike McCarthy, also known to be a very pass-happy offensive mind. Elliott’s touches once again saw a decrease, but this time he also played miserably. Heading into 2021, McCarthy has indicated that he’s not looking at a big change in Elliott’s touches to recalibrate:

“Your two-back schemes the last couple years have increased [in the NFL],” McCarthy said Thursday, via the team’s official site. “You’ll see it the next couple practices. We’re going to see it [on defense] more than we have. Dan [Quinn] needs to see the two-back stuff.”

“We’ve got Tony Pollard, and Rico [Dowdle] has looked good,” McCarthy said. “We’ve got some younger guys who can play and produce, so it’s not necessary for Zeke to run the ball 25-30 times a game. When you get to December, January football, you want him to be in top form to be able to run the ball 25-30 times if needed.”

There will inevitably be some debates about Elliott’s usage in relation to his cost and draft pedigree, but that’s more of a concern for the front office. McCarthy and Moore are more interested in getting the best performance out of their players and making sure that someone of Zeke’s talent is ready for a full load near the end of the season when the team may need to make a playoff push.

In fact, the advanced numbers suggest that this is the correct path to take anyway. Here is the breakdown of Elliott’s efficiency stats throughout his career thus far:

Ezekiel Elliott’s Efficiency

Games Played Carries Carries/Game DVOA Rank DYAR Rank
Games Played Carries Carries/Game DVOA Rank DYAR Rank
15 322 21.46666667 6th 1st
10 242 24.2 8th 7th
15 304 20.26666667 20th 9th
16 301 18.8125 4th 1st
15 244 16.26666667 27th 20th

For clarity’s sake, the difference between DYAR and DVOA with regards to individual players is best summed up as DYAR representing a player’s overall value while DVOA represents more value per play.

As you can see, Elliott was sensational in his rookie year, but saw a gradual decline in efficiency over the next two years. In Moore’s first year as the offensive coordinator, Elliott saw a career low in carries per game but posted career bests in efficiency, placing fourth in DVOA and first in DYAR for the first time since his rookie year.

Of course, Zeke’s efficiency numbers in 2020 were absolutely awful. However, this can be largely chalked up to his turnover issues. As was widely covered, Zeke had an uncommon challenge holding onto the ball last year; he tied his career high for fumbles in a year with six, and five of those came in the first six games of the year. But Zeke was also inefficient in the passing game. According to Football Outsiders, he recorded a career-high eight dropped passes last year. Additionally, three of his targets resulted in interceptions, a number which sat at zero each of the previous two seasons.

In short, Elliott had some enormously low peaks in 2020, with most of his exceptionally bad plays coming in bunches early in the year. This statistical anomaly likely played a large part in Elliott’s career-worst efficiency numbers. Offensive line issues almost certainly played a part too, so a progression toward the mean in 2021 should be widely expected.

It’s also worth noting that while Pollard’s efficiency numbers were better than Zeke’s last year - the second-year running back finished 13th in DVOA and 18th in DYAR - he placed significantly below Elliott in the EPA-based success rate statistic: Elliott was 25th in success rate, while Pollard was 56th in success rate.

Basically, all of this means that Elliott is still the better running back in Dallas, but Pollard has some clear value to be added. The statistics suggest that Zeke becomes more efficient the less he’s used in a game, so long as he doesn’t turn it over. In other words, the Cowboys are being smart in their stated approach to use Elliott less during the bulk of the season and preserve his best football for when it will matter most, such as the four divisional games over their final five games of the season.