Who else is sick of the running backs argument?
As soon as the Dallas Cowboys decided to extend running back Ezekiel Elliott earlier this week, Twitter went crazy with instant reaction. While the majority of Cowboys Nation seemed excited to have their All Pro level talent back on the field for the season opener, the majority of outside analysts disagreed with the Cowboys’ decision.
Running backs don’t matter.
It’s become the tagline for the analytics crowd in recent years, so much so that’s its become overblown.
The numbers suggest that early down passes, not runs, are the most efficient play-calls by expected points added. They also suggest that the difference between a running back who’s considered “elite” by the masses, and one that’s considered replacement level, is not all that big. Not big enough to justify $50 million guaranteed, that’s for sure.
But the Cowboys, and their fans, have decided that this situation is different. That, in Dallas, the running back does matter. And he matters a lot.
The Cowboys have built their offense around their running game. For years they have made the decision to run on early downs, be conservative in their third and fourth down play-calling, and invest resources in their offensive line.
Head coach Jason Garrett is a football guy at heart, and while there are a ton of smart analytically minded people in the building, time of possession and hard-nosed football has been the priority in Dallas since the 2014 season.
And when you look at the win-loss record, why shouldn’t it be, right?
While it’s certainly true the Cowboys are built on the back of their running game, it’s not true that this all centers around their running back. Instead, the offensive line is the backbone of this football team, as has been proved year in and year out.
After extending right tackle La’el Collins earlier this week, Dallas now has long term contracts invested in four of their five starting offensive linemen. In addition, they’ve used a top 50 pick on their starting left guard who will almost certainly earn himself a longterm contract in the next couple years. Oh, and they used a third round pick in 2019 on guard Connor McGovern to be their insurance plan on the interior line.
The Cowboys carried 11 (!!) offensive linemen on the 53-man roster after training camp cuts, and have done all they can to make sure that Dak Prescott is protected and Ezekiel Elliott has clear running lanes. Now, I am not inferring that any old running back can do what Zeke does with this offensive line. What I am saying is that when you have so much invested in those front five, it could be a mis-allocation of resources to also guarantee a running back $50 million.
Dallas’ front office has exhibited time and time again that they don’t want to be up against the cap. They want flexibility year to year, as they likely should. In order to keep this flexibility, they may lose out on some of their defensive free agents – namely Maliek Collins, Anthony Brown, and Byron Jones – in order to keep their offensive core together.
They can afford to keep players like Byron Jones around with Elliott, but it’s unlikely they are going to do so.
Ezekiel Elliott is valuable, though. He’s valuable in the locker room as a leader on offense. He’s valuable on Sundays as another weapon the defense has to account for. And, yet, analytics departments would tell you that they might be better off rolling into the future with a cheaper Tony Pollard. Because the question isn’t whether or not Zeke is “good,” it’s whether or not Zeke being good actually makes your offense better enough to justify the guaranteed money.
At the end of the day, the Cowboys’ decision makers seem to have different roster values than analytics Twitter. And, hey, they’ve done a really good job so far, making it easy to trust them.
If Ezekiel Elliott plays as he has and the Cowboys ride their offensive line and running game to a Super Bowl, no one will care about potential dead money, or his cap hit in 2023.