Why a six-game suspension to Ezekiel Elliott could cost the Dallas Cowboys the NFC East

Ezekiel Elliott was suspended by the NFL Friday for six games. (AP Photo/David Richard)

The Dallas Cowboys learned running back Ezekiel Elliott will be suspended by the NFL for the first six games of the 2017 NFL season on Friday. Barring appeal, he would miss games against the New York Giants, Denver Broncos, Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers, eligible to return for the Washington Redskins game in Week 7, one week after the team’s bye and almost two months after the start of the regular season.

His absence certainly lessens the chances the Dallas Cowboys had of winning their the NFC East, which figures to be one of the most competitive in the league.

Based on the preseason point spreads released by CG Technology for the first 16 weeks of the season (Week 17 is excluded because of increased uncertainty in those games caused by the then-nearing playoffs), which were then used to calculate Pro Football Reference’s Simple Rating System, a metric designed to adjust a team’s margin of victory for strength of schedule, denominated in points above or below average per game, where zero is average, the Cowboys were expected to be the best team in the NFC (4.73 implied SRS). That in turn helped make their division one of the strongest in the league in 2017. Since 2012, 37 teams have finished the regular season with an SRS of 4.3 or more, 25 won their division with seven others qualifying for the postseason as a wild-card team. Teams with an SRS of 4.2 or below won the division just 29 percent of the time.

SRS (2012 to 2016) DNQ Wild-card team Won division 0.0 or below 90% 4% 6% 0.1 to 4.2 55% 23% 23% 4.3 or higher 14% 19% 68%

As you can see, it would take only a game or two swing for one of the Cowboys’ division rivals rise to surpass them. And if the six-game suspension for Elliot is upheld in full — rather than reduced — Dallas could fall even further behind.

Drilling down to the player level, Dallas has capable backups in Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris, and added one more when it signed veteran running back Ronnie Hillman this offseason. McFadden has two 1,000-yard rushing seasons to his credit, including one for the Cowboys in 2015, and Morris met or exceeded 1,000 yards rushing in his first three seasons in the NFL as a member of the Washington Redskins. Hillman split his time between the Minnesota Vikings and San Diego Chargers last season, but has shown in the past he can run (4.0 yards per carry) and catch the ball out of the backfield (67 percent career catch rate). But all three pale in comparison to what Elliott can provide.

Last season, Elliott rushed for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns, plus caught 32 of 39 targets for 363 yards and a touchdown in the passing game, earning him the fourth-highest player rating at the position by the game charters at Pro Football Focus.

Player ScrYds/Gm Yds/Touch % of plays resulting in 1st down or TD Ezekiel Elliott 132.9 5.6 28.2% Darren McFadden 34.7 3.9 20.7% Ronnie Hillman 28.0 4.7 17.9% Alfred Morris 18.1 3.5 20.0%

If we limit our scope to only rushing attempts with the score close (within 7 points) you could argue Elliott turned in one of the best rushing performances of the past decade. His 1,264 rushing yards in that circumstance rank fourth behind Chris Johnson’s 2009 campaign (1,372) and Adrian Peterson’s 2008 and 2012 seasons (1,285 and 1,276, respectively), per data provided by TruMedia, and no running back converted more first downs in that span than Elliott had (72) in 2016. His 13 touchdowns in these situations also tied for the most with DeAngelo Williams (2008) over the past 10 years. In short, Elliott was a huge difference maker for the Dallas offense in 2016.

It helped that Elliott was rushing behind one of the best offensive lines in the league, an offensive front that helped convert 73 percent of runs on third or fourth down with two yards or less to go, into a first down or touchdown, while posting a below-average stuff rate (15 percent). Yet there is a case to be made Elliott made the offensive line successful, too.

2016 Power Success Stuff Rate Cowboys O-line 73% (3rd) 15% (5th) NFL average 63% 19%

Last season, Elliott posted a success rate that was 10.6 percent above average, significantly higher than Darren McFadden (minus-1 percent) and nearly double the success rate of Alfred Morris (5.4 percent) despite all running behind the same offensive line.

(sharpfootballstats.com)

Football Outsiders saw a similar drop off: Elliott had a plus-15.9 percent Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, which represents value, per play, over an average running back in the same game situations. Morris and McFadden posted DVOA of minus-8 and minus-16 percent, respectively in 2016.

Elliott averaged 2.91 yards per carry after contact last season, the seventh-most in the NFL, and 4.2 yards per carry against eight or more defenders in the box, higher than the production Morris had in these situations (2.7). McFadden, because of a limited number of carries, was not tracked but it’s doubtful he would have been much better than the league average (3.6).

Elliott helped the Cowboys finish the season 10th overall in percentage of plays that resulted in a first down or touchdown, and No. 1 overall when we limit that success to just rushing plays (74.7 percent, league average was 66 percent). Those rates were 67 and 61 percent, respectively, in 2015 with McFadden getting a lion’s share of the workload (239 of the team’s 408 carries). Not being able to sustain those types of plays is obviously a concern for Dallas, as it puts Prescott into more passing-down situations, such as second down with seven or more yards to go or third or fourth down with four or more yards to go. And that means more opportunities for sacks.

On passing downs last season, Prescott was sacked once out of every 16 drop backs, compared to once out of every 21 drop backs on rushing downs, and that could go higher considering his opponents during the first half of the season. Three of the Cowboys’ first five opponents, the Denver Broncos, Arizona Cardinals and Green Bay Packers, finished the 2016 season in the top 10 for sack rate after adjusting for down, distance and opponent. That is bad news for Prescott, who saw his passer rating drop from 116.5 to 78.4 under pressure. Relatively speaking, Prescott’s passer rating under duress wasn’t bad — it ranked ninth overall in 2016 — but with a less-potent running game, more defenders will be freed up to put pressure on Prescott in the backfield or drop into coverage and tighten passing windows.

(sharpfootballstats.com)

Few teams could overcome the loss of one of the league’s leading rushers, but considering how critical Elliott was to sustaining drives, in addition to keeping defenses honest at the line of scrimmage, a potential six-game absence not only puts the division crown in doubt, it could cost Dallas a playoff spot altogether.

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