In what is becoming an annual event, a high-profile running back is threatening a preseason holdout. On Monday, reports surfaced that Ezekiel Elliott will sit out training camp unless he gets a new contract from the Dallas Cowboys. Two days earlier, Melvin Gordon had announced a holdout from the Los Angeles Chargers and cited Elliott as an example of why running backs should command higher pay. Perhaps Zeke and his agent read Gordon’s comments and decided to strike while the iron is hot. Perhaps a holdout was always planned. Whatever the case, Elliott has made clear that he believes he’s underpaid and wants a new contract sooner rather than later.
The holdout threat may have taken Dallas a bit by surprise. It’s not as if Zeke isn’t in line for competitive compensation. Dallas picked up Elliott’s fifth-year option in April, guaranteeing him nearly $9.1 million in 2020 — money that will make Elliott the fourth-highest-paid running back in the league that year. But Zeke’s focus is on 2019, not 2020. According to reports, Elliott believes that the Cowboys plan to use him heavily this season, and he wants a long-term deal in place as an insurance policy against injury.
For their part, Dallas appears to want to keep Elliott around. Stephen Jones, Dallas director of player personnel, has indicated that signing Eliott to an extension is a team priority. In an odd bit of negotiating, Jones even set the floor for a deal at Todd Gurley’s recent contract — a contract that is currently the highest in the league at the position. Still, Elliott’s camp is betting they can leverage Zeke’s absence into an early deal, and based on their previous maneuvering, I’m betting that the Cowboys will cave.
The question is: Why?
In a league that is steadily paying less for running back production, capitulating to an Elliott holdout and making him the highest-paid ball carrier in the league would be a deeply contrarian move. According to data from Overthecap, the share of average team salary allocated to all rostered running backs has fallen from 6.8 percent of spending in 2013 to 4.5 percent in 2019.
Even elite backs aren’t immune from feeling the pinch. Le’Veon Bell sat out all of last season expecting to make up his lost wages on the free-agent market. Instead he ended up settling for a contract with less average compensation per year than what he was initially offered by Pittsburgh. It’s been a slow, incremental change, but teams across the league have moved toward an asset allocation model that favors many low-priced specialists over an expensive three-down bell cow.
Dallas already bucked the trend of devaluing running backs when they took Elliott with the fourth overall pick of the 2016 draft and then proceeded to give him 868 carries over his first three seasons. That, apparently, is just how the Cowboys are built. Jason Garrett is absolutely determined to “run the fucking ball.” But even if the Cowboys have fallen out of step with a league that believes paying “high first-round draft pick” money to a running back is gauche, it still pales in comparison to what will come next. Assuming the cap rises to $200 million in 2020,1 Zeke’s salary alone in his optioned fifth year will represent 4.5 percent of the Cowboy’s salary cap. If Zeke signs an extension before the 2020 season, his cap hit combined with the rest of Dallas’s spend at the running back position will likely be double the league average.
Profligate spending and contrarianism aren’t proof of incompetence, of course. Elliott on paper seems to be quite good at his job — and his appeal to Dallas might seem warranted. In 2018, Zeke led the league with 1,434 rushing yards on a league-best 304 carries, over 16 percent more than second-place finisher Saquon Barkley (261). If Elliott is worth twice as many wins to a team as a replacement-level running back would be, he’s probably worth twice the money. The problem is that having Zeke on the field isn’t worth even half a win to the Cowboys. Eric Eager at Pro Football Focus estimates that Zeke’s production in 2018 was worth just 0.2 of a win above a replacement player.
We know — and the Cowboys should, too — that rushing is not nearly as important to winning in the NFL as passing. But rushing is still a part of the game, and situational running is still critical. A back who excels in high-leverage spots can be quite valuable. It could be the case that Dallas believes it has an advantage in crucial moments with Zeke on the field that helps justify re-signing him.
Examples of situational football are legion, but three in particular stand out as being important in the run game. If the Cowboys are valuing Zeke for the skills that most help the team — and not just for his number of carries over a season — we would expect him to be at or near the top in each of these categories, dominating the plebes drafted rounds after him or those plucked from the NFL scrapyard.
Running to close out a game
First is the ability to run out the clock when you’re ahead and need to close out a game. Keeping the opposing offense off the field has obvious value when you’re protecting a lead late. In nerd parlance, successful running plays late have a relatively large positive effect on a team’s win probability.
With this in mind, to measure a team’s ability to close out a game, we’ll use win probability added. WPA is a good metric for teasing out rushing value late in the game because it takes our best estimate for what a team’s chance of winning the game is on a particular play (based on the down, distance, yard line, score and time remaining) and then quantifies how much the actual outcome of a play either added or subtracted from that expectation. Teams that are good at rushing to close out games will have positive WPA.
According to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, the Cowboys were seventh in win probability added in 2018 on rushing attempts in the fourth quarter while they were ahead, excluding quarterback kneel-downs. Elliott carried the ball on the majority of those plays and had positive win probability added per play, which is good. But he was still just second on the team in average WPA behind quarterback Dak Prescott — and it wasn’t particularly close. Dak’s win probability added per play on 10 attempts was almost five times that of Zeke’s average WPA on 45 carries.
When we zoom out and compared Zeke with all running backs across the league, the situation gets bleak. Elliott was 22nd among qualifying backs when running to close out a game, behind the likes of Royce Freeman, Isaiah Crowell and the 35-year-old remnants of Frank Gore.
|2||Isaiah Crowell||New York Jets||7||0.010|
|5||Alvin Kamara||New Orleans||33||0.007|
|7||James White||New England||25||0.007|
|8||Melvin Gordon||Los Angeles Chargers||25||0.007|
|9||Todd Gurley||Los Angeles Rams||48||0.006|
|12||Spencer Ware||Kansas City||14||0.006|
|14||Justin Jackson||Los Angeles Chargers||15||0.005|
|18||Jacquizz Rodgers||Tampa Bay||5||0.005|
|19||Wayne Gallman||New York Giants||12||0.004|
|20||Jamaal Williams||Green Bay||16||0.004|
|21||Zach Zenner||Detroit Lions||18||0.004|
Expanding the sample to Elliott’s entire career doesn’t help his case either. Over his three years as a starter, Zeke led the league in rushing attempts in closeout situations with 158. But among running backs with 20 such attempts, he ranks just 26th in win probability added per play. For perspective, former teammate Alfred Morris ranks 13th in win probability added per play for the period — and he was running behind the same offensive line in Dallas for two of those three seasons.
Closing out games is important, but it appears that draft pedigree really isn’t necessary to be effective in that role. Those critical runs can be performed by a reasonably priced specialist taken later in the draft or acquired in free agency. And if you need further proof, just feast your eyes on the 2018 win probability added of undrafted free agent Gus Edwards and quietly contemplate the abyss.
Short-yardage running in the red zone
Effective running in the red zone, and especially at the goal line, is particularly valuable because this is the part of the field where passing is most difficult. As teams move downfield and get closer to the end zone, the field compresses and completion percentage drops. While the effect begins a little before the 30-yard line, leaguewide completion percentage drops from 57 percent to 48 percent2 as teams move from their opponent’s 20 to the 3-yard line. This decrease in passing effectiveness puts a premium on being able to run successfully. Teams that can consistently move the ball on short-yardage runs in the red zone — or runs on which a first down or touchdown is no more than 3 yards away3 — give themselves the opportunity to score touchdowns more often, and they tend to win more games.
Last season, the Dallas Cowboys ranked 10th in red zone expected points added (EPA) per play on short-yardage runs in the red zone and 22nd in short-yardage success rate.4 For a team that boasts one of the league’s better rushing attacks, these are far from elite numbers. For his part, Elliott ranked 16th in EPA per play and 28th in success rate among running backs with at least five short red zone rushes.
|Rank||Player||Team||Rushes||epa per play|
|1||Melvin Gordon||Los Angeles Chargers||5||1.35|
|5||Aaron Jones||Green Bay||6||0.70|
|6||Alvin Kamara||New Orleans||24||0.69|
|10||Todd Gurley||Los Angeles Rams||27||0.49|
|18||Kareem Hunt||Kansas City||11||0.27|
|22||Matt Breida||San Francisco 49ers||8||0.19|
|23||Austin Ekeler||Los Angeles Chargers||6||0.16|
Like we saw with runs to close out the game, Elliott again failed to distinguish himself from his lesser-drafted peers. Despite having nearly 40 pounds on Phillip Lindsay, Elliott was outpaced by the undrafted and diminutive Broncos back in both success rate and EPA per play on short red zone carries in 2018. And while the sample sizes here are small, Zeke’s career numbers aren’t much better. From 2016 to 2018, Zeke ranks 10th among qualifying5 backs in success rate and 11th in EPA per play.
Short-yardage runs in the open field
Finally, we’ll look at plays that extend drives and help to break the opposing team’s spirit: short yardage runs in the open field, or outside the red zone. These plays represent situations in which the offense needs no more than 3 yards to convert a new set of downs. Based on historical averages, these are running battles that you would expect the offense to win — after all, 29 of 32 teams averaged more than 4 yards per attempt last year. And in fact that’s what we find: In 2018, NFL teams were successful on short runs in the open field 53 percent of the time. Last season the Cowboys were particularly adept at short yardage plays, ranking fourth in the league with a 62 percent success rate on 53 attempts. Zeke was responsible for 43 of those attempts — most in the NFL — and was successful 67 percent of the time, but that success rate was good for just 11th in the league.
|rank||player||team||rushes||epa per play|
|3||Alfred Morris||San Francisco||10||0.47|
|6||Damien Williams||Kansas City||7||0.38|
|7||C.J. Anderson||Los Angeles Rams||6||0.36|
|8||Bilal Powell||New York Jets||5||0.35|
|11||Melvin Gordon||Los Angeles Chargers||19||0.15|
|15||Elijah McGuire||N.Y. Jets||11||0.09|
|17||Justin Jackson||Los Angeles Chargers||8||0.06|
If you’re a person who believes running backs matter, this is a leaderboard that makes about as much sense as snake mittens. It’s true that of the three high-leverage rushing situations examined, this is clearly where Zeke shines brightest. But even here he’s outclassed by backs no one would mistake as Elliott’s equals. Former teammate Morris haunted Elliott yet again by leading the league last season with a 90 percent success rate on short-yardage open-field runs. Alf was trailed closely by Niner castoff and backup Seattle running back Mike Davis. Todd Gurley injury fill-in C.J. Anderson, displaced Jets starter Bilal Powell and Le’Veon Bell usurper James Conner round out the top five.
What about the rest?
Situationally, Zeke is profoundly average, but some perspective here is probably needed. Situational running, while important, is relatively rare. Around 5 percent of Elliott’s carries came in the red zone in 2018. Fifteen percent came in situations when the Cowboys were trying to close out the game, and 14 percent came on short-yardage runs in the open field. The majority of Zeke’s carries — about 65 percent — occurred in other situations. The problem is that those other situations turn out to be awful times to run the football.
Zeke ran 182 times in the first three quarters of games in 2018 on first and second down with at least 4 yards to go — situations when teams shouldn’t be running very often to begin with. Probably the clearest illustration of this folly is shown using an analysis I stole from Timo Riske of Pro Football Focus. On early downs when the outcome of the game is still in doubt, winning teams pass more often than the eventual losers.
It sounds strange, but commanding bad rushing volume is really the only aspect of Elliott’s game that is truly elite. The Cowboys could believe that they have a generational talent at the running back position, and because of this faith, they overuse him.
It’s that overuse that’s the problem. Extending Elliott is the manifestation of an objectively poor offensive strategy. It isn’t just a terrible idea because the valuable portion of Elliott’s production — the situational part — is easily replaced by nearly any back talented enough to make a Week 1 NFL roster. And an early extension isn’t just poor risk management because between 20 to 33 percent of high-volume running backs will incur a serious injury in a given year, though that is also certainly true.6
The primary reason an investment in an overpriced, risky asset is truly awful is because it can impact play calling in the worst possible way. In an attempt to justify the overspend at the position, a team may be encouraged to run more and pass less. It’s the worst kind of curse, and the Cowboys seem eager to cast the hex on themselves.