Speaking to the media the other day, Amari Cooper discussed expectations for the Dallas Cowboys and, in particular, the wide receiver group. Among other things, Cooper let it be known that the hope for the three-headed monster of Cooper, Gallup, and rookie CeeDee Lamb is for all three to have a 1,000-yard receiving season.
When Mike McCarthy was hired to be the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys back in January, some are concerned about how this might affect Ezekiel Elliott and the running game. Ezekiel Elliott put some of those concerns to rest yesterday, responding to Ed Werder with “We all gonna EAT.”
Ezekiel Elliott’s lack of concern for his role in the offense should have been alleviated back at Mike McCarthy’s back in March when he said Ezekiel Elliott “would be a primary focus.” Many have pointed to Mike McCarthy’s run-pass splits while with the Green Bay Packers as the reason for their concern over the usage of their highly paid, highly drafted running back. However, some of those concerns are a bit exaggerated.
In Mike McCarthy’s tenure with the Packers, they ran the ball less than 40% of the time just three times in 13 seasons. In particular, those were his final three seasons in Green Bay. In 2016, the Packers leading rusher was wide receiver convert Ty Montgomery followed by Eddie Lacy. In 2017 and 2018, it was Aaron Jones and Jamal Williams leading the way. Generally, throughout his time in Green Bay, however, his run-rate landed between 41 and 43 percent.
If you look back at the running backs the Green Bay Packers deployed during McCarthy’s time with the Packers, there aren’t a lot of names you’d consider for “best running back in the NFL” discussions. His best running back was probably Ahman Green, but he only had him for one season in 2006. After Green, Ryan Grant is the best running back that McCarthy had to work with until Aaron Jones started to assert himself in 2018. From 2016-2018 the reliability of the running back position had dropped off significantly.
If there’s something we can take away from McCarthy’s history in Green Bay, it’s that it doesn’t appear that running back was a high priority for the organization during his tenure. Even with the lack of talent at the running back position during his time with the Packers, he still worked to get the running back the football.
The reality is, McCarthy never had a running back as good as Ezekiel Elliott during his time in the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field. The Dallas Cowboys have put Ezekiel Elliott to work, even as they’ve trended toward more passing over the last four years.
In the chart above, you can see that the Cowboys have put the ball in Dak Prescott’s hands more and more as he’s developed. From his rookie year in 2016, when the Cowboys had a 50/50 run-pass split to 2019 when they were 42/58 in their run-pass split, the Cowboys have begun to ask more of their quarterback over the years.
That’s not to say that they’re asking less of their elite running back, they’re just beginning to work him into the passing game for more of his touches. Instead of running him 350 times a season into the front seven, they’re getting him the ball in the flat and at the second level of the defense where he’s not being asked to take on 320-pound defensive tackles as often.
Ezekiel Elliott’s right when he says, “we all gonna EAT!” In this offense, there will be plenty of production to go around. Even after a season when Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup both went for 1,000 yards, and Randall Cobb went for more than 800, Elliott still had 1,357 rushing yards and 420 receiving yards. Elliott’s 2019 ( 1,777 total yards and 14 total touchdowns) was still an elite running back season.
With the talent that the Dallas Cowboys have in the passing game, they’ll make Elliott’s and the offensive line’s job in the running game easier. With the trio of weapons the Cowboys will deploy at wide receiver along with Blake Jarwin at tight end, opposing defenses will have a difficult time loading the box to slow Elliott and the running game. Bring seven or eight defenders into the box, and they’re choosing to leave one or more wide receivers with a one-on-one matchup on the outside.
Dak Prescott showed a lot of improvement in his passing ability in 2019, and if he takes another step in 2020, teams won’t be able to focus entirely on Elliott and the running game. If they use more 11 personnel (1RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) as their base personnel, Elliott will have improved efficiency. Even if his rushing attempts drops below 300 for the first time in a full season, which I highly doubt, Elliott will still threaten for the rushing title. The overall improvement of the offensive talent and development of Kellen Moore as an offensive coordinator should help the entire offense be more efficient moving forward.
Mike McCarthy wants to run the football. He’s shown that when he’s had a dependable running back, he’ll keep the offense reasonably balanced.
With the talent they have all over the field on offense, the Dallas Cowboys will be serving Thanksgiving dinner every week. There will be plenty of offense to go around, and throughout the season, everyone’s “gonna eat.”