There is a lot to complain about after the Dallas Cowboys’ loss last night to the Minnesota Vikings. But what seems to be the most universally reviled topic is Dallas’ stubborn use of Ezekiel Elliott and the run game, and I can’t help but wonder if it stems from an ego-driven need to validate Zeke’s new contract.
Just before the start of the regular season, the Cowboys made Elliott the NFL’s highest-paid running back at $15 million per year. There was no lack of criticism for this decision; many argued that the modern pass-happy NFL doesn’t need RBs paid at the franchise level. There were also some direct concerns about Zeke and his ability to endure as a top-tier runner, avoid personal conduct issues, or both.
After nine games in the 2019 season Elliott has given Dallas a decent return on their investment. He is currently ranked sixth in rushing yards per game despite the team’s move to a more pass-focused offense. And though it will take doing, Zeke could still make up the roughly 200-yard distance between league leaders Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey.
Even while Dak Prescott is set to have a career-high in passing attempts the Cowboys are still committed to getting Ezekiel Elliott his touches. And that’s not bad; you don’t spend a 4th-overall draft pick and huge cap dollars on a guy you don’t plan to make a focal point of your offense.
But last Sunday night, we saw Dallas keep trying to fit a Zeke-shaped peg into a Dak-shaped hole.
The Vikings were helpless against the Cowboys’ passing attack all game long; Prescott, Amari Cooper, and Randall Cobb were having their way with Minnesota’s secondary. Meanwhile, Zeke had one of the worst days of his career with only 2.35 yards-per-carry; the lowest production rate he’s ever had when getting 20 rushing attempts or more.
Over the course of an entire game you can’t completely throw out the run or pass portions of the playbook. You still have to keep the defense honest in either scenario.
And, to be fair, you can understand why Dallas thought Zeke would eventually get it going. After the Vikings got shredded by the Cowboys’ passing game most of the night, you would assume they’d eventually start devoting more resources to air defense.
Throughout his time in Dallas, Elliott’s best work has often come in the second half. His physical style, coupled with the Cowboys’ typically dominant offensive line, is especially brutal for opposing defenses later in games when fatigue sets in.
So yes, the formula was seemingly there for Zeke to break loose. As onlookers, we were as perplexed as I’m sure the Cowboys themselves were at the lack of success Elliott and the run game had as the night went on.
But at a certain point we saw the need to adjust strategy. And as Zeke kept getting repeatedly stymied by the Minnesota defense, the outcry on social media and in living rooms and sports bars got louder by the carry.
And yet the Cowboys wouldn’t relent. They wouldn’t admit defeat.
Then the final drive came, and despite Dak Prescott playing perhaps the best game of his career the Cowboys handed it to Zeke on 2nd down and 3rd down for -3 yards. He went nowhere or backwards, just like we’d seen most of the night.
And in the end, that stubbornness may have cost them the game.
What concerns me about that loss, and how it unfolded on offense, is that stubborn refusal to adjust strategy. Zeke never should’ve gotten to 20 carries given how poorly they all went; his longest of the night was only six yards. The run game clearly wasn’t working, and leaning on it in those crucial final moments bordered on the cliche definition of insanity.
The concern is that Dallas feels the need to justify Zeke’s contract so badly that it’s going to distort offensive strategy. And if that does exist, it probably comes from up top.
Jerry Jones has done a lot of great, wonderful things in his ownership and management of the Dallas Cowboys. But it’s perfectly fair to say that he allows ego to interfere with logic at times.
Jason Garrett has won way more games than he’s lost since becoming Cowboys head coach. But he’s prideful; Garrett often references personal and team pride in his public conversations. And he’s also proudly loyal to traditional football methodology.
Stephen Jones and Will McClay have done awesome work in their increased handling of the Cowboys’ football operations. But rest assured, they also have ego. McClay helped scout Zeke and all of these offensive linemen. Stephen had a huge part in negotiating their big contracts. Their reputations are also tied to the team’s success.
I’m not saying that the Joneses or anyone else has handed down an edict on when and how Ezekiel Elliott should be used. I certainly don’t think Jerry was in Kellen Moore’s ear on Sunday night.
But decision making has many layers, some active and some passive. Even subconsciously, our choices in the heat of the moment are driven by many factors.
Kellen may have been trying to play chess against checkers, calling the run in the face of all logic in the hopes that it would catch Minnesota off guard. But maybe also in that decision was the thought that Zeke is the team’s most proven offensive weapon, the reigning NFL rushing champion, and that Moore didn’t want to be the guy who didn’t give Elliott a chance to do his thing.
I may be grasping at straws here, but I’m just trying to find the logic behind what went down on Sunday night. Because even the more casual football fan could see that Dallas had decision-making disasters throughout that game.
Whatever caused the lapse in judgment, hopefully all involved learned their lesson.