34-28 with three and a half minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. The college football playoffs were on the line. Ohio State held the lead and the ball, looking to upset the no. 1 in total Alabama. At first and ten, Ezekiel Elliott took over and rolled to the left. He would go untouched on his way to an 85-yard touchdown to seal the game.
After a junior season of 1,821 yards, many thought the OSU running back was a safe bet. The Dallas Cowboys thought so. They selected Elliott fourth overall with Jalen Ramsey still on the board. Since then, Elliott’s time in Dallas has had its ups and downs, with more “down” moments in recent years.
If the Cowboys want to prevent a situation like this from happening again, they should turn to analysis. Talent quantification in sports became popular when Michael Lewis published “Moneyball: The Art of Winning Foul Play” in 2003. The book detailed Billy Beane’s use of analysis to create a list for the Oakland Athletics. This approach made its way into professional football in the mid-2000s.
In 2021, every NFL team employed at least one data scientist. The use of statistics has led to improvements in roster building and in-game decision-making. But the main result of analytics in football is that teams now believe the position of running back is overvalued. And if the Cowboys want to increase their likelihood of success, they need to take this approach.
Cowboys need to adopt analytics and start ignoring running back position
Half-backs contribute to the outcome of a game, but not because of their ability. An above-average quarterback or receiver can use their athleticism to move the ball down. But Pro Football Focus, a company that provides data-driven insights to NFL teams, has found that offensive line performance, defensive strength and end zone yards affect the outcome of a game the most. rushed than the talent of the running back.
Halfbacks who can resume a game, like rookie year Ezekiel Elliott, are the exception rather than the rule. And it’s no coincidence that Elliott’s best years came when the offensive line was at its best.
In-game analysis also limited the influence of a ball carrier. Teams increasingly believe that passing is more effective than rushing in converting first downs and scoring runs. The frequency of rushes continues to decrease in situations like third and on-court, first downs and around the goal line. Simply put, you don’t need a running back as often as you used to.
Players like Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans, taking on the workload of their team, are a dying breed. From 2001 to 2010, 48 running backs carried the ball more than 325 times in a season. Since then, only eight running backs have reached that mark.
Due to the running back’s diminishing value, Dallas must ignore position in the early rounds of the draft. From 1985 to 1989, 41 running backs were selected in the first two rounds. Compare that to 2017 to 2021, where 22 running backs were selected in those rounds. Taking a running back in the first round is a scary proposition that is not advised. Taking a running back fourth overall, like the Cowboys did with Elliott, should never happen again.
The limits of the analysis also devalue the position. One facet of football that is almost impossible to predict is injury. But a starting running back is tackled 200 times a year on average. The risk of tearing the Achilles tendon or concussion is greater for this position than for the others.
Because of this risk, it’s hard to find a safe choice at halfback. Since 2006, running backs selected in the first two rounds have become regular starters 31% of the time. That number drops to just 26% for fourth-round picks. It’s easier to evaluate positions like wide receiver who becomes a starter 59% of the time if caught in the first two rounds.
This trend doesn’t stop at draw value. From 2011 to 2021, the average NFL salary rose from $2.3 million to $3.5 million. But over that period, the average running back contract has shrunk by $600,000. That’s another facet that makes Elliott’s six-year, $90 million contract even more disappointing.
And the chances of a running back even receiving a contract go down. A fourth-round running back makes $750,000 a year, while the minimum for a veteran running back is $1.1 million. A late-round halfback is younger, cheaper, and believed to be interchangeable with the veteran. In 2011, nine starting running backs were on their rookie contracts. In 2021, that number was 17, more than half of the NFL’s 32 teams.
Here’s the hard truth, over the past three years the Cowboys could have easily replicated Elliott’s production with a fourth-round running back at a fraction of the price (i.e. Tony Pollard).
Football still needs ball carriers. But Dallas’ strategy must revolve around minimizing the capital invested in the position. Using a bunch of low cost dart throws in later rounds is the best place to find running backs.
This approach is changing the NFL and leading to on-field success for teams that choose to embrace it. Since 2008, no team has won a Super Bowl while investing more than $2.5 million in their starting halfback. Efficient capital allocation in professional football leads to success, which now means prioritizing other positions over the ball carrier.
Position change is at an all-time high. In 2022, only three running backs have been selected in the first two rounds of the draft, tied for the fifth-lowest total in NFL history. The average contract size for a starting running back was down $275,000 from 2020. And for only the third time in history, all 32 teams passed more than they ran the ball.
The Cowboys need to catch up with the rest of the NFL. The value of a running back continues to drop. The era of the overworked halfback seems over. And quarterbacks are more important than ever.
In 2023, the Cowboys have the option to opt out of Ezekiel Elliott’s contract, and with Tony Pollard being a free agent, they will be starting from scratch. Now we have to hope that the front office has learned its lesson and is ready to start ignoring the position. If they want to win, they have to change with the rest of the league.