Punch Drunk Wonderland

Dak Prescott or Ezekial Elliot for Cowboys’ MVP?

Dak Prescott Cowboys MVP

The rookie sensations in Dallas have surprised everyone. Not only have Dak Prescott and Ezekial Elliot led their team to an stellar 8-1 record, but both players are having MVPesque seasons. But, who is the bigger star for the surging Cowboys? Dak or Zeke? Our friends at numberFire have taken a look.

Ezekiel Elliott is taking over the NFL. And the Cowboys are 8-1 because of it.

That, to a lot of football fans, is the narrative. The Cowboys are the best team in football — not just by record, but by our own metrics, too — because Ezekiel Elliott is this generation’s, I don’t know, any historically great running back we’ve ever seen.

Using the most basic logic, this notion actually makes a lot of sense. Dallas was 4-12 last year, and they used the fourth overall pick in 2016’s draft on Elliott. They’ve now lost just once in nine games, so credit is going to go to the person who looks to be the true x-factor: Ezekiel Elliott.

As one of those crazy math people who said Zeke was a bad selection for Dallas — not because he wouldn’t be great, but because running backs aren’t important enough to warrant that high of a pick in today’s NFL — you may not be shocked when I tell you, “Not so fast!”

It’s not just Zeke. And it’s not just that offensive line.

The Dallas Cowboys are so good this year because of their quarterback — a quarterback who actually deserves more credit than Elliott does.

The Zeke Machine

Let me begin by saying something that desperately needs to be said: this is not an analysis of why I think I was right from the beginning, or why backers of the Elliott selection on draft day were wrong. We need to move past that. My goal here is to give an analytical perspective on something that’s become incredibly interesting in the football world.

And I have to admit, the Elliott selection isn’t as bad as it could have been. For 31 NFL teams, it wouldn’t have made sense. Perhaps for the Cowboys, it did. (Insert Internet trolls telling me that this is why I’m not a general manager.)

The Cowboys have run the football better than any team in the NFL this year. That’s no surprise. By our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric — which helps measure the number of real, actual points a team or player adds above or below expectation — Dallas’ 46.05 schedule-adjusted Rushing NEP is a little less than 5 points better than the Bills‘. In other words, across the season with everything else being equal, we’d expect a Bills rushing attack to swing nine completed football games by five total points.

Specifically, Ezekiel Elliott has captured 23.67 Rushing Net Expected Points, good for a ridiculous 0.12 per-rush average. That’s actually still second in the NFL to Jay Ajayi, but given Elliott’s workload and the fact that he’s done it for a longer stretch of time this year, we can safely say Elliott has been the most effective back in the NFL this season.

Player Rushing NEP
Jay Ajayi 27.00
Ezekiel Elliott 23.67
LeSean McCoy 14.87
Jeremy Hill 14.75
DeMarco Murray 13.81

There are some important things to note with any expected points model, including NEP. You see, NEP isn’t swayed by whether or not a play was a pass or a run. As a result, passing is almost always more efficient than rushing. A team is generally going to be better at passing the ball than running the ball, assuming you’re comparing passing to rushing and not passing to passing.

For example, we know quarterbacks gain, say, six-plus yards per attempt. That’s more impressive, from a pure yardage standpoint, than a running back gaining five yards per rush. But we know that a signal-caller with that type of yards per attempt average isn’t good, while a running back with that yards per carry average is spectacular.

So within the context of the running back position, yes, Ezekiel Elliott is more than killing it. For each rush, he’s adding roughly 0.14 points — his Rushing NEP per rush is 0.12, but the league average for a running back is actually negative, around -0.02 — for the Cowboys above a league-average runner.

But being the best within a position shouldn’t make a player the most valuable. If that were the case, where’s the love for Dan Bailey?

To highlight this idea, I’ll share the same graphs I used in the original article on Zeke, which is linked above. Over the last five years, take a look at how passing efficiency compared to wins versus rushing efficiency.

Passing NEP vs. Wins

Rushing NEP vs. Wins

Throwing the football effectively has correlated twice as strongly to wins in the NFL over the last five seasons compared to running the ball effectively. Yes, I get it: when you run the ball well, you can throw the ball well. That also works the opposite way, though, too: when you throw the ball well, you can run the ball well. How do you think Tom Brady‘s Patriots have managed to make free agent running backs so relevant over the last decade and a half?

Continue reading at numberFire.com… (@numberfire)


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