The Dallas Cowboys no longer have to cobble together a game plan to defeat the New York Giants without Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott will be able to play in Sunday night’s opener, but the possibility remains that he’ll need to serve his suspension this season. Further, the possibility remains that Elliott will have to serve his suspension in 2018 even if he wins enough court battles to play the entire 2017 season.
There seems to be a line of thinking among Cowboys fans, and even some analysts, that while Elliott is a great piece to have, he plays an increasingly devalued position. And some take it even further by saying that increasingly devalued position is still completely reliant on the performance of the offensive line. The general thought from these fans and analysts is, “the offensive line isn’t suspended, right? Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris aren’t Zeke, but they’re not scrubs either. We’ll be fine! Zeke is a luxury.”
I’m not here to argue that running back is somehow more important than quarterback, left tackle, or corner. But I am here to show that an elite runner behind an elite offensive line is more than a luxury: it’s a distinct advantage and is often the difference between wins and losses.
So for today’s Throwback Thursday, we’re going to look back on the recent performance of McFadden, Morris, and the Dallas Cowboys as a team.
The Importance of the Run Game for Dallas
People have often debated football’s version of the “chicken or the egg” question: does the run set up the pass, or does the pass set up the run? For the current incarnation of the Dallas Cowboys, the run definitely sets up the pass.
Elliott carried the ball more in the first quarter than any other quarter during the 2016 season. Dak Prescott threw the ball more in the second quarter than any other quarter. In Prescott’s 4 best passing yards performances the Cowboys averaged an even 9-9 pass-to-run ratio in the first quarter. The ratio became skewed in the following 3 quarters, averaging a 9-7 pass-to-run ratio. The raw stats indicate that Dallas likes to get Elliott and the run game established before letting Prescott go to work.
The run game also helps set up one of Dallas’ preferred passing methods. Over the last three seasons, Dallas averages about 2.0 more yards per pass play when using play-action. Scott Linehan called for play-action on 24% of pass plays in 2016, which was tied for the 2nd-highest rate in the league. Play-action, of course, is at its most effective when the run game is dangerous enough that defenders sell out on the play fake.
Over the last 3 years, Dallas is a staggering 18-3 (including playoffs) when running the ball more than passing it. They are 2-13 when they use at least 10 more pass than run plays.
Elliott vs. McFadden vs. Morris
With Dallas’ reliance on the run game noted, let’s see how the three main running backs on the Cowboys’ roster compare.
The Twitter account for SportsCenter caught a lot of grief on social media this week when they posted a pretty lazy and obvious statistic about the Cowboys’ runners.
The statistic is silly. Elliott carried the ball 322 out of the 426 times Dallas handed it off in 2016. There wasn’t a single Cowboys running back who carried the ball even a quarter of the amount of Elliott.
The comparison is one worth exploring, however. You just have to look at it from a balanced perspective.
In 2016, Elliott carried the ball 322 times for 1,631 yards, 15 touchdowns, and averaged 5.1 yards per carry. So how have McFadden and Morris performed in their last 322 carries? To find out, we have to look at their statistics from portions of 2014 all the way through last season.
As you can see, the production across the board drops with McFadden and Morris, and a career year for McFadden is included in this data. Elliott out-gains McFadden by almost 300 yards, and he out-gains Morris by almost 500; Elliott averages a yard per carry more than McFadden and a yard and a half more than Morris. Considering that Elliott averaged 21 carries per game in 2016, you have to imagines that McFadden and Morris will each be getting roughly 10 extra carries per game in the event of a six-game absence. With the yards per carry disparity between Elliott and his two reserves, Dallas could reasonably expect at least 25 fewer rushing yards per game. That’s a handful of first downs out the window.
But the biggest impact is seen in the scoring department. Elliott scored 15 rushing touchdowns in 2016, which is 8 more than McFadden and Morris have scored combined in each of their last 322 carries. Elliott scored 3 touchdowns of at least 55 yards on 354 touches last season, while McFadden and Morris haven’t scored a single 55 yard touchdown in their last 2,041 touches combined (McFadden on 9/23/12, Morris has never scored a 55+ yard touchdown).
The NFL is a passing league now, and you absolutely cannot win without a legitimate starting quarterback. But the contributions of Ezekiel Elliott are monumentally important to Dallas’ success, because of his home run-hitting potential, his ability as a receiver and blocker, and the way he keeps defenses honest with his reputation.