Something has been driving me crazy for two years now. Ezekiel Elliott is one of the most explosive, impactful threats in the NFL today. A homerun threat every time he touches the ball, Elliott has the ability to take a four or five yard run and pop it for 70 or more. As a rookie, he took a screen pass 83 yards to the house at Pittsburgh to change the complexion of the game and ultimately lead the Cowboys to a massive win. This past season, he took a check-down 70 yards to pay-dirt in San Francisco. Few players can match Elliott’s speed, burst, and power. He may well be the best all-around back in the league today. So why is he used so one-dimensionally in the Dallas offense?
Elliott has the skillset to be football’s most versatile, explosive threat, but to many, that distinction rests with Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell. Since coming into the league in 2013, Bell has practically redefined the role of the starting running back. He does this by often lining up in formation, whether in the slot or out wide, and giving defenses fits. It makes sense, really. If you have a back with good hands and who’s good in space, why not put him in positions like that at least a couple times a game?
And for those worried about adding more to Elliott’s plate, the obvious answer is you don’t focus on him getting 25-30 carries per game, but rather 20-25 touches. This not only lessens the punishment of running between the tackles, often crashing full force into 300+ pound brutes but gives Elliott ample opportunities to take advantage of mismatches with corner backs and linebackers in coverage, most of whom would struggle to bring him down alone in space.
In his 5 seasons, Bell has amassed 5,336 yards on the ground for 35 touchdowns, and another 2,660 through the air, taking 7 more to the house for a touchdown. That average comes out to 42.9 yards receiving per game on 5 receptions. Comparatively speaking, Elliott has rushed for 2,614 yards in his first two seasons, granted that’s in just 25 games (6 game suspension and Week 17 rest at Philadelphia, 2016). The average works out to 104.6 yards per game, compared to 86.1 for Bell. As for receiving yards, Elliott has 58 receptions in his career for an average of 10.9 a pop (632 yards total) and 3 touchdowns. But, when you take out the two homerun trots mentioned above, you’re looking at 56 receptions for 479 yards and just 8.6 yards per reception. This adjustment takes his 25.3 reception yards/game to a mere 19.2. Bell crushes that number, more than doubling it.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: how is it fair to remove Elliott’s two biggest receptions when earlier you highlighted them? Because Zeke is only ever utilized for check-downs and screens. If you want to drive up those numbers, change up how you use him a little bit. Your homerun threat will be all the greater for it!
But hold on, hold on! Won’t using Zeke that way only drive up his value the way it did with Le’Veon Bell? Possibly, yes. Bell is seeking to be paid as both a receiver and running back by the Pittsburgh Steelers and has even gone as far as to threaten sitting out the year should he be franchised. Needless to say, this puts Pittsburgh in a tough spot. To me though, its a moot point as Dallas has no intention of paying Zeke for a second contract. Yes, Jerry Jones loves to pay his players and has a history of keeping guys around too long. But recent history under Stephen Jones suggests the more likely occurrence will be that Zeke plays out his rookie contract, seeing heavy usage, and then is allowed to go get paid elsewhere. It happened with DeMarco Murray, it’ll happen with Zeke, too.
Murray was the perfect role model and a respectable, beloved face in Dallas during his time with the Cowboys, both within the organization and community. His last season in Big D even saw him break the single-season franchise rushing record with 1,845 yards, surpassing Cowboy Legend and the NFL’s All Time Rushing Leader, Emmitt Smith. Oh, and he scored 13 touchdowns along the way.
So if Murray couldn’t get a second contract in Dallas, what chance does Zeke really have? Sure, Zeke will be one year younger when he hits free agency than Murray was, but when you’re talking about a four or five year contract, that amounts to little. The whole point of Dallas investing over $100 million in its offensive line was to have the capability to plug any running back into the backfield and still dominate opposing defenses. Unfortunately, the 2015 season with Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden essentially proved that wasn’t entirely true. Sure, McFadden ended up finishing 5th in the league in rushing yards -despite not seeing significant playing time until Week 6- but his 1,089 rushing yards came with just 3 touchdowns and proved to be less than impactful. That next offseason, Dallas flipped its position and took a Ezekiel Elliott out of Ohio State at number 4 overall in the Draft. By investing so highly in a running back, Dallas was effectively trying to get an immediate difference-maker who happened to be 20-21 years old, rather than paying a 27-28 year old back like Murray or McFadden. On top of everything, do you really think Dallas wants to bring Zeke back with all of the off the field questions surrounding him and his partying? Hell no. You’ll have Zeke until 2020 and then Dallas will draft his replacement. So you might as well utilize him to his fullest potential now.
The problem with that stems from the Dallas offensive philosophy. Since Jason Garrett came into the picture in 2007, the Dallas offense has been his baby. Sure, we’ve had Bill Callahan and Scott Linehan as Offensive Coordinators in recent years but at its root it’s still Jason Garrett’s offense. Aside from those three consecutive 8-8 seasons when Dallas had no offensive line or running back to save Tony Romo‘s life, Garrett has tried to emulate the offense of the 90’s Cowboys dynasty. It’s a simplistic approach, oftentimes seeing as few as 4-5 running plays in any given game plan and just a handful of passing plays. In 2014 when Dallas went 12-4 we applauded its simplicity. In 2016, during a 13-3 season, we did the same. And maybe for a rookie Quarterback in Dak Prescott, that was smart at the time. But it doesn’t work moving forward. When you have just a handful of plays you run, defenses are going to pick up on what you’re doing and adjust to take it away. With Romo, it was a bit more difficult because loading the box simply met that he and Dez could pick you apart outside the numbers. But with Dak, a still developing passer, that has not been the case. Defenses load the box against Elliott and minimize his damage, forcing Dak to beat them. In time, he may be able to do that. Right now, he cannot.
So how do you make the offense “Dak-friendly?” Well, for starters, you find more creative ways to use Zeke. Rather than having Elliott standing 4-5 yards away from Dak on any given screen or check-down, run him out in space. Put him in the slot and exploit a mismatch -hell, run a damn wheel route! Do something to ensure a single Defensive End can’t squat on Zeke or split the narrow difference between him and Dak to effectively remove both from the play.
What Dak needs is playmakers. Ezekiel Elliott is a playmaker, and he could be a far more effective one if only Dallas thought outside the box once in a while instead of running him between the tackles or on sweeps all day every day. But it won’t. Because Jason Garrett is Jason Garrett and hyper-conservativism is his philosphy in most all situations.
Le’Veon Bell is viewed as the league’s most dynamic back instead of Ezekiel Elliott, and that makes me mad as hell. Unfortunately, with Jason Garrett’s offensive philosophy in place, that’s not likely to change.