Through the first three games of the 2019 season, it seemed like the Dallas Cowboys offense had turned the corner, adapting their offense to modernize through the passing game. As the Cowboys had become frustratingly run-heavy and predictable, Offensive Coordinator Kellen Moore was brought in to evolve Jason Garrett’s version of the Air Coryell offense with Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, and Michael Gallup as the three-pronged centerpiece to take the Cowboys into the next generation of football.
Then the Dallas Cowboys went to New Orleans, admittedly a very difficult place to play, and the offense took a turn for the conservative. In their 12-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints, the Cowboys offensive coaches remained committed to the run, though Ezekiel Elliott had only two carries for five yards or more. In the game, Elliott saw 18 carries despite 10 of those carries going for two yards or fewer.
In the Green Bay game, the Dallas Cowboys didn’t really get a chance to settle into their offense as the defense was gashed regularly by Aaron Jones and the Packers running game. However, of Elliott’s 12 carries only five of them went for five yards or more. Another five went for two or fewer yards.
Facing the New York Jets and needing a win, the Dallas Cowboys gave the ball to Ezekiel Elliott 28 times. On 11 occasions, his runs went for two yards or less while 10 of his carries went for five yards or more.
This even holds up over the course of Ezekiel Elliott’s career.
It applies even when you look at the career numbers. Ezekiel Elliott, 2016-present Gains of 2 yards or less-406 Gains of 5 yards or more-351 https://t.co/7VeDWEQZYE
Before you read this as an “Ezekiel Elliott is bad at football” or a “running backs don’t matter” take, know that this is more about the emphasis the Dallas Cowboys offensive staff places on the running game vs the passing game. The running game just doesn’t have the same level of effectiveness as the passing game does.
On Tuesday, fellow Inside The Star Staff Writer Matthew Lenix argued that the Dallas Cowboys need to make Ezekiel Elliott the focal point of their offense moving forward. It’s a really good read and he makes some really good arguments. Elliott’s an excellent player, but the running game isn’t the most efficient and often puts them behind the chains making life a lot more difficult for the Dallas Cowboys.
Nine times, the Dallas Cowboys faced 2nd and 8+ after a run vs the New York Jets. They were forced to punt twice, kick a 50-yard field goal once, and were able to convert the other six times. Of Elliott’s 18 second-half carries, six of those went for one yard or less. Another four went for just three yards. So 10 of his 18 carries in the second half went for three yards or less. Sure, Ezekiel Elliott is a good and maybe great player, but the running game hasn’t been very efficient in 2019.
Over the course of the 2019 season, the Dallas Cowboys are equally successful running the football as they are throwing the football. They have a 55% success rate through the air and a 54% success rate on the ground. The big difference being, Dak Prescott is averaging 8.9 yards per attempt and the running game is averaging just 4.8 yards per attempt. The Cowboys pick up nearly twice as much yardage when they throw the ball at an equal amount of success as when they run the ball and we’re still wondering which should be the focal point of the offense.
In the first three games — yes, against lesser opponents — the Dallas Cowboys used the passing game to establish a lead and then used the running game to salt away the win. Over the last three weeks with the team concerned about the environment, the opponent, and their own injuries, they went back to the “establish the run” approach to keep the game close with the hope they could win the game in the fourth quarter. The problem was their defense let the game get out of hand in each of the last two weeks and the offense couldn’t catch up.
Against the Saints, their insistence on establishing the run kept them behind the chains throughout the game and the passing game struggled to get a rhythm going. Throwing out of second and third and long situations isn’t an effective way to help your passing game, even if you are trying to establish the run.
Even without Amari Cooper and their two starting tackles, the Cowboys can get off to a better start if they put the game in Dak’s hands early on. Forcing your quarterback, who is playing the best football of his career, to overcome 2nd and 3rd and 7+ several times a drive is unreasonable and unsustainable, even with the best quarterback.
The Dallas Cowboys have the fourth-worst average starting position in the NFL and haven’t started a drive in their opponents’ territory all season.
Through 6 games, the Cowboys remain the only team that has not started a single drive in the opponent’s territory. The other 31 teams have started an average of 5.9 drives inside the opponent’s territory, and four teams have started at least 10.
If the Dallas Cowboys hope to get off to a better start this week against the Philadelphia Eagles, then they’ll need to get aggressive through the air from the outset. Because they have to play from deep in their own end on every drive, the offensive coaching staff needs to do a better job getting them in a rhythm early because it’s really hard to score on 75+ yard drives every time you touch the ball, especially if you’re trying to do so three to four yards at a time through the run game.
Though the running game can still be an effective tool for the Dallas Cowboys, with this current personnel, it will never have the same level of importance as the passing game. The Cowboys need to put the game in Dak Prescott’s hands and keep it there from the opening whistle. Ezekiel Elliott is a great running back, but there is far more to be gained by letting your quarterback and the passing game take the lead. If the Cowboys have any hopes of turning their season around, letting Dak lead has to be the focus from here on out.