We’ve spent plenty of time talking about what we expect from Ezekiel Elliott this season -- and with Zeke debuting Thursday night in Preseason Game 3 at Seattle, the talk is just beginning.
"It's just exciting to finally be out there," Zeke said this week as he plunged into practices for the first time since Aug. 2 due to his nursing of a hamstring. "There's a lot of pressure in the situation I'm in. But I don't try to make too much of it. No one can expect more out of me than myself. I'm going to go out there and do what I do and play football and everything will work out."
I think everyone agrees that when the regular season begins Elliott will be the starting running back.The projections when it comes to how MUCH the Cowboys will use Elliott are all over the map. I think some people out there have unrealistic expectations of Elliott (read: DeMarco Murray in 2014). I’ve been around the NFL long enough to know that I would rather set expectations at a place where I’m pleasantly surprised by a rookie’s production rather than unpleasantly disappointed.
For my part, when the Cowboys drafted Elliott I felt that if he were able to rush for 1,250 yards and score at least 10 touchdowns his rookie year that would be an incredibly successful season. For perspective consider the rookie seasons of the two best backs in Cowboys history, Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith. Dorsett rushed for 1,007 yards and 12 touchdowns in 1977. Smith rushed for 937 yards and scored 11 times in 1990. Both, of course, are in the Hall of Fame.
Juxtaposed against those two legends even my expectations were probably higher than I would have liked.
By yardage, the best rookie season of all time was posted by Eric Dickerson — 1,808 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns. He tossed in 51 receptions for 404 yards and 2 touchdowns for good measure, touching the ball a ridiculous 441 times.
I would not encourage the Cowboys to use Elliott that much. But there is a difference between how a player should be used and what a team needs from a player to win. And that’s the path I went down for this article. I wanted to determine what the correlation was between running the football and winning in Cowboys history. More importantly, how MUCH the Cowboys needed to run the ball to win and, even more importantly, how much Elliott had to run the ball to win. To do so I broke down the 20 best individual rushing seasons in Cowboys history, took a look at overall records, playoff berths, how far they went in the playoffs, backfield support and workload to see if there was, indeed, a sweet spot for Elliott’s production that might lead the Cowboys back to the playoffs. No guarantees of course.
The Two Tiers
I broke this down into two tiers, based purely on rushing numbers. The Top 10 rushing seasons were on one tier and the next 10 were on the next tier.
Tier 1 consisted of individual seasons that ranged from DeMarco Murray’s 1,845 yards in 2014 to Emmitt Smith’s 1,332 yards in 1998. The average for these 10 seasons was 1,575 yards, with the closest season to the average being Smith’s 1,563 yards in 1991. Additionally, players on this tier scored double-digit touchdowns on seven different occasions, including Smith’s team-record 25 in 1995.
Here are the vitals:
Record: 105-55 (.656)
Playoff appearances: 9
Super Bowl appearances/wins: 3/3
Additional NFC Championship game appearances: 2
The only year the Cowboys failed to make the playoffs on this tier was in 1988 when Herschel Walker rushed for 1,514 yards as they went 3-13 in Tom Landry’s final season. Fifty percent of the teams on this tier made it to no worse than the NFC title game.
Tier 2 consisted of individual seasons that ranged from Tony Dorsett’s 1,325 yards in 1978 to Dorsett’s 1,107 yards in 1979. So the range was much narrower from top to bottom and, naturally, the average is lower too. The average for these 10 seasons was 1,210 yards, with the closest season to the average being Smith’s 1,204 yards in 1996. Additionally, players on this tier scored double-digit touchdowns on just two occasions — 12 by Smith in 1996 and 11 by Dorsett in 1980.
Here are the vitals:
Record: 99-59 (.626)
Playoff appearances: 7
Super Bowl appearances/wins: 1/1
Additional NFC Championship game appearances: 2
The three years the Cowboys failed to make the playoffs were 2000 (Smith, 1,203 yards, 5-11 record), 1984 (Dorsett, 1,189 yards, 9-7 record) and 2013 (Murray 1,121 yards, 8-8 record). The differences here are slight, but the playoff appearances, Super Bowl appearances and winning percentage indicate those differences. It’s not a huge leap to say that the more you rush for the better your chances are of not only reaching the playoffs, but going deep in the playoffs.
There are a couple of different ways we can assess workload. We’ll start with carries.
Now, in Tier 1, given the amount of rushing yards, one would assume the workload is off the charts and it is. Nine of the 10 seasons sampled featured a back with at least 300 carries (the outlier being Smith’s 283 carries in 1993). The high was Murray’s 392 carries in 2014. The average workload for the top back in these seasons was 351 carries — just insane from any perspective.
Tier 2 is where there is a significant dropoff. There were just three 300-carry seasons among the 10 seasons sampled, with the high being Smith’s 327 carries in 1996. The average workload for the top back was 283 carries. The difference is a chasm in terms of workload from Tier 1 — 68 carries.
In fact, as we look at the workload across the two tiers it’s apparent that the disparity applies to percentage of workload against the rest of the team in any given year.
For instance, in Tier 1 the lead back’s workload percentage against the rest of the team was an average of 69.83 percent. In other words the lead back carried the football about seven out of every 10 times as compared to his fellow backs. The percentage of yards gained was eerily in line with the carries. The percentage of yards gained by the lead back was 74.65 percent against the rest of the team . In fact, in just two cases the difference between workload percentage and yards percentage was 10 percent or more. The rest of the time it was under that, and in most cases the difference was less than five percent.
In Tier 2 the difference between workload percentage and yards percentage was, like Tier 1, within just a few percentage points of each other. The clear difference, however, was the lead back’s workload against the rest of the team. The lead back’s production, in terms of carries, dropped by 13 percent to 56.9 percent. So backs on this tier saw the ball, on average, one fewer time out of every 10 carries. The yards percentage dropped significantly, too. The lead back on this tier averaged 60.7 percent of the team’s yards on the ground, a 14 percent drop from Tier 1.
So why did this happen? Well there could be a variety of factors. For the most part these samples were taken from the two most productive eras in team history — the late 1970s and early 1980s with Tony Dorsett and the 1990s with Emmitt Smith. Of the 20 seasons sampled just three other backs led the team in rushing in any season — Murray (twice), Walker and Calvin Hill. None of those four seasons resulted in a Super Bowl. Clearly this was driven in part by talent. Dorsett and Smith were unique talents in their own ways, but both were also extremely durable.
Yet Smith had more seasons on Tier 1 (seven) and Dorsett had more seasons on Tier 2 (six). Why? I think talent had much to do with that, and I’m not talking about those two backs. I’m talking about their backups. Smith, as good as he was, did not have a stable of backs around to spell him. Sherman Williams (1,162 yards)? Curvin Richards (181 yards)? Derrick Lassic (269 yards)? Lincoln Coleman (312 yards)? They struck fear in the hearts of no man. The Cowboys finally turned to Chris Warren, a former 1,000-yard rusher, to back up Smith in 1999 and it showed — Warren gained 403 yards that year.
Dorsett, meanwhile, was surrounded by talented, productive backs who, while not on his level, were certainly hard for defenses to deal with. Ron Springs (2,519 yards), Robert Newhouse (4,784 yards) and Timmy Newsome (1,226 yards) were all secondary backs to Dorsett in his prime and on five separate occasions those backs had at least 400 yards in a season, in addition to Dorsett.
So did Dorsett’s production, and by extension the Cowboys’ hopes of reaching a Super Bowl, lag because the Cowboys chose to let other backs share the load? Well all of the evidence — win percentage, playoff appearances, advancement in the playoffs, Super Bowls won and the workload percentages — all seem to indicate there is a correlation between workload and team success. It’s not perfect, as indicated by the four seasons the Cowboys failed to make the playoffs. Plus, there are other factors we’re not including in this sample. But an 80 percent success rate with a lead back gaining at least 1,100 yards in a season is nothing to ignore. And, when the rate goes up to 90 percent when the lead back gains at least 1,330 yards, the production — and the past results in Tier 1 — grabs your attention.
So the conclusion? I think the data backs up my original premise, that a 1,250-yard, 10-touchdown season would be a suitable projection for Elliott in 2016, but it’s more the floor when it comes to projecting success for the team this season. That projection gives the Cowboys just a 70 percent change of making the playoffs, based on our tiers. To greatly increase Dallas’ odds of making the postseason, the data suggests we should raise our expectations to at least 1,330 yards and at least a dozen rushing touchdowns. And, if history is any guide at all, for the Cowboys to reach a conference title game you’re looking at adding another 100 yards or so to that total and at least three more rushing scores, bringing you to at least 1,450 yards and 15 scores.
That’s a lot to expect from any rookie back. But that’s where the data — and history — suggests Elliott and the Cowboys might have to go to achieve more than just a winning season.
It starts this week in Seattle, with the Cowboys planning to give him a pre-packaged set of plays designed to get him fully examined and as ready as possible, as coach Jason Garrett noted.
“What we try to do with the players who are playing in their first game is we have eight, 10, 12 plays – sometimes we go 15-to-20 plays with guys,'' Garrett said. "Typically with running backs we want to make sure they get a couple touches, throw them a couple passes, let them do different things – the things they’re going to do in games. We’ll come up with a good plan for him.”
History tells us what can happen for Zeke and the Cowboys if the "good plan'' works.
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