Do teams still fear the Dallas Cowboys, running back Ezekiel Elliott, as they once did?
When Ezekiel Elliott entered the NFL, he sowed fear in the hearts of opponents. The Dallas Cowboys’ first choice in the infamous 2016 Draft was a guy who chooses his poison. He could beat you powerfully between tackles, he could beat you with speed on the edge, he could navigate second level by following his blockers, and he could even beat you downstream as a wide receiver. Zeke might just beat you up.
Consider his home run ability, elite pass protection skills, and short film ability and you’ve had the All Bagel running backs from the NFL. With the exception of a few bad decisions off the pitch, he was a man without weakness. But is it the same man?
Numbers wise, Ezekiel Elliott has had a historically excellent rookie season. Not only did he set career records for total distance and yards per carry, but he helped a rookie quarterback lead the Dallas Cowboys to a 13-3 record and a series seed. playoffs.
But since his rookie season, Ezekiel Elliott has changed significantly. He gained weight and lost that spark in his game. And the naysayers noticed it …
26 running backs faced 8-man boxes more often than Zeke last year. It is clear that the other teams are seeing something.
Last season, he faced the fewest eight-man boxes than any previous season. He faced them 28.88% of the time during his dazzling rookie season, but only ran against them 19.27% of the time last season.
According to Next Generation Statistics, 26 running backs faced eight-man boxes more often than Zeke last year. It is clear that the other teams are seeing something.
According to SIS data, in 2019, Zeke’s 14.6 broken tackle percentage ranked 28th in the NFL (among those with over 100 carries). That’s down from the 17.7 percent he had as a rookie when he placed 13th. In 2019, Zeke averaged just 2.6 yards after contact, which was the NFL’s 20th. As a rookie, he averaged 3.0 yards (4th in the league).
Perhaps one of the most respected skills of a running back is their ability to escape and break free from tackles. I mean, anyone can go through a hole created by a good offensive line, but what they do with that opportunity is what sets them apart, right? Last season, Zeke slipped below the elusive NFL average while his replacement, Tony Pollard, won top honors in the NFL. Ouch.
According to Player profiler, Zeke ranked 39th for breakaway run rate (15+ yards) and 27th for juke rate. He was basically the Dallas Cowboy least likely to deliver a big yardage.
Don’t fall for volume statistics
It’s important to stress that volume stats like yardage and touchdown totals don’t tell us how good a player is. It simply shows how many attempts this player has received. If you pass the ball to Joe looney enough times, he too could lead the league in yards and touchdowns (okay, a bit of a stretch but you get the point). These are quantitative statistics – not qualitative statistics.
Statistics like yards per stroke are cool from a team perspective but also show nothing about background or individual abilities. Good offensive lines lead to high YPC averages, but that doesn’t say anything about elusiveness or yards after contact.
Similarly, context is missing from this statistic. There’s a reason 3rd-down full-backs get more YPC than short-distance full-backs – yards mean less. Not all yards are equal and a 2-yard run on 4th and 1 is considerably more valuable than a 7-yard run on 3rd and 10. This is why the EPA tracking (expected points added) is so important. It adds real value. So working in Zeke’s favor is the quality of the yards he gets in these short distance situations.
This is why qualitative statistics are so important and why nothing can replace a good old fashioned film study. They offer a more nuanced view of things.
Looking at his highlights in college, it’s hard to believe that 2020 Zeke is the same man. It is common for an NFL player to change the longer he is in the game. Some of it is on purpose and some of it just comes with age. Many players find that adding the extra mass helps their durability and extends their careers. It’s worth it for many gamers, even if it takes away a lot of playability from them.
It is now unclear whether this transformation was a deliberate strategy employed by Elliott or whether it was simply an accidental result of age and his inability to adapt to it. What is clear is that he’s changed physically and he’s not the skinny game-breaker we’ve seen in his outstanding rookie season.
Ezekiel Elliott is still a major asset to the Dallas Cowboys
But just because he’s lost the juice doesn’t mean he’s no longer a valuable back for the Dallas Cowboys. Ezekiel Elliott may not dodge tackles or big runs at the same frequency as before, but he’s considered one of the longest-lasting full-backs in the league and regularly gains yards after contact.
Durability is important when your back is as well rounded as Zeke. I’ve said many times that Zeke’s best trait is that he can do it all and doesn’t tip the offensive player’s hand. Teams that deploy a pass protection specialist for one game, a reception for the next, a slugger type for another, tell the defense exactly what they plan to do. A guy like Zeke keeps the mystery alive.
We’ve seen Zeke run screens, wheel roads, bend as a receiver, run in the middle, run in a wide area, etc. which has a lot of hidden value.
Note: While the offense does better in expected points without Zeke on the pitch, that’s largely because the Cowboys pass more without Zeke and we all know passing is more efficient than running.
It’s also worth pointing out that Zeke is the elite in short distance situations. Overall he has a 55.8% success rate in rushing the ball (which is a 7.3% success rate over the average) but in shorts he is even better: -situations to go, it is 13.3% above the average (by Sharp Football).
If you can’t see him in the movie or in the numbers (although both are pretty clear), you should be able to see how opponents treat him. The defenses don’t pay him as much attention as they used to and show a lot fewer eight-man boxes match-to-match.
No, Ezekiel Elliott isn’t as feared as he used to be, but he remains a valuable weapon for the Dallas Cowboys. It is up to the new coaching staff to recognize all of this and use it accordingly (more on this in the days and week to come).