34 to 28 with three and a half minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. The college football playoff was on the line. Ohio State held the lead and the ball, looking to upset no. 1 overall Alabama. On first and ten, Ezekiel Elliott took the handoff and rolled out left. He would not be touched on his way to an 85-yard touchdown to seal the game.
After a 1,821-yard junior season, many believed the OSU running back was a safe pick. The Dallas Cowboys thought so. They selected Elliott fourth overall with Jalen Ramsey still on the board. Since then, Elliott’s time in Dallas has been up-and-down, with more “down” moments in recent years.
If the Cowboys want to avoid a situation like this happening again, they should turn to analytics. Quantifying talent in sports became popular when Michael Lewis published “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” in 2003. The book detailed Billy Beane’s use of analytics to build a roster for the Oakland Athletics. This approach made its way to professional football in the mid-2000s.
By 2021, every NFL team employed at least one data specialist. The use of statistics has led to improvements in roster construction and in-game decision-making. But the main result of analytics in football is that teams now believe the running back position is overvalued. And if the Cowboys want to increase their probability of success, they have to adopt this approach.
The Cowboys need to adopt analytics and start ignoring the running back position
Halfbacks contribute to the outcome of a game, but not because of their ability. An above-average quarterback or receiver can use their athleticism to move the ball downfield. But Pro Football Focus, a company that provides data-driven insights for NFL teams, found that offensive line performance, defensive strength and yards from the end zone affect the result of a rushing play more than the running back’s talent.
Halfbacks who can take over a game, such as rookie year Ezekiel Elliott, are the exception rather than the rule. And it is not a coincidence that Elliott’s best years came when the offensive line was at its best.
In-game analytics has also limited a running back’s influence. Teams increasingly believe that passing is more effective than rushing to convert first downs and score points. Rushing frequency continues to decline in situations like third and short, first downs and around the goal line. Simply put, you don't need a running back as often as you used to.
Players like Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans, who shoulder the workload for their team, are a dying breed. From 2001 to 2010, 48 running backs carried the ball more than 325 times in one season. Since then, only eight running backs have hit that mark.
Because of the declining value of the running back, Dallas needs to ignore the position in the first few rounds of the draft. From 1985 to 1989, 41 running backs were selected in the first two rounds. Compare this to 2017 to 2021, where 22 running backs were selected in these rounds. Taking a running back in the first round is a scary proposition that is not advisable. Taking a running back fourth overall, as the Cowboys did with Elliott, should never happen again.
Limitations in analytics are also devaluing the position. One facet of football that is nearly impossible to foresee is injury. But a starting running back is tackled 200 times a year on average. The risk of a torn Achilles or concussion is greater for this position than for others.
Because of this risk, it is challenging to find a safe pick at halfback. Since 2006, running backs selected in the first two rounds have become a consistent starter 31% of the time. This number dips to only 26% for fourth-round selections. It is easier to evaluate positions like wide receiver who become a starter 59% of the time if taken in the first two rounds.
This trend doesn’t stop at draft value. From 2011 to 2021, the average NFL salary grew from $2.3 million to $3.5 million. But over this span, the average running back contract declined by $600,000. This is another facet that makes Elliott’s six-year, $90 million contract even more disappointing.
And the odds that a running back even receives a contract is decreasing. A fourth-round running back makes $750,000 annually, whereas the minimum for a veteran running back is $1.1 million. A late-round halfback is younger, cheaper and thought to be interchangeable with the veteran. In 2011, nine starting running backs were on their rookie contracts. In 2021, that number stood at 17, more than half of the 32 NFL teams.
Here is the hard truth, over the last three years, the Cowboys easily could have replicated Elliott’s production with a fourth-round running back at a fraction of the price (i.e. Tony Pollard).
Football still needs running backs. But Dallas’ strategy needs to revolve around minimizing the capital invested in the position. Using a bunch of low-cost dart throws in the later rounds is the best place to find running backs.
This approach is changing the NFL and leading to success on the field for teams that choose to adopt it. Since 2008, no team has won a Super Bowl while investing more than $2.5 million in its starting halfback. Efficient capital allocation in professional football leads to success, which now entails prioritizing other positions over running back.
The shift away from the position is at an all-time high. In 2022, only three running backs were selected in the top two rounds of the draft, tied for the fifth-lowest total in NFL history. The average contract amount of a starting running back declined by $275,000 compared to 2020. And for just the third time in history, all 32 teams passed more than they ran the ball.
The Cowboys need to catch up with the rest of the NFL. The value of a running back continues to decline. The era of the workhorse halfback seems to be over. And quarterbacks are more important than ever.
In 2023, the Cowboys have the opportunity to get out of Ezekiel Elliott’s contract, and with Tony Pollard set to be a free agent, they will start from scratch. Now we have to hope that the front office has learned its lesson and is willing to start ignoring the position. If they want to win, they have to change with the rest of the league.