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The Dallas Cowboys, Ezekiel Elliott, and the sunk cost fallacy

Time for the Cowboys to focus on “what have you done for me lately?”

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys
This was the way far too many runs went for him.
Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys have a salary cap problem. That is the message coming from the team, especially Executive Vice President Stephen Jones. They will have to make some moves such as restructuring contracts or releasing players by March 16 to shave $21.7 million in player costs to get under the cap. That is not a major problem, as they can easily do so with as few as two built in restructures. But they will also need to find more space for any free agent signings, including their own. With several players they likely want to retain, such as Randy Gregory, we can expect them to go a bit farther.

There are a number of top contracts that are driving the cap issues, but none is seen as more limiting than that of Ezekiel Elliott. He had a disappointing performance last season. He only rushed for 1,002 yards, and his 4.2 yards per carry was tied for 29th among all running backs. That includes a bunch who had relatively few carries, but even taking them out, he was a rather pedestrian 21st among those who had roughly 100 carries or more during the season.

That is not the production expected from someone who is be the bell cow of the running game. And as has been repeatedly discussed, he was much less effective per carry than his teammate Tony Pollard, who averaged 5.5 yards per carry. Even more marked was the difference in what they did catching passes, where Pollard averaged 8.6 yards a catch versus just 6.1 for Elliott. If you go beyond raw stats, the story of Elliott as a pass receiver is far more grim.

Whether it is the frequent failed carries on early downs, the fact he is getting the ball far more than Pollard, or his obvious liabilities in the passing game, there are strong arguments that Elliott is simply not worth his unwise huge contract. His only solid contribution is as a pass protector, where he is one of the best in the league. Still, that is hardly worth the money he is being paid, or the way he is hurting the team when he is handling the ball.

It is a bit heretical to observe this, but the Cowboys most likely would be a better team without Elliott. As has been proven innumerable times, a mid- or even late-round draft pick can come into the NFL and be an effective running back at a tiny fraction of the cost of Elliott. But the team is stuck with him because there are no cap savings to be had from releasing him even as a post June 1 cut, and it would incur an $18.22 million dead money hit. That is his $12.4 million guaranteed base salary plus the prorated cost of previous restructures. Because of that, moving on from Elliot before 2023, when he would net the team $10.9 in cap space, is seen as completely impossible.

That is actually wrong. It is a case of what is called the sunk cost fallacy. As described on The Decision Lab website, devoted to better decision making in all businesses:

The Sunk Cost Fallacy describes our tendency to follow through on an endeavor if we have already invested time, effort, or money into it, whether or not the current costs outweigh the benefits.

This is fully applicable to the Cowboys, which not only is a hugely profitable endeavor for the Jones family but evidentially often leans more on the balance sheet than the won-loss record in making decisions. The fourth overall draft pick used to acquire Elliott is just another element to add to the things they are misusing in keeping him on the team.

That does nothing to reduce the dead money hit he would represent this year. The problem is that the money is gone whether you play him or cut him. And in this case, keeping him on the team is paying him to hinder the offense.

For that reason, eating the dead money would counter-intuitively be the best thing for Dallas to do. While there would be a relatively small cost in the money paid for the player to fill his roster spot, it would be done with the intention of getting at least as much production on a per-play basis, while shifting the load to Pollard, who has given reasonable evidence that he would lift the team.

The high draft pick and the out-sized contract he bullied the team into giving him are being given a lot of weight in this situation, at least if what Stephen Jones says is to be taken at face value. And that is always wrong. None of that can be gotten back. The money and capital expended already is gone forever. It should not play into making decisions on who is on the team and what role they play. But Elliott is retained largely because he used to be a much more effective running back. That too is in the past. Last season was not at all what the team needed from the position.

After the season was over, it was revealed that Elliott was playing through a partially torn PCL most of the season. That is an argument that he could be more like he was in the past after an offseason to heal. But the way that decision to keep him on the field played out certainly suggests that maintaining his role as the lead back was driven by financial rather than production factors. Countering that is how running backs have a notoriously short shelf life in the league on average. Even if he does fully recover and look more like he used to, there is the risk that the decline has started. He also has that dismal history in the passing game.

Admittedly, the chances of the Cowboys moving on from Elliott before 2023 at the earliest fall between slim and none. But he remains an example of the muddled thinking on roster management and game-time usage in Dallas. Clarity there is not any more likely to come.

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