Cowboys fans remember this play, right? 1st and 10 from their own 28, 11:12 remaining in the 3rd quarter, Cowboys already with a 20-3 lead. Ezekiel Elliott receives a screen pass to the right side, navigate a little early traffic, and races down the sideline 72 yards for the touchdown.
At the time this play, a fantastic play, was just the sort of thing we had come to expect from Ezekiel Elliott.
That play occurred on October 22, 2017, almost two full calendar years ago. For Elliott, this was 595 regular-season touches ago. This play was what is loosely referred to as a “home run.” A flipping of the field, or a long scoring play. This was the last “home run” play for Elliott to date. In those 595 touches since this 72-yard masterpiece, Ezekiel Elliott has notched just four plays of 30 or more yards, and only a single play of 40 or more. That is an awfully high number of opportunities to break a monster play and it simply hasn’t happened.
For comparison’s sake, Giants running back Saquon Barkley sits today at a nice round 400 touches. In those 400 touches, Barkley has broken free for more than 50 yards ten times. At his average workload, Barkley is virtually popping off a monster run every other week so far in his 19 game career. Ezekiel Elliott has not had it happen once in his last 24 games. A 50-yard run is an extremely unique play, but even when you lower the measuring stick to 40 yards, 30, or even 25, the big runs aren’t happening for Elliott very often at all.
Are Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley different types of backs? Certainly.
But this is where contracts and expectations come into play. For $90 million dollars, you had better be every type of back. At that price tag, it is okay for fans to demand that Elliott be more than an excellent “game manager” back, and to provide some electricity on occasion.
Chunk plays matter. Chunk plays are essentially free points, “free” in the sense that you didn’t have to sustain a long drive (which is hard to do at times against good defenses) to get them. When your offense is bogged down (see Sunday night vs. New Orleans) it’s such a relief and momentum shift when you can pop a big run, and go from your own territory to field goal range in a single snap. Long scoring plays are obviously even better. It’s okay to ask your top paid running back to produce one of those plays a handful of times each season, the same way it’s okay for you to ask that a highly paid defender like Byron Jones haul in an interception at the very least once a year. Big time, top dollar players need to make a play to bail out their unit on occasion. It’s not an unfair ask.
Those wishing to make the case that Ezekiel Elliott is still a big playback will point to the fact that he leads the league since 2016 in carries of 10+ yards. While that stat is a glowing endorsement of the workhorse back that Zeke is, it actually hurts the argument that he is a big playback. Some of those runs are the contested, “dirty” runs that make Zeke great. However, 110 runs of 10+ yards suggest that on at least some of those opportunities, the back had himself out into the second or even third level with a chance to make a man miss and bust free.
We know that monster, game-altering plays are down for Zeke, but why? One theory that makes a ton of sense is formation. Using less 12 and 13 personnel, as the Cowboys have of late spreads and deepens the defense. This is ideal for the chain moving style that Zeke is so incredible at, but it’s not the best look for busting the long run. As backward as it sounds, a crowded, condensed box is actually an optimal situation for the long run. When a defense crowds the line and maybe goes to a single safety, the defense is essentially only two levels. If you can somehow pop out the other side of the scrum at the line of scrimmage, you are on the safety in a hurry needing only to beat him for a huge run. This is why you often see breakaway runs on short-yardage situations.
Schematics aside though, Elliott just doesn’t look the same. The power is obviously still there. His elite and downright creepy ankle flexion, and liquid-like agility properties still show themselves when he is sifting through traffic. He will still pull the hurdle out of the bag at times. It’s just hard to look at Elliott and say that the burst is the same as it was when he first stepped onto the NFL scene. When things were blocked correctly, Zeke used to hit holes with a degree of violence, with vapor trails waving behind him. You used to see Elliott press a hole, jump cut, bang, land, jump-cut another direction on the landing. He used to accelerate to a crease in the secondary and nobody had a chance once he was through it. It’s hard to even pinpoint a single recent occurrence of any of those elite abilities.
It’s not that Zeke is getting run down from behind in the open field, it’s that he no longer seems capable of getting to the “portal,” in time. Zeke often seems half a step away from splitting those last two defenders or beating a defender’s angle to the sideline to finish a big run.
I personally remember the evolution of my own thoughts as DeMarco Murray was setting a Cowboys franchise single-season rushing record. I remember my thoughts as the season progressed.
Week 7 or 8: “Wow, they really are running DeMarco a lot. He’s gonna wear down.”
Week 11 or 12: “Wow, they are still running Murray like crazy. They’re going to break him.”
Week 16: “Ohhhhhhhhh…. they aren’t going to pay him!”
The Cowboys didn’t pay Murray. They gave him the ball 449 times that season, let him walk, and he was never the same player going forward. The Cowboys saw this, two years later drafted a rookie running back, then stacked over 1,000 touches on him in three seasons. Right out of the gate, without a body not yet adjusted to the rigors of a grueling NFL season. Without much of rookie training camp. Did they think it would affect Elliott differently because of his age?
It feels strange having this discussion about a 24-year-old, but we are here now. We are accustomed to having this discussion about 28, 29-year-old running backs. However, every human body is different, and running back is the most physically taxing position in sports. It’s a fair question to ask at this point. Have the Cowboys sapped Ezekiel Elliott of some of his superpowers via overuse? The Cowboys had better hope not. The organization has employed it’s 2016 first-round selection on the field in a manner a team would employ a player it did not intend to keep. The Cowboys, however, just made the largest monetary commitment in the history of the NFL at the position to keep Elliott around for the future.
For a player on a rookie or reasonable veteran deal, we aren’t nitpicking about big field flipping plays. But with the market setting money comes lofty expectations. $90 million dollars is too much for an elite “possession runner” type of back. At that annual cost, Elliott needs to at least on occasion provide quick points, or turn long fields into short ones in a single play.
This week’s opponent, the Green Bay Packers are surrendering 142 yards per game on the ground, and visually appear ripe to be run all over. This would be a great week for Zeke to find some open grass and help his offense out with some big plays in what may very well turn into a shootout with the great Aaron Rodgers.
The Cowboys play the Packers this week, followed by a road game at the Jets, and a home tilt against the division-rival Eagles. If Elliott doesn’t spring any big plays in any of those three contests, he will return after the Week 8 bye with a “home run” drought more than two calendar years old.
Here is hoping that Zeke flashes some of that 2016 juice, and extinguishes the fears of doubters like myself in the coming weeks.