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Dak Prescott And Ezekiel Elliott Put The Cowboys Back On Top

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
1983 Eric Dickerson LA 645 129 1,163 106
2007 Adrian Peterson MIN 607 121 734 82
1980 Billy Sims DET 560 112 743 68
2016 Ezekiel Elliott DAL 546 109
2012 Alfred Morris WAS 491 98 1,122 102
1981 George Rogers NO 490 98 1,184 108
1964 Matt Snell NYJ 490 98 458 51
2001 LaDainian Tomlinson SD 486 97 750 68
1979 Ottis Anderson STL 481 96 1,124 102
1999 Edgerrin James IND 468 94 1,085 99
Rookies with the most rushing yards in the first five games since 1960

Source: pro-football-reference.com

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
Dallas 169 776 4.6 11 30.8% +12.6
Atlanta 139 620 4.5 6 25.9 +7.5
Indianapolis 112 450 4.0 4 25.0 +6.0
San Francisco 164 607 3.7 9 22.0 +5.6
Green Bay 104 448 4.3 2 25.0 +5.0
Detroit 115 449 3.9 2 24.3 +3.5
Buffalo 134 686 5.1 5 27.6 +3.2
N.Y. Jets 125 522 4.2 3 22.4 +2.9
New Orleans 92 327 3.6 4 25.0 +0.4
Philadelphia 117 474 4.1 5 25.6 +0.2
Oakland 120 596 5.0 6 22.5 +0.2
Tennessee 148 743 5.0 4 27.0 -1.2
Carolina 137 623 4.6 4 21.9 -1.3
Pittsburgh 126 510 4.1 3 19.0 -3.0
Jacksonville 87 301 3.5 2 20.7 -4.3
Arizona 133 575 4.3 6 23.3 -4.6
Baltimore 121 495 4.1 3 18.2 -5.6
Washington 105 432 4.1 3 24.8 -7.1
N.Y. Giants 110 418 3.8 3 24.5 -7.3
Miami 91 362 4.0 4 18.7 -8.5
San Diego 124 452 3.7 6 23.4 -8.7
Denver 139 507 3.7 4 20.1 -8.8
Chicago 100 454 4.5 2 25.0 -10.7
Houston 134 509 3.8 0 19.4 -12.1
Cincinnati 122 419 3.4 3 19.7 -13.3
New England 165 640 3.9 6 21.8 -14.5
Tampa Bay 134 443 3.3 2 20.1 -14.6
Los Angeles 133 409 3.1 3 18.8 -15.6
Seattle 113 372 3.3 2 16.8 -16.3
Kansas City 83 361 4.4 2 19.3 -24.0
Cleveland 126 624 5.0 4 20.6 -24.6
Minnesota 144 353 2.5 3 14.6 -33.4
Expected points added (EPA) on running plays for 2016 NFL teams through week 5

Source: ESPN/Tru-media

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
TEAM 2015 2016 DIFFERENCE
Atlanta 6.2 10.2 +4.0
Dallas 5.0 8.0 +3.0
Minnesota 5.6 7.7 +2.1
Philadelphia 5.7 7.6 +1.9
San Diego 6.5 8.1 +1.6
Oakland 6.2 7.5 +1.4
Denver 5.1 6.3 +1.2
Indianapolis 5.1 6.3 +1.1
Chicago 6.4 7.4 +1.0
New England 7.5 8.5 +1.0
Pittsburgh 6.7 7.7 +1.0
Detroit 6.3 6.8 +0.5
Tennessee 5.4 5.6 +0.2
Los Angeles/St. Louis 5.2 5.3 +0.1
Green Bay 6.1 6.0 -0.1
Cleveland 5.5 5.4 -0.1
New Orleans 7.3 7.0 -0.3
Miami 5.9 5.6 -0.4
Baltimore 5.4 4.9 -0.5
N.Y. Giants 6.8 6.3 -0.5
Seattle 7.7 7.2 -0.5
Washington 7.2 6.5 -0.7
Cincinnati 7.7 7.0 -0.7
Buffalo 6.7 5.8 -0.9
Kansas City 6.4 5.5 -0.9
San Francisco 5.3 4.3 -1.1
Jacksonville 6.1 5.0 -1.1
Tampa Bay 6.4 4.8 -1.6
Houston 5.9 4.3 -1.7
Carolina 7.2 5.5 -1.7
N.Y. Jets 6.4 4.4 -2.0
Arizona 8.0 5.2 -2.8
Adjusted net yards per attempt for 2016 NFL teams through week 5

Source: pro-football-reference.com

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:

AY/A
YEAR QB TEAM ATT YDS QB LEAGUE AVG. DIFF.
2012 Robert Griffin III WAS 139 1,161 8.6 6.9 +1.7
2016 Dak Prescott DAL 155 1,239 8.5 7.1 +1.4
1971 Archie Manning NO 86 613 5.7 4.7 +1.0
2011 Cam Newton CAR 194 1,610 7.6 7.0 +0.6
2015 Marcus Mariota TEN 161 1,239 7.4 7.1 +0.3
2013 Geno Smith NYJ 156 1,289 6.9 6.9 -0.1
2008 Matt Ryan ATL 131 863 6.2 6.3 -0.1
1993 Rick Mirer SEA 135 883 5.5 5.9 -0.4
2015 Jameis Winston TAM 152 1,174 6.6 7.1 -0.5
2013 EJ Manuel BUF 150 985 6.3 6.9 -0.6
2009 Mark Sanchez NYJ 134 916 5.9 6.6 -0.7
1982 Mike Pagel BAL 135 883 5.5 6.2 -0.7
2012 Ryan Tannehill MIA 169 1,269 6.1 6.9 -0.7
1976 Jim Zorn SEA 173 1,025 4.4 5.2 -0.7
1971 Jim Plunkett NE 109 577 3.7 4.7 -0.9
2012 Andrew Luck IND 221 1,488 5.9 6.9 -1.0
2011 Andy Dalton CIN 157 1,047 6.0 7.0 -1.0
2014 Derek Carr OAK 167 1,016 5.7 7.1 -1.4
2002 David Carr HOU 121 737 4.7 6.3 -1.6
1970 Terry Bradshaw PIT 100 720 3.8 5.4 -1.6
2012 Russell Wilson SEA 125 815 5.2 6.9 -1.7
2010 Sam Bradford STL 203 1,159 4.5 6.4 -1.9
1993 Drew Bledsoe NE 182 905 4.0 5.9 -1.9
1998 Peyton Manning IND 169 1,129 4.0 6.1 -2.1
1975 Steve Bartkowski ATL 106 484 2.6 5.0 -2.4
2008 Joe Flacco BAL 144 844 3.8 6.3 -2.5
2003 Kyle Boller BAL 125 543 2.5 5.8 -3.3
2005 Kyle Orton CHI 139 674 3.2 6.5 -3.3
1998 Ryan Leaf SD 127 728 2.7 6.1 -3.4
1983 John Elway DEN 83 420 2.6 6.4 -3.8
1973 Bert Jones BAL 95 503 0.9 5.0 -4.0
Quarterbacks with the most adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A) above average in the first five games since 1970

Source: pro-football-reference.com

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.

Footnotes

  1. EPA measures how much each play increases or decreases a team’s likelihood of scoring, and it works for the offense, defense and special teams.

  2. Yards per dropback gives a quarterback credit for his passing yards and yards gained on scrambles, and the stat also subtracts yards lost on sacks; that total is then divided by the total of the quarterback’s pass attempts (excluding spikes), scrambles and sacks.

  3. I limited the list to rookie QBs age 24 or younger to exclude quarterbacks like Warren Moon and Jim Kelly who were “rookies” at an older age because they joined the NFL after playing in another professional league.

  4. Because historical data on sacks is not readily available, I used AY/A, rather than ANY/A, in this study.

Chase Stuart writes about football statistics and history at FootballPerspective.com

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