The Cowboys offense is back in a big way, and you can thank Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott for that.
In 2014, buoyed by a dominant offensive line and AP Offensive Player of the Year DeMarco Murray, the Dallas running game finished in the top five in nearly every major statistic: attempts, yards, touchdowns, yards per attempt and Football Outsiders’ DVOA.
But last year, without Murray (who joined the Eagles after the 2014 season) and with injuries to quarterback Tony Romo and wide receiver Dez Bryant, the Cowboys offense tanked. While the running game still finished in the top 10 in both rushing yards and yards per carry, the team dropped to just 31st in points scored. The Cowboys were running well, but without a star back to break long runs or a quality quarterback to do his part, the offense was a wreck.
After the season, Dallas spent the 4th overall pick in the 2016 draft on Elliott, a headliner among the Ohio State group that formed one of the greatest draft classes ever produced by a single school. Elliott has been a star. The rookie back leads the league in rushing with 546 yards and has the 4th-most rushing yards through five games of any rookie running back since 1960:
|IN FIRST FIVE GAMES||REST OF SEASON|
|YEAR||PLAYER||TEAM||RUSH YDS||YDS/GAME||RUSH YDS||YDS/GAME|
Elliott also leads the NFL in rushing first downs, with 31; no other player has more than 23. As a team, Dallas has picked up a first down on 30.8 percent of all carries, one of the big reasons the running game has been so successful. In general, rushing is less efficient than passing, so most teams have negative expected points added1 on running plays. The table below shows each team’s EPA on rushing plays this year:
|TEAM||TOTAL RUSH.||TOTAL YDS||YDS/RUSH||RUSH. TD||1D/RUSH||RUSH EPA|
The Cowboys’ strong running game has made life easy on the rest of the team: Dallas ranks second in the NFL in time of possession, and the defense is facing just 9.6 drives per game, the fewest in the NFL. That makes life simple for the rookie quarterback, too. Dak Prescott has attempted just 34 passes while trailing in the second half of games this year, and none when trailing by more than four points.
But let’s not ignore the fact that Prescott is playing at a very high level himself: The rookie is averaging 7.56 yards per dropback,2 fourth best in the NFL. He has thrown four touchdown passes and no interceptions, good enough for the second-best Total QBR in the NFL behind Matt Ryan. And he is eight pass attempts away from breaking Tom Brady’s record for beginning a career with the most pass attempts thrown without an interception.
Prescott’s arrival has made a big difference for the Cowboys. Last year, Dallas ranked last in adjusted net yards per attempt with a 5.0 ANY/A average, which was a big reason why the team finished 4-12 and 31st in scoring. This season, Dallas is averaging 8.0 ANY/A, good for the 4th-best rate in the league. Only the Falcons, behind the MVP-caliber performance given by Matt Ryan to date, have seen a larger improvement in their average ANY/A since 2015:
|ADJUSTED NET YARDS PER ATTEMPT|
|Los Angeles/St. Louis||5.2||5.3||+0.1|
Prescott is off to one of the best rookie campaigns in quarterback history. I looked at all rookie quarterbacks since 19703 who started their team’s first five games and threw at least 70 passes.
Prescott is the 31st such quarterback since 1970. He has averaged 8.5 adjusted yards per attempt this season,4 1.4 AY/A better than the league-average rate. That’s the second-best differential of any rookie passer who met the above criteria, behind only Robert Griffin III:
|2012||Robert Griffin III||WAS||139||1,161||8.6||6.9||+1.7|
As the table above shows, a passer’s success in the first few games of their career doesn’t necessarily tell us much: Geno Smith and Rick Mirer fared very well early on, while John Elway and Peyton Manning struggled. But regardless of how the rest of Prescott’s career turns out, he is one of two rookies who have helped revive the Dallas offense.