Dallas Cowboys: Should the offense still run through Ezekiel Elliott?

Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) /

The Dallas Cowboys drafted Ezekiel Elliott to be the focal point of the offense. Will that change?

For the better half of the last decade, the Dallas Cowboys have spent their first round draft picks building an offensive juggernaut. A big part of their offensive identity has been the run game, powered by an offensive line consisting of Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick (now retired) and Zack Martin. Then, in 2016, the Cowboys drafted Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick as the final piece in their explosive ground attack.

With a line deemed the best in the NFL blocking for a running back as talented as Elliott, it was no secret what the Cowboys were going to do week in and week out. It really wasn’t a matter of schemes; it was “can your best players match up with my best players in the trenches.” And that’s pretty much how it was for the last decade under Jason Garrett. However, that started to shift towards the end of last season.

Amid the Cowboys struggles came questions about the team’s offensive identity, particularly following Elliott’s dismal performance against the Detroit Lions, one of the NFL’s worst rushing defenses. The Cowboys won that Week 11 match-up, but it was on the shoulders of Dak Prescott, who threw for three touchdowns while Elliott rushed for just  45 yards on 16 carries (2.8 yards per attempt).

Keep in mind, this came as a follow-up to the Week 10 match-up against the Minnesota Vikings in which Elliott was held to 47 yards on 20 carries (2.4 yards per attempt). It was the first time in his career that he was held to fewer than 50 rushing yards in two straight games; all the while, Dak Prescott continued to light it up through the air.

The back-to-back poor performances led to all sorts of questions and doubt. After three seasons of being the team’s workhorse, was Ezekiel Elliott starting to slow down — and right after signing that monster contract? Was it finally time for the Cowboys to become a passing oriented team and lean on the arm of Dak Prescott?

Elliott ended up finishing the season with 1,357 rushing yards (4.5 yards per attempt) and 12 touchdowns. His 84.8 yards per game was the lowest average of his career, although that can be attributed to an uptick in the Cowboys passing game.

According to NFL.com’s Next Gen Stats, Elliott ranked seventh in efficiency (3.49), meaning he was a pretty effective North/South runner. But he also faced eight or more defenders in the box just 19.27 percent of the time, which can also be attributed to the improved passing game and threat through the air.

Jason Garrett is gone now and in steps Mike McCarthy, the quarterback guru who helped lead the Green Bay Packers to a win in Super Bowl XLV over the Pittsburgh Steelers. McCarthy is often viewed as being pass-happy and that was seemingly emphasized with the team’s decision to draft wide receiver CeeDee Lamb in the first round  of the 2020 NFL Draft. The question shouldn’t be will the Cowboys become a more pass-heavy team under McCarthy; the question is, should they?

I suppose that depends on the lens in which you view the offense. Does it rely on Ezekiel Elliott to help set up the passing game or Dak Prescott to open up the running lanes? The easiest answer seems to be that they complement each other and if both are clicking, then there is no stopping this team.

It’s no secret that Prescott is most dangerous when he can fool defenders with the play action. That’s only possible if you have the threat of a dangerous running game. On the flip side, to avoid defenses stacking the box, you need to have an effective passing game and win the one-on-one match-ups.

In a perfect world, both would be firing on all cylinders but that’s just not possible week in and week out in the NFL. Even in those two aforementioned games in which Elliott struggled, the simple threat of having him in the backfield allowed Prescott to shine.

Ezekiel Elliott needs to be an important cog in the Dallas Cowboys’ offense

I truly believe the Cowboys offense is at its best when running through Ezekiel Elliott. And for $15 million a year, that better be the case. Whether it’s on the ground or catching passes out of the backfield as a safety net, Elliott needs to be a key cog in this offense if it is to have any success.

I know we all want the Cowboys to follow the league trend and air it out on every play, but as we saw last season, the current formula can work. Both the San Francisco 49ers and Tennessee Titans proved that a successful running game can carry even the most incompetent of passers.

The Cowboys should continue to lean on Ezekiel Elliott and the run game. When you have the second highest-paid running back in the league on your team and a line anchored by Tyron Smith, Connor Williams, Zack Martin and La’el Collins, do you really move away from that?

I’m not suggesting they put their head down and stubbornly run into stacked boxes on every third and short. We all know how that would turn out.

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According to Teamrankings.com, the Dallas Cowboys passed the ball on 58 percent of their plays, ranking them 21st in the league. For the record, the Tennessee Titans, San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens all ranked in the bottom three in passing play percentage, so it’s not crazy to think the Cowboys could find similar success if they stick with the same approach under Mike McCarthy this season. Hopefully some more decisive and smarter situational playcalling will be the key difference.