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Sturm: Breaking down the “Zeke decision,” which will determine Cowboys’ direction for years to come

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  • Sturm: Breaking down the “Zeke decision,” which will determine Cowboys’ direction for years to come

    By Bob Sturm 2h ago

    The offseason comes in waves or a series of news cycles, many filled with contrived and manufactured plots, crashing against the shore one after the next. Most every one occupies some length of time, air space and conversation. But in the end, they run out of steam and head back out to sea, only to be overtaken by the next. I suppose it props up the sport in its down season, but there must be a better way.

    Since the Cowboys lost in Los Angeles to end their 2018 campaign, we have fought through a series of these waves. They have carried us from the job security of Jason Garrett to the overhaul of the front office to the free agency of DeMarcus Lawrence to the price tag of Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper to, now, a wave of discussions about Ezekiel Elliott’s future.

    This wave, at least, had a reasonably obvious genesis with the recent demands of Chargers running back Melvin Gordon (drafted one year earlier), who suggested that without a new contract to his liking, he will not show up to camp ahead of the fifth and final season of his five-year rookie deal. Gordon saw the Le’Veon Bell situation play out in 2018, in which Bell was eventually able to get the “top of the market” contract he wanted in March after not playing a snap since 2017. (It can easily be debated whether he came out ahead, however.)

    That led media folks like me to surmise that Ezekiel Elliott is certainly watching Gordon’s story with great interest, and a subsequent holdout seems inevitable. So the Cowboys obviously watch with great interest, too. And, yes, so are the legions of folks who have debated the wisdom of investing in a running back in a world when the league continues to tell us the ground game is living on borrowed time. Will the Cowboys marry Elliott at top dollar for years and years to come when the league is headed elsewhere?

    Before we tackle that, though, a brief overview on the direction of the NFL.

    We grew up in a “balanced offense” football world, with coaches telling us we needed a run for every pass. We needed to occupy the defense with a battering ram that will make them forget about the ambush over the top with one of those risky throws. Just look at what the span of 50 years has shown us:

    Balance once meant 50/50. But, surely, in today’s shorthand, run-pass balance means a rate closer to 40/60. Given what we see at the college level – which has certainly started to help transform the professional ranks by the year – could we see it move to 35/65 or even 30/70 before long? Kliff Kingsbury has just been hired by the NFL and it wasn’t because he won everything there was to win at the college ranks. Rather, it was because his offense and offenses like it — which use the run only as a change-up pitch to set up more passing — are the newest direction for the NFL. Why? Because damage is done through the passing game, and no other variation of offense comes close when it comes to the yields of yardage, points and every single analytic that exists on this matter. You can and will still use the running game, but only in moderation. It is all to set up more opportunities through the air.

    Add this to what we already know about running backs – no position takes more punishment and has a shorter career span – and you can quickly see why the NFL continues to suggest that teams will seldom invest heavily on running backs beyond the age of 25 or so with a second contract. When we were young, there was great debate about the “talisman” of an offense. Would you rather lose the running back or the quarterback for a month? Now that question is absurd in nearly every city. Sure, the running back might be dynamic, but if he is, it is because he is a danger in the passing game as well as the running game. No running back can carry an offense with a sub-par quarterback anymore.

    The battering ram running back has gone the way of the post-up center in the NBA: Often employed, but seldom compensated like his mates. The game evolved, and the financials evolved with it.

    Back to the Cowboys and their particular situation that should, and will, have many yelling “But Elliott does carry this offense!” at their screens. There is no denying Elliott has produced at a phenomenal rate since entering the league. He has led the NFL in rushing over those three years by a healthy margin. Since 2016, he has 4,048 yards, which is 600 yards beyond any other player despite missing eight games over that stretch. Re-read that last sentence, and let it soak in. His total yards from scrimmage also leads the NFL during that span by over 100 yards (Todd Gurley finished second in both categories, by the way) and he ranks fifth in total touchdowns (34) behind Gurley, Gordon, Antonio Brown and Davante Adams, each of whom score a large portion of their touchdowns through the air.

    Only one team, Buffalo, has more yards on the ground during these three seasons. Only two, Green Bay and Cleveland, have more yards per carry – and both run quite infrequently.

    During this span, Elliott also has the second-most receptions on the Cowboys and the fourth-most receiving yards. No Cowboy has scored even 15 touchdowns beside Zeke and Prescott (18).

    Should you try to find the “MVP” of a Cowboys team that has won 67% of their games in three seasons, you would certainly know who is winning that award around here. He is a machine. He is durable. And he has been exactly what the Cowboys thought they were drafting when they disappointed many of us by using their best draft pick in 25 years to take a player at a position that the league believes should be an afterthought. You should take premium positions with premium picks, right? Well, the Cowboys disagreed on either the premise about the position or the premise about the player. Or both.

    This chart is similar to the one above, but only includes Dallas, and just since Jason Garrett has been the head coach, from 2010 through 2018. I am often asked, “What is Jason Garrett’s offense?” To that, I respond with the questions of “What year is it?”, “What are the circumstances going in?”, and “Was he able to stick with his plan?” You see, unlike Bill Belichick, Andy Reid — or yes, even Kliff Kingsbury — there is no real predictable pattern of run-pass with this coach. We have seen two extremes that few coaches can match:

    Just look at that. From 2011 through 2013, the Cowboys ran the ball 31st-most in the NFL. Then, on a dime, they shifted to first in the NFL from 2014 through 2017. Before you credit Scott Linehan for changing that philosophy around here, you should know that the only reason the Cowboys weren’t 32nd in rushing from 2011-2013 is because Detroit was, and that is where Linehan was, too. So, they sure didn’t bring in “Mr. Running Game” to fix it. They literally hired the only OC who seemed to value the running game less than Garrett and the Cowboys.

    But, again, we are talking about a team that went from well-below league-average to well-above league-average in the blink of an eye, with the same quarterback at the helm. Furthermore, they had an elite quarterback, wide receiver and tight end all together from 2011 through 2013 and still could never break the eight-win barrier with this dedication to the pass.

    So they plotted a new path through the ground game. Zack Martin joined Travis Frederick and Tyron Smith, and the Cowboys ran through the league using a physical ground-and-pound style as other teams diminished their running games. They started to follow the Seattle template defensively and the 1990’s Cowboys template (which is also the Seattle modern-day run-first template) offensively. And it took off in the win column: Dallas has 48 regular-season wins since 2014 (fifth league-wide) and 32 since 2016 (first in the NFC).

    You can argue that the league no longer runs the ball to the playoffs and to championships anymore, but Seattle and now Dallas seem to respectfully disagree. They are first and second in rush percentage over the last five years and are also fourth and fifth in NFL wins during that same span.

    NFL 2014-2018, Wins-Loss and Rush %
    1 New England Patriots 62 18 41.9
    2t Kansas City Chiefs 54 26 42.1
    2t Pittsburgh Steelers 54 25 38.4
    4 Seattle Seahawks 51 28 46.6
    5 Dallas Cowboys 48 32 46.5
    6 Minnesota Vikings 47 32 42.3
    7t Carolina Panthers 46 33 45.3
    7t Philadelphia Eagles 46 34 41.1
    9t Green Bay Packers 45 34 38.4
    9t New Orleans Saints 45 35 40
    Totals 1275 1275 41.4
    The above chart seems to indicate there are multiple ways to skin a cat. And before you suggest that Dallas has nothing to show for it in the playoffs, this is why browsing Seattle is worthwhile. The Seahakws have played the second-most playoff games during that span, trailing only New England. If the Cowboys’ philosophy is flawed, it isn’t because it can’t work with a dual-threat quarterback, strong defense and a physical run game featuring a star running back. (Of course, trying to find another Seattle might be like trying to find another Emmitt Smith. Seattle was a pretty rare confluence of events that had the right timing to fit them all under a tight salary cap before the quarterback’s contract plus the age and attrition of its defense took over. Chasing that blueprint might have been possible from 2016 through 2018, but certainly not beyond. Also, the cash outlay to Marshawn Lynch during that stretch was decent, but never substantial.)

    Which is all well and good, but it could also be argued that the 2014 Cowboys were the best of this bunch, and that bunch did not have Ezekiel Elliott. In fact, aside from Frederick, Martin and Smith, the 2016-18 Cowboys feature almost an entirely new cast of characters (Jason Witten is his own study). That might tell us that the indispensable part of the unit is, in fact, the offensive line. Yes, you need above-average quarterback play, a stand-out running back and a coverage-dictating “X” receiver – but, evidently, those are somewhat interchangeable. Nobody is saying “replacement level” could do it, but it can be done with quality. The constant through the process has been the offensive line.

    But this situation is not Tony Romo’s body breaking down, Dez Bryant’s decline or Jason Witten being attracted to television’s relaunch of his aging career. This features a running back nearing the end of his deal while demonstrating “best in the business” production at an age that suggests he can do this for years to come. Perhaps most importantly, he is still just 23 years old (for another week).

    This is a franchise that lovingly looks back at its glory days, which just so happened to feature a running back who was the best in the league and never declined in his 20s. In fact, Emmitt Smith got his second “huge” contract after a holdout, lived up to it well enough to earn a third, even bigger contract and nearly lived out that entire deal, too.

    Smith is the NFL’s all-time leading rusher and a real unicorn. When you look at his production, his durability and his dependable performances from 1990 through at least 2001, you see nothing but quality. There was hardly a serious injury, seldom a down season and never any regrets about the amount of money he was being paid to deliver a star performance. You can believe that, when the Cowboys looked at Elliott, they were seeing the next Emmitt. Too many touches and too many carries? Ridiculous. He can handle your workload, and you can’t wear him out.

    Smith held out entering his fourth season, but also only had a four-year rookie contract. Elliott is entering year four of his five-year deal this month.

    Of course, there is also the case of DeMarco Murray, the Cowboys running back who led the NFL in rushes, yards, touchdowns, touches and yards from scrimmage in 2014. It was his fourth season of a four-year rookie contract, too. He seemed to be the reason for the Cowboys’ rise from the worst-running team to the best. He was absurdly productive that season at a moment when the Cowboys would surely have to pay him to keep this band together. The trouble was that Dez Bryant had his own dominant season and also playing on an expiring contract. They would need the franchise tag for Bryant, so any idea to squeeze a bonus year out of Murray – who had not stayed very healthy in his first three seasons – was not going to fly. They would either have to extend him at the going rate or lose him to free agency.

    The decision seemed pretty clear. The two parties did discuss “an offer,” but it was firmly low. Cynically, it became pretty clear that the Cowboys weren’t going to keep Murray; therefore, they had no reason to monitor his workload. Ride the horse as far as he can go in 2014, and then find a new back. Murray’s 449 touches in the regular season were the second-most over the last 15 seasons in the NFL. (Only Larry Johnson’s, 2006 season, in which he was clearly run into the ground, featured more.) If you add in the two playoff games that took him to 497 touches, you would find that no player in the history of the sport had ever carried and caught the ball more in one campaign than Murray did in 2014. It wasn’t a heavy workload. It was the heaviest ever.

    These days, you don’t have to go far to find experts who will use terms like “negligence” when a team asks a running back to take a beating over 300 carries. The single-back approach seemed completely extinct a decade ago but has found a resurgence with Gurley, Elliott, Saquon Barkley and holdover Adrian Peterson. Still, only Elliott turned in a 300-carry season last year. There have only been six 300-carry seasons since 2014, and the Cowboys have half of them between Murray in 2014 and Elliott in 2016 and 2018. There is little doubt that Elliott would have hit that mark easily in 2017, as well, were it not for his suspension. This is consistent with the way they used Murray in 2014, but not very smart if you want Elliott to follow Emmitt Smith through a second and third contract into his early 30s.

    But what if that’s not the plan at all? Are the Cowboys running Elliott into the ground because they have no plans to extend him? Was their plan all along – to draft him, use him early and often, get five years of hard usage from 2016 through 2020, tack on a bonus year with the franchise tag in 2021, then rinse and repeat when you need another version in 2022?

    If it truly is their plan, they would be wise to never suggest anything of the sort publicly. They would be wise to say all the right things, compliment the player, keep the peace and hopefully keep the train going down the tracks. If a player knows he is purposely being used recklessly, with the intention of never paying him “the going rate” extension, no matter what, he will very likely try to protect his body with a holdout. And, honestly, how can anyone blame these players? If they are being treated as a disposable commodity in a huddle that has others who “will be taken care of” when the time comes, I imagine this is where the ill feelings start for Bell, Gordon or literally any running back of elite quality.

    Of course, the flip side is you pay them a handsome extension as the Rams did last summer with Gurley (another 2015 draftee) and regret it within one season because his health already appears to be diminishing, both because he has the most dangerous job in sports and because a human body was surely not intended for that wear and tear long-term. You want to keep him happy, but you also don’t want a millstone deal before it even kicks in. The likely deal for Elliott would have to be the biggest running back deal in the business. That means north of Bell’s new four-year, $52.5 million deal in New York and Gurley’s fresh four-year, $57.5 million deal with $45 million practically guaranteed. Given it would not be written within 20 months of Gurley, I think anywhere from four years, $64 million to five years at $80 million is not as crazy as you might think. That will certainly make things pretty cozy with the cap, and it would also arrive as Elliott blows past 1,200 career carries and 1,400 career touches. That should give you pause unless he really is a unicorn.

    Elliott has an insane number of touches. Had he played in all 48 games, his workload over his first three seasons would be second-highest in NFL history behind LaDainian Tomlinson. That’s right: Second-highest ever. As it stands, he is only 13th on the list below:

    Most Touches, first three seasons, NFL History (Courtesy Pro Football Reference):
    1 LaDainian Tomlinson* 2001 2003 SDG 48 1262 4585 6145
    2 Eric Dickerson* 1983 1985 RAM 46 1153 5147 5816
    3 Emmitt Smith* 1990 1992 DAL 48 1111 4213 5034
    4 Eddie George 1996 1998 OTI 48 1107 4061 4597
    5 Jamal Lewis 2000 2003 RAV 48 1104 4757 5700
    6 Ottis Anderson 1979 1981 CRD 48 1088 4333 5336
    7 Earl Campbell* 1978 1980 OTI 46 1082 5138 5270
    8 Terrell Davis* 1995 1997 DEN 45 1078 4405 5369
    9 Curtis Martin* 1995 1997 NWE 45 1075 3799 4689
    10 Chris Johnson 2008 2010 OTI 47 1062 4598 5606
    11 Edgerrin James 1999 2001 CLT 38 1056 3924 5297
    12 Clinton Portis 2002 2004 TOT 44 1017 4429 5327
    13 Ezekiel Elliott 2016 2018 DAL 40 1003 4048 5247
    14 Adrian Peterson 2007 2009 MIN 46 998 4484 5313
    15 Matt Forte 2008 2010 CHI 48 982 3236 4731
    16 Barry Sanders* 1989 1991 DET 46 978 4322 5391
    17 Marshall Faulk* 1994 1996 CLT 45 965 2947 4372
    18 William Andrews 1979 1981 ATL 47 964 3632 5132
    19 Travis Henry 2001 2003 BUF 44 962 3523 4169
    20 Ricky Williams 1999 2001 NOR 38 946 3163 4221
    21 Willis McGahee 2004 2006 BUF 46 936 3365 3868
    22 Karim Abdul-Jabbar 1996 1998 MIA 47 933 2965 3470
    23 Domanick Williams 2003 2005 HTX 40 924 3195 4471
    24 Walter Payton* 1975 1977 CHI 41 921 3921 4552
    25 Todd Gurley 2015 2017 RAM 44 914 3296 4599
    26 Alfred Morris 2012 2014 WAS 48 913 3962 4272
    27 Herschel Walker 1986 1988 DAL 44 910 3142 5199
    28 Thurman Thomas* 1988 1990 BUF 47 903 3422 4831
    29 Billy Sims 1980 1982 DET 39 894 3379 4793
    30 Steven Jackson 2004 2006 RAM 45 886 3247 4562
    (* = Hall of Fame)

    That list provides quite a trip down memory lane. We can see plenty of players in Canton (the workload must not have bothered them too much). We can also see plenty of short-term flashes, bright lights who fizzled over time.

    Zeke’s 25 touches per game are second-most on this list and at the very highest end of the “run him into the ground” grouping, but it’s not terribly convincing to argue that heavy workloads shorten careers when the group at the top of the chart contains Tomlinson, Eric Dickerson and Emmitt Smith. On the other hand, nobody else on this list is far under the age of 40, so we can also surmise that the game has changed for the most part.

    Maybe Emmitt Smith was a unicorn, but the evidence seems to suggest that maybe Elliott is, too. How much more convincing could his first three years be?

    This is why the discussion about Elliott’s future is so complex. If the Cowboys do extend him and his body collapses under the workload shortly thereafter, we could hardly say we were shocked. There are too many examples of running backs “losing a step” by age 26 or 27 to forget. They are the large majority. But if you don’t extend him, you could watch him play elsewhere when he may very well still be great for years and years to come. His quality is high, and his age is low. His injury history is clean. He is exactly what Dallas thought he was.

    Also, you better think about what happens to the running game without him. Pittsburgh barely missed a beat without Bell thanks to a massive year from James Connor, although they did miss the playoffs. The jury is still out on how Kansas City will cope without Kareem Hunt and how they’ll fully plug that hole. The Rams managed Gurley’s short-term absence through much of the stretch run last year with CJ Anderson and then probably drafted his replacement already in April. (Memphis’ Darrell Henderson is probably no Gurley, but he is going to open some eyes this season). And who can forget Dallas’ 2015 season, when the fanbase tried to talk itself into Joseph Randle not leaving “meat on the bone” before Darren McFadden rolled off more than 1,000 yards without the benefit of a competent quarterback for much of the year.

    Good running teams generally seem to replace most of what the big money running back had going for substantially less cap space. Given the investment in the offensive line, you would like to think the Cowboys would ultimately manage if Zeke left. But, make no mistake, it would be pins and needles early if he ever left town.

    You can believe that Elliott and his representatives are watching carefully as this Melvin Gordon situation plays out. A holdout might get that contract extension and possibly that relocation to a place that wants to make you financially whole. But that brings up the other complication from earlier in the piece. If the league sees diminishing value in the running game and the running back position, how big is the relocation market for Elliott, who does not have the advanced “wide receiver disguised as a running back” component that players like Bell, Gurley and Alvin Kamara bring to the table?

    Surely, there will always be a market for a player at the top of his game at such a young age. The question that remains unresolved is what Jerry and Stephen Jones think about all of this. Many expect them to again “pay their guys,” but “many” never expected the Romo or Dez exits when they happened. Times seem to be changing the owner/general manager’s approach to matters.

    Do they see Zeke as Emmitt Smith, or have 25 years and a hard salary cap reality changed their view? Do they see him more as a five-year, healthy version of DeMarco Murray?

    We likely won’t know any of these answers in 2019. They can sit back and watch the Chargers situation play out, and both sides can ponder their own moment on the league stage coming soon in 2020.

    You can bet it will determine the franchise’s path for years to come.
    2016 DCC LOTY Fantasy Football Champion

  • #2
    I am starting to lean towards the churn and burn approach used with Demarco Murray.

    I get that we have become a drink that is stirred by the straw that is Elliott. He is very talented but also another fuck up from being suspended again.

    I would just ride out his contract and get another guy in a year or two.


    • #3
      I love Zeke, but I would let him go and keep bringing in RBs and O-linemen.


      • #4
        Give him an extension that expires sometime around his age 28/29 season and put clauses in the contract that void any remaining guaranteed money if he's suspended for any sort of personal conduct nonsense, that way we could cut him loose at that point with no ramifications. Easy.


        • #5
          Far superior
          #Fire Garrett


          • #6
            There is no denying Elliott has produced at a phenomenal rate since entering the league. He has led the NFL in rushing over those three years by a healthy margin. Since 2016, he has 4,048 yards, which is 600 yards beyond any other player despite missing eight games over that stretch. Re-read that last sentence, and let it soak in.

            But hey man, you know, DeMarco and all.
            defense wins championships


            • #7
              Personally, I don't think Dak can succeed without Zeke or an elite/top RB.


              • #8
                Originally posted by Simpleton View Post
                Give him an extension that expires sometime around his age 28/29 season and put clauses in the contract that void any remaining guaranteed money if he's suspended for any sort of personal conduct nonsense, that way we could cut him loose at that point with no ramifications. Easy.
                Sounds easy. But not so easy if he refuses to sign a contract like that.


                • #9
                  Originally posted by Couchcoach View Post
                  Personally, I don't think Dak can succeed without Zeke or an elite/top RB.
                  I think a strong run game is extremely important to Daks success. But we also haven't had a offensive coordinator creative enough up to this point to deal with a running game that struggles. That goes all the way back to the Romo days though. The years we had success with Romo were the ones where we had a dominant run game. It's just vital to what we do on offense.

                  With that being said our running game isn't just Zeke. And it shouldn't be that difficult to draft another RB.


                  • #10
                    Even though his league-wide value will likely peak in the next 12-18 months, his value to this particular team is higher than what I think we could get in a trade. I wouldn't take anything less than two 1st's for him and I'd be absolutely shocked if anybody were willing to offer that.


                    • #11

                      Maybe revise this thread title to the "Debating Zeke's Value Thread", here are a couple articles discussing whether Zeke is worth big money.

                      Ezekiel Elliott isn't as valuable to the Cowboys offense as you've been led to believe

                      It’s 2019 and we’re still arguing about the value of running backs. It happens every time a star back is up for a new contract, which is currently going on in Dallas, where Ezekiel Elliott is reportedly thinking about holding out of Cowboys training camp while waiting on a new long-term deal.

                      On one side of the debate, you have the nerds — who have worked tirelessly over the last few years to prove that running backs don’t matter — pushing back against the notion that Elliott is the Cowboys’ most valuable offensive player. On the other side, you have former NFL players — at least a vocal group of them — arguing the opposite.

                      For instance, here’s former Cowboys LB Bobby Carpenter breaking down two plays that show how important Elliott is to the play-action passing game…

                      Here’s former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz co-signing Carpenter’s assertion…

                      And here’s former NFL QB Dan Orlovsky backing Carpenter up, as well…

                      Of course, the nerds have looked into all of the popular defenses for the value of running backs and have shown that there’s nothing to them. Running back targets aren’t very productive in the grand scheme of things, there’s no proof that running volume or success has any effect on a team’s play-action performance, the success of a given run play has a lot more to do with the number of defenders in the box than it does the performance of a running back, the same can be said of offensive line play, etc…

                      But let’s just ignore all of those league-wide trends and focus on Elliott. As the former pros have pointed out, Elliott’s role in the Cowboys offense is unique. So let’s look at the two main arguments people generally make when arguing on behalf of Elliott… 1. Without Elliott drawing defenders into the box, Dak Prescott wouldn’t be as effective of a passer

                      This argument isn’t exclusive to Zeke and Dak. You hear this all the time about great backs and even great quarterbacks. There was a time when a bunch of people thought Marshawn Lynch made Russell Wilson. You’ve heard the trope: A great back forces defenses to load the box, which opens up space in the passing game.

                      Here’s the thing: There’s no evidence to suggest that the reputation of a running back or quarterback has any bearing on how many players an NFL defense packs into the box. Elliott’s presence certainly did not draw any more loaded boxes. According to’s Next Gen Stats, Elliott faced an eight-man box on 24.67% of his carries, which ranked 19th in the league in 2018. He finished right behind fellow generational back Elijah McGuire. Wait.

                      In order to get that extra defender in the box, the defense has to drop a safety down near the line of scrimmage, forcing the defense to play with only one safety deep. So, if Elliott was forcing defenses to load up against the run and opening up things in the passing game, you’d expect a significant portion of Prescott’s passing attempts to have come against single-high coverages. According to Sports Info Solutions charting data, Prescott ranked 10th (out of 22 quarterbacks who attempted at least 200 passes vs. those coverages) in the percentage of attempts vs. single-high defenses. So he was right around league average in that regard.

                      As it turns out, that number isn’t significant, anyway. Like at all. There doesn’t seem to be any correlation between the reputation of a quarterback (or a running back) and the percentage of single-high looks an offense faces. The correlation between a quarterback’s Pro Football Focus grade and percentage of attempts vs. two-high coverages was literally ZERO over the course of the 2018 season…

                      The same is true with a running back’s reputation and the percentage of one-high coverages a quarterback faces…

                      A team’s willingness to drop an extra player into the box has more to do with the structure of an offense more than anything else. If the offensive formation creates an extra gap by adding a tight end or full back to the equation, the defense is going to have to add a defender in the box to account for it, regardless of the running back’s reputation. While the Cowboys other backs did see fewer lighter boxes than Elliott, the difference was marginal (38% to 35%) and the sample size was small.

                      On top of ALL THAT, Prescott actually performed better against coverages with two deep safeties. He averaged 0.13 Expected Points Added per attempt against two-high coverages and -0.05 EPA against single-high defenses. Whatever benefit provided to Dak by Zeke’s presence in the backfield is not showing up in the stats. 2. Elliott’s contributions as a receiver make him more valuable than the typical running back

                      After all, Elliott did catch a career-high 77 passes in 2018. The problem is that passes to running backs are generally less valuable than other passes, and that was certainly true for Elliott, who wasn’t even among the league leaders in EPA per target for running backs. In fact, he ranked 30th in that regard. The Cowboys, as a team, ranked behind all but two teams in success rate on first- and second-down passes to running backs.

                      If Zeke is the key to the Cowboys’ passing game, it’s time to change the lock.

                      Maybe Elliott would be more valuable as a pass catcher if he were capable of lining up out wide and getting open, but the Cowboys don’t seem to have faith in his ability to do so. In 2018, he lined up out wide just 52 times on passing downs. Those snaps resulted in nine targets, which produced an underwhelming 58 yards, or 6.4 yards per target. Here’s a cut-up of all of those targets.

                      Elliott is a good receiving back, sure, but he’s not a special one. Nobody is going to confuse Elliott with Alvin Kamara or Christian McCaffery as a route-runner.

                      But what about the screen game? Well, the Cowboys were actually quite good in the screen game, finishing 9th in EPA per screen pass. So mark that down as a win for the former pros. The Cowboys are above average at screen passes thanks to Elliott. Give him all the money for those 25 screen passes he caught in 2018!

                      While we can’t just dismiss the experience of former pros, it’s also unfair for them to dismiss mountains of evidence pushing back against their arguments. Those same guys make an appeal for context that numbers, apparently, can’t supply, but then turn around and give us a two-play breakdown devoid of ANY context.

                      So let’s oblige the old pros and add some context to the two plays Carpenter picked out to highlight Elliott’s effect on the running game. The first example shows the Giants linebackers biting on a run fake, thus proving Elliott’s value to the passing game.

                      Now the context: New York is running a five-man pressure with man coverage across the board. The second-level defenders can afford to attack the line of scrimmage with no Cowboys receivers threatening the middle of the field. The all-22 angle shows that the play-action had no bearing on the result of the play. The cornerback slips and the free safety takes a horrible angle. Dak also throws a dime…

                      We’re not done: The play comes on first-and-10. The Cowboys ran more often (52.8%) than they passed in those scenarios, according to SIS charting. The Cowboys were in 21 personnel (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR). In that personnel grouping, they ran the ball 64% of the time in 2018. All signs pointed to a run.

                      The second example shows Giants linebackers not flinching on a play fake. Well, that play took place on second-and-6, which is a big pass down for Dallas. The Cowboys ran only 38.4% of the time in those scenarios. They’re also in 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR). Out of those sets, the Cowboys passed 52% of the time. All signs pointed to a pass.

                      It makes all the sense in the world that the Giants defenders would bite on one play fake, when the situation pointed to Dallas running and the play-call called for aggression, and ignore the other play fake. But it had nothing to do with Elliott. The same thing would have happened with Rod Smith in the backfield, as it does here…

                      Ezekiel Elliott is a talented running back. Unfortunately for him, a talented back doesn’t really move the needle in the run game, and the running game doesn’t really move the needle in the grand scheme of things. At this point, the only leverage Elliott has is unconvincing analysis based on tired cliches. His best hope is that the Cowboys’ front office hasn’t yet seen the blinding light the nerds have shined on this topic.


                      • #12
                        Ezekiel Elliott Is Not Worth The Money He Wants

                        In what is becoming an annual event, a high-profile running back is threatening a preseason holdout. On Monday, reports surfaced that Ezekiel Elliott will sit out training camp unless he gets a new contract from the Dallas Cowboys. Two days earlier, Melvin Gordon had announced a holdout from the Los Angeles Chargers and cited Elliott as an example of why running backs should command higher pay. Perhaps Zeke and his agent read Gordon’s comments and decided to strike while the iron is hot. Perhaps a holdout was always planned. Whatever the case, Elliott has made clear that he believes he’s underpaid and wants a new contract sooner rather than later.

                        The holdout threat may have taken Dallas a bit by surprise. It’s not as if Zeke isn’t in line for competitive compensation. Dallas picked up Elliott’s fifth-year option in April, guaranteeing him nearly $9.1 million in 2020 — money that will make Elliott the fourth-highest-paid running back in the league that year. But Zeke’s focus is on 2019, not 2020. According to reports, Elliott believes that the Cowboys plan to use him heavily this season, and he wants a long-term deal in place as an insurance policy against injury.

                        For their part, Dallas appears to want to keep Elliott around. Stephen Jones, Dallas director of player personnel, has indicated that signing Eliott to an extension is a team priority. In an odd bit of negotiating, Jones even set the floor for a deal at Todd Gurley’s recent contract — a contract that is currently the highest in the league at the position. Still, Elliott’s camp is betting they can leverage Zeke’s absence into an early deal, and based on their previous maneuvering, I’m betting that the Cowboys will cave.

                        The question is: Why?

                        In a league that is steadily paying less for running back production, capitulating to an Elliott holdout and making him the highest-paid ball carrier in the league would be a deeply contrarian move. According to data from Overthecap, the share of average team salary allocated to all rostered running backs has fallen from 6.8 percent of spending in 2013 to 4.5 percent in 2019.

                        Even elite backs aren’t immune from feeling the pinch. Le’Veon Bell sat out all of last season expecting to make up his lost wages on the free-agent market. Instead he ended up settling for a contract with less average compensation per year than what he was initially offered by Pittsburgh. It’s been a slow, incremental change, but teams across the league have moved toward an asset allocation model that favors many low-priced specialists over an expensive three-down bell cow.

                        Dallas already bucked the trend of devaluing running backs when they took Elliott with the fourth overall pick of the 2016 draft and then proceeded to give him 868 carries over his first three seasons. That, apparently, is just how the Cowboys are built. Jason Garrett is absolutely determined to “run the fucking ball.” But even if the Cowboys have fallen out of step with a league that believes paying “high first-round draft pick” money to a running back is gauche, it still pales in comparison to what will come next. Assuming the cap rises to $200 million in 2020,1 Zeke’s salary alone in his optioned fifth year will represent 4.5 percent of the Cowboy’s salary cap. If Zeke signs an extension before the 2020 season, his cap hit combined with the rest of Dallas’s spend at the running back position will likely be double the league average.

                        Profligate spending and contrarianism aren’t proof of incompetence, of course. Elliott on paper seems to be quite good at his job — and his appeal to Dallas might seem warranted. In 2018, Zeke led the league with 1,434 rushing yards on a league-best 304 carries, over 16 percent more than second-place finisher Saquon Barkley (261). If Elliott is worth twice as many wins to a team as a replacement-level running back would be, he’s probably worth twice the money. The problem is that having Zeke on the field isn’t worth even half a win to the Cowboys. Eric Eager at Pro Football Focus estimates that Zeke’s production in 2018 was worth just 0.2 of a win above a replacement player.

                        We know — and the Cowboys should, too — that rushing is not nearly as important to winning in the NFL as passing. But rushing is still a part of the game, and situational running is still critical. A back who excels in high-leverage spots can be quite valuable. It could be the case that Dallas believes it has an advantage in crucial moments with Zeke on the field that helps justify re-signing him.

                        Examples of situational football are legion, but three in particular stand out as being important in the run game. If the Cowboys are valuing Zeke for the skills that most help the team — and not just for his number of carries over a season — we would expect him to be at or near the top in each of these categories, dominating the plebes drafted rounds after him or those plucked from the NFL scrapyard.

                        Running to close out a game

                        First is the ability to run out the clock when you’re ahead and need to close out a game. Keeping the opposing offense off the field has obvious value when you’re protecting a lead late. In nerd parlance, successful running plays late have a relatively large positive effect on a team’s win probability.

                        With this in mind, to measure a team’s ability to close out a game, we’ll use win probability added. WPA is a good metric for teasing out rushing value late in the game because it takes our best estimate for what a team’s chance of winning the game is on a particular play (based on the down, distance, yard line, score and time remaining) and then quantifies how much the actual outcome of a play either added or subtracted from that expectation. Teams that are good at rushing to close out games will have positive WPA.

                        According to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, the Cowboys were seventh in win probability added in 2018 on rushing attempts in the fourth quarter while they were ahead, excluding quarterback kneel-downs. Elliott carried the ball on the majority of those plays and had positive win probability added per play, which is good. But he was still just second on the team in average WPA behind quarterback Dak Prescott — and it wasn’t particularly close. Dak’s win probability added per play on 10 attempts was almost five times that of Zeke’s average WPA on 45 carries.

                        When we zoom out and compared Zeke with all running backs across the league, the situation gets bleak. Elliott was 22nd among qualifying backs when running to close out a game, behind the likes of Royce Freeman, Isaiah Crowell and the 35-year-old remnants of Frank Gore. Need to close out a game? Any running back will do.

                        Win probability added (WPA) per rush for running backs with a minimum of five rushes to close out a game* in the 2018 regular season
                        1 Royce Freeman Denver 12 0.012
                        2 Isaiah Crowell New York Jets 7 0.010
                        3 Nick Chubb Cleveland 25 0.010
                        4 Frank Gore Miami 13 0.007
                        5 Alvin Kamara New Orleans 33 0.007
                        6 Kenyan Drake Miami 11 0.007
                        7 James White New England 25 0.007
                        8 Melvin Gordon Los Angeles Chargers 25 0.007
                        9 Todd Gurley Los Angeles Rams 48 0.006
                        10 Ty Montgomery Baltimore 7 0.006
                        11 Jaylen Samuels Pittsburgh 19 0.006
                        12 Spencer Ware Kansas City 14 0.006
                        13 Gus Edwards Baltimore 32 0.005
                        14 Justin Jackson Los Angeles Chargers 15 0.005
                        15 Mike Davis Seattle 13 0.005
                        16 Derrick Henry Tennessee 23 0.005
                        17 Adrian Peterson Washington 47 0.005
                        18 Jacquizz Rodgers Tampa Bay 5 0.005
                        19 Wayne Gallman New York Giants 12 0.004
                        20 Jamaal Williams Green Bay 16 0.004
                        21 Zach Zenner Detroit Lions 18 0.004
                        22 Ezekiel Elliott Dallas 45 0.003
                        23 Tarik Cohen Chicago 9 0.003
                        24 Kerryon Johnson Detroit 10 0.002
                        25 Jordan Wilkins Indianapolis 12 0.002
                        * In the fourth quarter while ahead. Kneel-downs not included.

                        SOURCE: ESPN STATS & INFORMATION GROUP
                        Expanding the sample to Elliott’s entire career doesn’t help his case either. Over his three years as a starter, Zeke led the league in rushing attempts in closeout situations with 158. But among running backs with 20 such attempts, he ranks just 26th in win probability added per play. For perspective, former teammate Alfred Morris ranks 13th in win probability added per play for the period — and he was running behind the same offensive line in Dallas for two of those three seasons.

                        Closing out games is important, but it appears that draft pedigree really isn’t necessary to be effective in that role. Those critical runs can be performed by a reasonably priced specialist taken later in the draft or acquired in free agency. And if you need further proof, just feast your eyes on the 2018 win probability added of undrafted free agent Gus Edwards and quietly contemplate the abyss. Short-yardage running in the red zone

                        Effective running in the red zone, and especially at the goal line, is particularly valuable because this is the part of the field where passing is most difficult. As teams move downfield and get closer to the end zone, the field compresses and completion percentage drops. While the effect begins a little before the 30-yard line, leaguewide completion percentage drops from 57 percent to 48 percent2 as teams move from their opponent’s 20 to the 3-yard line. This decrease in passing effectiveness puts a premium on being able to run successfully. Teams that can consistently move the ball on short-yardage runs in the red zone — or runs on which a first down or touchdown is no more than 3 yards away3 — give themselves the opportunity to score touchdowns more often, and they tend to win more games.

                        Last season, the Dallas Cowboys ranked 10th in red zone expected points added (EPA) per play on short-yardage runs in the red zone and 22nd in short-yardage success rate.4 For a team that boasts one of the league’s better rushing attacks, these are far from elite numbers. For his part, Elliott ranked 16th in EPA per play and 28th in success rate among running backs with at least five short red zone rushes. Red zone efficiency doesn’t require a big name

                        Expected points added (EPA) per play for running backs with a minimum of five short-yardage attempts* in the red zone during the 2018 season
                        1 Melvin Gordon Los Angeles Chargers 5 1.35
                        2 Giovani Bernard Cincinnati 5 1.28
                        3 Marshawn Lynch Oakland 5 1.06
                        4 Adrian Peterson Washington 7 0.71
                        5 Aaron Jones Green Bay 6 0.70
                        6 Alvin Kamara New Orleans 24 0.69
                        7 Chris Carson Seattle 18 0.59
                        8 Corey Clement Philadelphia 5 0.53
                        9 Lamar Miller Houston 6 0.49
                        10 Todd Gurley Los Angeles Rams 27 0.49
                        11 Wendell Smallwood Philadelphia 5 0.49
                        12 Kapri Bibbs Washington 5 0.45
                        13 Derrick Henry Tennessee 15 0.44
                        14 Phillip Lindsay Denver 11 0.43
                        15 Joe Mixon Cincinnati 13 0.42
                        16 Ezekiel Elliott Dallas 15 0.30
                        17 Carlos Hyde Cleveland 10 0.27
                        18 Kareem Hunt Kansas City 11 0.27
                        19 Royce Freeman Denver 11 0.27
                        20 Javorius Allen Baltimore 5 0.26
                        21 James Conner Pittsburgh 17 0.25
                        22 Matt Breida San Francisco 49ers 8 0.19
                        23 Austin Ekeler Los Angeles Chargers 6 0.16
                        24 Marlon Mack Indianapolis 13 0.08
                        25 Doug Martin Oakland 12 0.04
                        * Rushes of 3 yards or less to go. Kneel-downs not included.

                        SOURCE: ESPN STATS & INFORMATION GROUP
                        Like we saw with runs to close out the game, Elliott again failed to distinguish himself from his lesser-drafted peers. Despite having nearly 40 pounds on Phillip Lindsay, Elliott was outpaced by the undrafted and diminutive Broncos back in both success rate and EPA per play on short red zone carries in 2018. And while the sample sizes here are small, Zeke’s career numbers aren’t much better. From 2016 to 2018, Zeke ranks 10th among qualifying5 backs in success rate and 11th in EPA per play. Short-yardage runs in the open field

                        Finally, we’ll look at plays that extend drives and help to break the opposing team’s spirit: short yardage runs in the open field, or outside the red zone. These plays represent situations in which the offense needs no more than 3 yards to convert a new set of downs. Based on historical averages, these are running battles that you would expect the offense to win — after all, 29 of 32 teams averaged more than 4 yards per attempt last year. And in fact that’s what we find: In 2018, NFL teams were successful on short runs in the open field 53 percent of the time. Last season the Cowboys were particularly adept at short yardage plays, ranking fourth in the league with a 62 percent success rate on 53 attempts. Zeke was responsible for 43 of those attempts — most in the NFL — and was successful 67 percent of the time, but that success rate was good for just 11th in the league. Even outside the red zone, Zeke isn’t elite in short situations

                        Expected points added (EPA) per play for running backs with a minimum of five open-field short-yardage attempts* during the 2018 season
                        1 Jordan Wilkins Indianapolis 8 0.67
                        2 Mike Davis Seattle 14 0.48
                        3 Alfred Morris San Francisco 10 0.47
                        4 James Conner Pittsburgh 17 0.45
                        5 Corey Clement Philadelphia 7 0.44
                        6 Damien Williams Kansas City 7 0.38
                        7 C.J. Anderson Los Angeles Rams 6 0.36
                        8 Bilal Powell New York Jets 5 0.35
                        9 Kerryon Johnson Detroit 11 0.22
                        10 Ezekiel Elliott Dallas 43 0.16
                        11 Melvin Gordon Los Angeles Chargers 19 0.15
                        12 Devontae Booker Denver 8 0.14
                        13 Chris Ivory Buffalo 15 0.13
                        14 Alex Collins Baltimore 10 0.11
                        15 Elijah McGuire N.Y. Jets 11 0.09
                        16 Gus Edwards Baltimore 21 0.08
                        17 Justin Jackson Los Angeles Chargers 8 0.06
                        18 David Johnson Arizona 24 0.05
                        19 Jordan Howard Chicago 32 0.03
                        20 Derrick Henry Tennessee 14 0.03
                        21 Leonard Fournette Jacksonville 11 0.02
                        22 Chris Carson Seattle 27 -0.01
                        23 Tarik Cohen Chicago 15 -0.05
                        24 Jaylen Samuels Pittsburgh 8 -0.06
                        25 Phillip Lindsay Denver 19 -0.14
                        * Rushes on plays outside the red zone with no more 3 yards to go for a first down. Kneel-downs not included.

                        SOURCE: ESPN STATS & INFORMATION GROUP
                        If you’re a person who believes running backs matter, this is a leaderboard that makes about as much sense as snake mittens. It’s true that of the three high-leverage rushing situations examined, this is clearly where Zeke shines brightest. But even here he’s outclassed by backs no one would mistake as Elliott’s equals. Former teammate Morris haunted Elliott yet again by leading the league last season with a 90 percent success rate on short-yardage open-field runs. Alf was trailed closely by Niner castoff and backup Seattle running back Mike Davis. Todd Gurley injury fill-in C.J. Anderson, displaced Jets starter Bilal Powell and Le’Veon Bell usurper James Conner round out the top five. What about the rest?

                        Situationally, Zeke is profoundly average, but some perspective here is probably needed. Situational running, while important, is relatively rare. Around 5 percent of Elliott’s carries came in the red zone in 2018. Fifteen percent came in situations when the Cowboys were trying to close out the game, and 14 percent came on short-yardage runs in the open field. The majority of Zeke’s carries — about 65 percent — occurred in other situations. The problem is that those other situations turn out to be awful times to run the football.

                        Zeke ran 182 times in the first three quarters of games in 2018 on first and second down with at least 4 yards to go — situations when teams shouldn’t be running very often to begin with. Probably the clearest illustration of this folly is shown using an analysis I stole from Timo Riske of Pro Football Focus. On early downs when the outcome of the game is still in doubt, winning teams pass more often than the eventual losers. It sounds strange, but commanding bad rushing volume is really the only aspect of Elliott’s game that is truly elite. The Cowboys could believe that they have a generational talent at the running back position, and because of this faith, they overuse him.

                        It’s that overuse that’s the problem. Extending Elliott is the manifestation of an objectively poor offensive strategy. It isn’t just a terrible idea because the valuable portion of Elliott’s production — the situational part — is easily replaced by nearly any back talented enough to make a Week 1 NFL roster. And an early extension isn’t just poor risk management because between 20 to 33 percent of high-volume running backs will incur a serious injury in a given year, though that is also certainly true.6

                        The primary reason an investment in an overpriced, risky asset is truly awful is because it can impact play calling in the worst possible way. In an attempt to justify the overspend at the position, a team may be encouraged to run more and pass less. It’s the worst kind of curse, and the Cowboys seem eager to cast the hex on themselves.

                        Last edited by pdom; 07-19-2019, 09:42 PM. Reason: ment because between 20 to 33 percent of high-volume running backs will incur a serious injury in a given year, though that is also certainly true.6 The primary reason an investment in an overpriced,


                        • #13
                          That’s some good stuff, pdom.
                          2016 DCC LOTY Fantasy Football Champion


                          • #14
                            So is Elliot an Elite RB or not?
                            Since Day One


                            • #15
                              Appreciate the article, but I'm not buying it. There's this trend where people love to try to use analytics to prove they're so much smarter than the old, ignorant, backwards players/coaches/scouts, and this is another one of those cases. For one, I don't buy that analytics works as well in football as they do in baseball where you have hundreds and thousands of very similar trials. Football has way more moving parts and situations. For another, a lot of this is based on PFF, and their rankings have shown to be highly suspect.

                              Put some scrub practice squad RB in there and let's see how irrelevant an elite back is.
                              2014=2009, 2015=2010?

                              The Garrett Song