Ezekiel Elliott is good, but the offensive line cannot be forgotten
At the time of this writing, The NFL suspended Ezekiel Elliott for six games. This is not an article debating whether or not he deserves it or if his appeal has a likelihood of being approved. Our very own Drew Steele has that covered. I’m here to settle an argument that goes round and round the horn again every time somebody in the Cowboys backfield gets hurt or suspended or some unholy combination of the two:
Is it the running back or is it the offensive line?
For those who are not in the know, the offensive line is the barrier that protects the quarterback. Their purpose is to prevent the defensive from sacking or pressuring the quarterback, as well as act as window creators for a running back. A good offensive line buy a quarterback time to do things like this. Pay extra note to #67 Don Barclay on this play. See the block he makes against #91 A’Shawn Robinson for Detroit? A good offensive line has a high motor and can be the make or break for your team. Barclay doesn’t make that block, Rodgers gets sacked and the Lions win.
A bad offensive line, on the other hand, does things like this. You’ll notice a few key differences in the shape of the field between the Packers and Seahawks here. For one, Wilson has a lot less space to move around here as his offensive line has been bunched up with defenders coming around it. Rodgers had huge gaps of space to work with. The Packers’ offensive line not just stayed on each defender but actively pushed them away. Secondly, pay attention to #78 Alvin Bailey on the Seahawks side. He goes up against Josh Norman, which granted is a tall order, but you’ll see that Norman is able to easily get past him with Bailey not giving effort to keep up and save his quarterback.
In the context of the run game, let’s look at Ezekiel Elliott’s game winning touchdown against Pittsburgh last season. You’ll notice right away that Zeke gets through that defense without any kind of problem. The close up highlight reel will show you Gavin Escobar and Tyrone Smith paving a beautiful window for Zeke to blast through, allowing him to completely avoid the blitz and humiliate an otherwise stalwart Pittsburgh defense.
But take a look at the rest of the line as well. You’ll see a lot of Steelers getting flattened on the floor. See, being an offensive lineman isn’t just buying time and trying to avoid getting called for holding; you’re the most defensive part of the offensive. If even a tiny slit had closed up, Elliott goes down on that play possibly sealing the deal for Dallas or at the very least putting things on Dak’s shoulders the next play.
To further illustrate, let’s take a super simple statistic by comparing running back yards with offensive line ranking through the year. Now, the offensive line isn’t exactly an area where you can measure stats incredibly easy for rankings purposes. There are so many different layers to what makes a successful offensive lineman. So, for the sake of this exercise, we’ll be using the PFF grades for the offensive lines in questions as a guide.
In 2016, your top five rushers by sheer yardage were as follows:
- Ezekiel Eliott (Dallas Cowboys: PFF OL Ranked #2)
- Jordan Howard (Chicago Bears: PFF OL Ranked #15)
- DeMarco Murray (Tennessee Titans: PFF OL Ranked #1)
- Jay Ajayi (Miami Dolphins: PFF OL Ranked #30)
- Le’Veon Bell (Pittsburgh Steelers: PFF OL Ranked #3)
The accuracy of the ranking may be a touch subjective, but we do see one thing very clear. The top three offensive lines produced 3/5 of the league’s top 5 running backs. That seems like a slam dunk argument, good lines produce good backs.
And just to put one more cherry on top for the offensive line argument, let’s take a look at number three on this list: DeMarco Murray. In 2014, DeMarco Murray beat the Cowboys single season rushing record held by arguably Dallas’ best running back Emmitt Smith. 2014 also happens to be around the same time that Dallas’ offensive line started hitting that “elite” status. This was a for a few reasons. Their young line had begun to accumulate some experience and they drafted celebrated Notre Dame tackle Zach Martin in the draft. As a result, DeMarco Murray was able to do things like this on a regular basis.
Following that season, faced with the decision of having to keep Dez Bryant or Murray due to financial reasons, the Cowboys hitched their wagons to Dez trusting that their offensive line would help out whomever took up the mantle at running back the following season. Murray famously signed with the Philadelphia Eagles as one of many bizarre moves made during Chip Kelly’s Wild Ride. In Philadelphia, the former offensive player of the year ran for 702 yards, over 1,000 less from the previous season. And it’s hard to just point the blame at Murray having a down year when things like this happened to him on a regular basis. Flash forward to 2016 and Murray is back in the top 5 behind one of, if not the best, offensive line in football. Murray clearly benefits from a strong O-Line.
So done deal, yeah? Offensive lines make great runners. Case closed.
Let’s not kid ourselves and pretend that Elliott is only good because of his offensive line. Elliott is quick, elusive, and a great improviser. Look at how he completely embarrasses Clay Matthews in this video. The dude is talented, there is no denying this. You don’t blow the 4th pick in the draft on any old running back who can run behind your elite line. And we have plenty of ammunition for lousy running backs running behind great offensive line play. Right Trent?
A great running back can do amazing things behind a great offensive line. A decent running back can have a great season behind a great offensive line. But great running backs can also make magic happen behind decent lines or even bad lines.
Check out Jay Ajayi of the Dolphins last season. The Dolphins offensive line was a hot mess in 2016, accumulating fewer than 50 yards per game before committing to Ajayi as the starter. After his 66 yard effort against the Bengals, Ajayi exploded and netted over 1,200 yards for Miami in his 12 starts. Often times he did this not because of his offensive line, but in spite of them. Ajayi got an absurd 206 yards against the Buffalo Bills. The Bills, while not a great defensive team these days, still tore their way through the offensive line over and over and look what Jay was able to do against them. At one point, he actually crashes INTO his lineman and still rushed for 20 yards. A great running back is a great running back.
But here’s the thing about great running backs: we don’t exactly have a surplus of them.
Gun to my head and excluding 2016’s sudden sensations who just had their first great year, I would say the league currently has six great running backs. For those who wish to argue with me, they are as follows and in no particular order: Lamar Miller, DeMarco Murray, Le’Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy, Devonta Freeman, and David Johnson. With an honorable mention to Adrian Peterson, but dude is broken and hasn’t had a great year in a while. And honestly, I’m still a tad shaky on Lamar Miller.
These running backs can make something out of nothing. Plow through defenders, patiently dodge tackles waiting for a window, bounce off a tackler, leap over human beings, you name it. These five and many others throughout history have proven that a great running back, while they can definitely use an elite offensive line, certainly don’t require it.
Dallas does not have a player of this caliber without Ezekiel Elliott.
So let’s get into this. Dallas doesn’t have Zeke. Can they still succeed in their running game?
Well, in the immortal words of an iconic rap duo and the nickname-sake of the Cowboys presumed starter:
Darren McFadden will be assuming the starting role for Dallas. McFadden is no stranger to success, rushing for over 4,000 yards during his seven years with the Raiders. Following his final season for the Raiders, Run DMC signed with the Cowboys just in time for their impending 4-12 season that featured three starting quarterbacks not named Tony Romo who collectively won 1 game. Due to a carousel of incompetence at quarterback, McFadden ended up with more rushing attempts than any of Dallas’s starting quarterbacks had passing attempts. He also ran for over 1,000 yards for the second time in his career. Here’s a fun little highlight reel of his 2015 season. Notice a few similarities? I would hope so since all we’ve talked about is offensive lines and windows.
Now, I don’t want to take anything away from McFadden because once he gets out in the open field he’s a pure downhill runner with speed that is tough to keep with. But he still has to get in the open field. During his final two years in Oakland, which were very dark days for the Raiders, he ran for a combined total of 913 yards. 2013 and 2014 were years in which Oakland had exactly one thing going for it and it was Derek Carr still “having promise” in 2014.
The Raiders won only 7 games during this two stretch, could barely muster anything on offense, and let their capable back get hammered over and over again. McFadden doesn’t have this problem in Dallas so long as each member of that offensive line stays healthy and stays elite. Which they better, since the Cowboys are hedging their bets by planning for their future signing fees by letting seemingly any and every member of their defense walk.
Yes, Dallas will be fine with in the current situation. Darren McFadden is still a capable back who will benefit greatly from one of the best offensive lines in the game. They are BETTER with Ezekiel Elliott and by no means should we assume any differently, but McFadden as a speedy pass catching back will provide the relief Dak desperately needs to be productive while running behind that front.
I do want to end this article addressing the broader topic at hand — which unit has the higher value? I would argue it’s your offensive line. Throughout the examples we’ve given, we can establish a few things:
- DeMarco Murray and Darren McFadden had their best years behind elite offensive lines.
- A great running back doesn’t necessarily need a great offensive line, but anything below a great running back absolutely needs a great offensive line.
- Great running backs are hard to come by.
- Great quarterbacks ABSOLUTELY need great offensive lines.
But if I still haven’t convinced you of the value of the most forgettable positions in football, let me give you some homework in this upcoming season: watch the running game of the Green Bay Packers.
This year, the Packers running group is short one Eddie Lacy and a James Stark who for the past three years have been the entire nucleus of their running attack. In their stead, the Packers will be trotting out a running back turned wide receiver turned running back again as well as three shiny new rookies. Ty Montgomery, the presumed starter, was a neat new toy for Aaron Rodgers for check downs and the occasional burst of yardage.
But Ty became quicker to figure out as the Packers went further down the line and became more of a liability in the NFC Championship. He’s good and with more of a focus at running back he’s sure to improve. But also note one key thing for the Packers: they still have a monster of an offensive line even after losing Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang. Pay close attention to how Green Bay runs the ball. They have no star. They have a starter by default. If they can find success in the run, I can almost guarantee it will be thanks to their o-line who still ranks in as top 10 line.