It is common knowledge. The Dallas Cowboys are stuck with Ezekiel Elliott and his big contract for at least another season. That is a problem because the running back is past his prime and unable to deliver.
Well, let’s take a look at that. It turns out that common knowledge might be wrong.
Let’s start with where Elliott ranked among all running backs last season. With all the hue and cry about how bad he was, he must have been pretty far down the list. Except for the fact he wasn’t. Last year, he had the seventh-most rushing yards in the league. They weren’t meaningless gains, either. He was eighth in scoring on the ground. (Seventh if you don’t count the QB for our beloved rivals that ranks just above him.)
Rushing 1st downs 2021— ✭ Outlaw Cowboy ✭ (@Outlaw_CowboyFB) May 27, 2022
Jonathan Taylor - 107
Antonio Gibson - 65
Najee Harris - 62
Nick Chubb - 61
Joe Mixon - 60
Dalvin Cook - 57
Jalen Hurts - 56
*Ezekiel Elliott - 55
Damien Harris - 55
David Montgomery - 55
Josh Allen - 54
*Ran on torn PCL for 13 games pic.twitter.com/vK14Z2v3oN
Some may say those volume stats are misleading. There is some validity to that, as Elliott was much further down the list in yards per game and yards per carry. Derrick Henry led the league with 117.1 YPG, but only played half the season. Nick Chubb, Dalvin Cook, Elijah Mitchell, and others would probably have eclipsed Elliott’s season total as well if they had not missed multiple games. All told, there were 17 running backs in the league who had a better YPG average. But availability is important. Elliott was out there for all 17 games, even though he played most of the season on that torn PCL mentioned in the tweet above.
A more accurate way of looking at things is the YPC number. There were many who did better than Elliott, but that includes a lot of players who saw limited action as well as QBs and WRs on the list. It is worth noting that not only did Tony Pollard finish with a better YPC average, so did JaQuan Hardy, thanks to the latter only seeing four attempts in the meaningless season finale and boosted by his 22 yard touchdown scamper.
Elliott was the workhorse back for Dallas, and should mostly be compared to others who filled a similar role. Elliott took the handoff 237 times in 2021. (As a side note, Pollard had 130 carries, which is probably a much closer split than many think given the demands that he get the ball more.) If we just look at players who had 200+ carries last year as a somewhat arbitrary cutoff, that puts Elliott tenth in the league, which is still not too shabby. It is also worth noting that Elliott’s 4.2 yards a carry is not at all far behind Henry (4.3), and no one seems to be worrying about him being washed up.
It is also worth noting how that injury, suffered in Week 5 against the New York Giants, affected Elliott’s season. After the season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where Dallas basically conceded the running game to the Bucs defense, he had YPG/YPC numbers of 71/4.44, 95/5.59, 143/7.15, and 110/5.24. After that, both numbers fell of precipitously. Had he continued the rest of the season the way he was going in that four game stretch, he would likely have wound up around 1,500 yards for the year. No one would complain about that.
The reason he played through the torn PCL was that rest is really the only way to heal that up. He was still the best option as a starter, even hurt. Now his knee is reportedly healthy. While he could always have another injury, his history is one of durability, with only a suspension keeping him off the field for more than one game in a season. The PCL injury visibly affected his agility and cutting ability. If he can avoid something similar, he should be more productive in volume stats and overall effectiveness.
Some have concerns about Elliott’s age. History says that running backs tend to decline as they approach 30. However, Elliott will be 27 when the season starts. Even given the short shelf life at the position, he could well have two or three good seasons left.
Whether the Cowboys should be so concerned with running the ball is another discussion. For better or worse, that seems to be the plan, at least while Elliott’s contract handcuffs the team to him. What the numbers from last season tell is that is not really as bad an idea as many assume. No one can question his drive or work ethic. He is well aware of the criticisms circulating in both regular and social media. A chip on the shoulder can be a good thing. He has looked very ready to prove many wrong during the admittedly limited exposure of the OTAs. If he is able to play more like the rookie that impressed the entire league, he could be an important cog for Dallas.