Ezekiel Elliott's contract negotiations should have nothing to do with Dak Prescott

As Ezekiel Elliott’s holdout from Cowboys camp continues, Jerry Jones is saying all that right things. It appears Jones would love to have Zeke back in the fold, but only at the right price, and he has a good reason for taking that approach to negotiations, which he explained Tuesday at Cowboys camp…
“The point there is you don’t have to have a rushing champion to win a Super Bowl,” Jones told CBS 11. “But Emmitt was the first one to do it.”
Emmitt Smith was the first to do it, and Terrell Davis was the last, and that happened all the way back in 1998 when the NFL was a fundamentally different league. That didn’t stop some pundits from pointing out that Jones’ Cowboys have never won a Super Bowl WITHOUT the league leader in rushing yards. Which is true, sure, but doesn’t make Jones’ point any less accurate.

Jerry Jones is correct – but that is the only way the teams he’s owned have won Super Bowls. There are 4 instances of the NFL rushing champion winning the SB. Terrell Davis in 1998, and Emmitt Smith 3 times – 1992, 93 and 95. https://t.co/dohIxFOHPz
— Ed Werder (@EdwerderRFA) July 29, 2019

Jones isn’t saying you can’t win a Super Bowl with the league’s leading rusher; it’s just not the best way to build a roster in the modern NFL. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement.
The Cowboys are definitely a better team with Elliott on the field. Nobody is denying that. Not even the “The Running Backs Don’t Matter” crowd. The question we should be asking is, How much better are they without him? and How much should Dallas be willing to pay for the boost he provides?
The answer to both questions is likely “not much.” Statistical evidence (and it’s overwhelming at this point) suggests that running back talent is hardly the biggest driver of success in the run game. The numbers are telling us that if the Cowboys want a good run game, investing in the offensive line and a scheme that produces light run boxes is the way to get it. So, yes, the run game may very well be the foundation of Dallas’ offense, but paying Zeke a bunch of money isn’t necessarily the way to keep that foundation strong.
That brings up another question: Why would the Cowboys want to be a team that has to rely on its run game? That’s not how football games are won in 2019. The best way for Dallas to increase its odds of winning a Super Bowl is to take the money and draft capital it has been investing in the run game and pour those resources into the passing game. Does that mean paying Dak Prescott? That’s a complicated question, but if the choices are paying Dak or paying Zeke, the answer is pretty obvious. The quarterback is more important, even if his league standing among players at his position isn’t as high as the running backs. Which is why these arguments fall flat…

"Zeke is your MVP, not your quarterback, not Amari Cooper, Zeke is everything for the Cowboys and you are going to pay him because you know it's true."@AdamSchein isn't buying what Jerry Jones is saying about Ezekiel Elliott during this holdout. #T2S #Cowboys #CowboysNation pic.twitter.com/yhjC0iHroz
— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) July 29, 2019

What if their running back and offensive line are better than their quarterback, and their running game superior to their passing game at this point? https://t.co/d5XVmy42eM
— Ed Werder (@EdwerderRFA) July 30, 2019

Relatively speaking, Elliott is probably a better player than Prescott, but the Cowboys offense is objectively better when Prescott is passing ball than when Elliott is running the ball.
Dak Prescott averaged 0.064 Expected Points Added (EPA) per passing attempt. Elliott averaged 0.0063 EPA per rushing attempt. Prescott averaged 7.4 yards per passing attempt. Elliott averaged 4.7 yards per rushing attempt.
Of course, we’re ignoring Elliott’s contributions as a pass-catcher, which I addressed earlier this month:
“The problem is that passes to running backs are generally less valuable than other passes, and that was certainly true for Elliott, who wasn’t even among the league leaders in EPA per target for running backs. In fact, he ranked 30th in that regard. The Cowboys, as a team, ranked behind all but two teams in success rate on first- and second-down passes to running backs.”
The typical passing targets a running back receives (checkdowns and other short passes) just aren’t valuable. For a running back to truly make an impact as a receiver, he has to be able to line up on the outside and get open downfield. Elliott has never proven capable of doing so. In 2018, he was targeted only nine times when lined up out wide, and those targets produced only 58 yards of offense. That could be a coaching problem, but Elliott’s route-running tape isn’t overly impressive.
In that same post, I presented evidence suggesting Elliott’s presence on the field was not drawing more defenders into the box and giving Prescott better looks in the passing game:
In order to get that extra defender in the box, the defense has to drop a safety down near the line of scrimmage, forcing the defense to play with only one safety deep. So, if Elliott was forcing defenses to load up against the run and opening up things in the passing game, you’d expect a significant portion of Prescott’s passing attempts to have come against single-high coverages. According to Sports Info Solutions charting data, Prescott ranked 10th (out of 22 quarterbacks who attempted at least 200 passes vs. those coverages) in the percentage of attempts vs. single-high defenses. So he was right around league average in that regard … While the Cowboys other backs did see fewer lighter boxes than Elliott, the difference was marginal (38% to 35%) and the sample size was small.
Elliott does not have the effect on Prescott’s game that many believe — and, no, that six-game stretch two years ago that coincided with a Tyron Smith injury is not strong evidence to the contrary. Either Prescott is good enough to win the Cowboys a Super Bowl or he’s not. Elliott’s presence is not going to change that. If anything, paying Elliott a significant portion of the cap will only put more of a burden on Prescott with fewer cap dollars to go to his supporting cast.
For that reason, it doesn’t make any sense to conflate the discussions surrounding Prescott’s contract negotiations and Elliott’s contract negotiations. It’s clear who is more integral to the Cowboys’ chances of winning a Super Bowl. Jerry Jones seems to understand this very basic premise. I never thought I’d say this, but it’s time for us to think more like Jerry Jones.

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