DALLAS – For most of the 95-year history of pro football, the forward pass has been the weapon everybody wants. Now more than ever, the NFL is the pass-or-fail league. Running plays are considered unexciting, unrewarding, irrelevant.
And dangerous. They bring massed collisions, head-on, leading to widespread concussions and a barrage of negative publicity for the industry. I’ve advocated eliminating the running game entirely and am confident that will happen at some point in the next couple of decades.
But for now, the running game is legal — if semi-dormant — and it still has its place. I think the Dallas Cowboys made a brilliant move to invest the overall fourth pick of the recent draft on a running back, Ezekiel Elliott of Ohio State.
I know, you’re not accustomed to seeing “brilliant” and “Cowboys” in the same sentence. It’s an oxymoron, like “clean coal” and “friendly fire.”
Conventional wisdom is that running backs are not worth a first-round pick. They get run into the ground, so to speak. By age 29 they’re close to retirement, if not already there, latest case in point being Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch. The career of a running back is, on average, about eight years shorter than a quarterback’s.
So, as the CW has it, you go all-in for the passing game (QBs, left tackles or receivers). Along these lines, the Cleveland Browns in this draft used five of their seven picks on receivers, none on running backs. They’re satisfied with Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson combining for 1,085 yards, at 3.7 per carry. Not that the Browns are commonly associated with wisdom, conventional or otherwise.
The flaw with the CW: it ignores NFL economics. Because of limitations on rookie salaries, Dallas will get the best of Elliott at a bargain.
His first five years of service probably won’t cost Jerry Jones more than $25 million. There’s no need to point out all the times he’s spent vastly more for so much less.
Assuming Elliott can stay healthy – and in college he was as durable as a leather boot – he will have immense impact on games and standings. Far more impact than any rookie quarterback will have.
The trouble with quarterbacks is they take so long to develop that you only get a year or two of starting before they’re into hyperbucks free agency. Latest case in point being Brock Osweiler, snatched by the Houston Texans for a guaranteed $37 million over four years. We’ll see who’s spending money more wisely, Texans or Cowboys.
NFL coaches say the two positions most accessible for rookies are defensive tackle and running back. Elliott is the Vegas betting favorite to be Rookie of the Year. Just as Rams running back Todd Gurley, 10th player chosen in his draft, was top offensive freshman last season.
Elliott is not quite as fast as Gurley, but the scouts judge him as equally powerful and clearly superior as a receiver and blocker. Elliott last season scored 23 touchdowns, averaged 22 carries per game, 6.3 yards per carry, 3.6 after contact.
Before downplaying the importance of running backs – as I tend to do – we should ask if Denver would have won the Super Bowl without CJ Anderson, who gained 100 yards in total offense and scored his team’s only offensive touchdown.
A running back won’t be MVP but can be close. Which is why the Minnesota Vikings pay Adrian Peterson $18 mil a year. If they didn’t, someone else would, readily forgiving how he whupped his kid.
What greatly enhances the Elliott effect is that he will be escorted by football’s finest O-line, led by Pro Bowl-credentialed Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Frederick. Further, the Cowboys’ zone-blocking scheme is much like the one Elliott ran in college.
Last season, with the very average Darren McFadden as lead back, Dallas ranked ninth among 32 in rushing yards, 119 per game, and sixth in yards per attempt, 4.6. It’s reasonable to expect a leap forward with Elliott. Football fans in Big D envision a return to the 1990s of Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time rushing king and key to three Super Bowl appearances and two championships.
“I understand the lineage of the running back position for the Dallas Cowboys,” Elliott said. “I’m ready to attack this playbook, attack the field and hold up to expectations.”
The half-shirt he wore to the draft in Chicago (he likes to show his rippled abs) may not be a fashion-setter, but his Cowboys jersey, with No. 21, is the hottest seller among NFL rookie garb. Elliott wanted to salute Smith, who wore 22, but said “it would be disrespectful to ask for his number.”
There’s a star quality to this 20-year-old. His harmless individualism, self-awareness and candor are refreshing in a cookie-cutter league. At Ohio State he criticized the coaching staff for giving him only 12 carries in a losing game, and head coach Urban Meyer agreed with him.
Elliott is energizing the Cowboys’ fan base. There’s palpable optimism here. Tony Romo is healthy, ready to fling bombs to Dez Bryant, who will be all the more open with defenses forced to stack the front to stop Zeke.
Yes I know the defense has more holes than a field of prairie dogs. This would not be an authentic Jerry Jones team without off-field issues. The top two defensive ends – DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory – are suspended four games for drugs. Of equal concern is that some of their mates play as if sedated.
But the defense doesn’t have to be very active for very long. The ground-control offense will do most of the work, while the defense rests on the sideline. All they need is a big play here and there from a well-healed Sean Lee or Orlando Scandrick or a re-positioned Byron Jones, last year’s first-rounder who got lost on the corner but should be quick enough for safety.
It’s not too early for 2016 predictions, now that we see where the draft picks, free agents and suspensions have landed. I’m seeing Elliott in balance and harmony with Romo-Dez and the ’Boys rebounding from their 4-12. If they’re not ravaged again by injuries – always a threat in the NFL — they should win the NFC East, at least.