Kickoff to the 2019 NFL regular season is closing in fast, and Ezekiel Elliott is still a non-participant, mired in a contract dispute. With each day that passes, the possibility of the Cowboys taking the field for meaningful football games without their bell-cow runner grows closer to becoming a reality.
Ezekiel Elliott is a complete running back of the highest order. His game has no real holes, as he is both powerful and sudden as a runner. His vision, patience, and balance are elite. He is outstanding at collecting the “dirty yards” when vacant turf is scarce. He is an excellent pass catcher, and a more than adequate pass protector. It is often difficult to declare a single “best” player at any position, in a league with so many immensely talented athletes. However, no discussion about best-running backs can be had without including “Zeke.”
One could probably run the dictionary dry of superlatives talking about Ezekiel Elliott’s game. Nonetheless, taking the field without Ezekiel Elliott does not mean the Cowboys are only allowed to line up with 10 players on offense. Playing without Ezekiel Elliott does not mean the Cowboys will be unable to muster a successful running game, nor does it prevent the Cowboys from having overall success as a team.
When you have a capable quarterback, better than solid perimeter weaponry, and an offensive line room that includes three 1st round selections, a 2nd, a 3rd, and quality depth, a $14-15M/yr running back should never feel like a must-have. There are simply too many examples around the league of teams having success on the ground without tying up that kind of money at the running back position.
In 2018, Cowboys runners (QB rush yards adjusted out) ran for a total of 1658 yards (Elliott 1434), at a 4.55 yards per carry clip. Six 2018 playoff teams had ground games comparable to, or exceeding the Cowboys in either total rushing yardage, and or yards per carry. Only one of those squads (LAR) carried a big money back on the roster.
Los Angeles Rams:
Rushing: 2,183 yards/4.55 ypc
Primary runners: Todd Gurley ($950k low base 1st year of 4/$57.5M deal), Malcolm Brown ($630k)
New Orleans Saints:
Rushing: 1,988 yards/4.65 ypc:
Primary Runners: Alvin Kamara ($635k), Mark Ingram ($3.05M)
Los Angeles Chargers:
Rushing: 1,866 yards/4.89 ypc
Primary runners: Melvin Gordon ($1.89M), Austin Ekeler ($555k), Justin Jackson ($395k)
Rushing: 1,701 yards/4.35 ypc
Primary runners: Gus Edwards ($338k), Alex Collins ($630k), Kenneth Dixon ($630k)
New England Patriots:
Rushing: 2002 yards/4.51 ypc
Primary runners: Sony Michel ($480k), James White ($1M), Rex Burkhead ($1M)
Kansas City Chiefs:
Rushing: 1583 yards/4.84 ypc
Primary runners: Kareem Hunt ($439k), Spencer Ware ($725k), Damien Williams ($790k)
*QB rush yardage adjusted out
*Salaries in parenthesis
Ezekiel Elliott is a once-in-a-long time talent, but other clubs are able to match or at least near Elliott’s production with committee approaches. Teams are running the football well enough to win playoff games and even Super Bowls while spending pennies at the running back position. Being able to look around the league and see that, I’m not sure how you can justify paying one guy $10-12M more on a yearly average than the entire running back room of some of your playoff peers.
Are the Dallas Cowboys a better football team in 2019 with Ezekiel Elliott on the field? No question.
Are the Dallas Cowboys a better football team in 2020, 2021, 2022 with big-time money tied up at a quite replaceable position? Almost certainly not.
Second-contract running backs are a luxury only affordable to teams with first-contract quarterbacks. Zeke Elliott was drafted to be a finishing piece for a Tony Romo window that even in good health would have been closed before the bill came due on the running back. In that alternate universe, you probably have a rookie or cheap veteran placeholder at QB in 2019 and can afford a big money back. In reality, you have a quarterback who is also due to get paid, and you probably put some constraints on the rest of your roster if you take care of both guys.
The Cowboys would be wise to dig in and stand their ground here. Hopefully, the team sets a number and stands firm, much the way they did with DeMarco Murray. If Zeke accepts and suits up, fantastic. If not, you still have a season to play. Early returns on Tony Pollard have him looking good enough to be one half of a solid alternative to Ezekiel Elliott. Alfred Morris and Darius Jackson however, are frankly not good enough to complete the running back room. Watch the wire-like a hawk after cut-down day, and work the phones for a trade for a competent back if need be. It is not the goal to find one guy who can duplicate Ezekiel Elliott’s production. It shouldn’t necessarily be the goal to replace ALL of Elliott’s production at all.
Elite runners are great fun to watch, and certainly present a dynamic threat to defenses, but don’t necessarily notch more tallies in the “W” column. Every year the playoff landscape is littered with capable to good running backs, and quite a few of them end up hoisting the Lombardi.
The Dallas Cowboys can still have a great running game, without an elite runner. The Cowboys offense can still roll without Ezekiel Elliott.