Cowboys to utilize running back-by-committee approach: What it means for Ezekiel

FRISCO, Texas — Three-time Pro Bowl running back Ezekiel Elliott returns to the Dallas Cowboys in 2024, and as far as his presence in the locker room, nothing has changed.

“It’s probably as natural of a transition that you’ll ever see,” Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said Saturday, via The Athletic. “He walked in and he has that unbelievable smile and it’s just like he never left. Huge personality in the locker room. He definitely puts you on guard because he’s old school. He’s an old-school guy. He’ll go up and smack a 60-year-old man [McCarthy] on the ass, and it hurts. It’s those kinds of things that you just enjoy about him, not that I enjoy getting smacked on the ass, but just enjoy his personality and having him back in the building and things like that.”

However, the Cowboys’ running back room structure couldn’t be more different in Elliott’s second tour of duty in Dallas. He looks similar, in McCarthy’s eyes, how he looked in the head coach’s first three seasons with the team from 2020-2022, when the running back’s efficiency took a significant nosedive. Elliott averaged four yards a carry in 2020, 4.2 yards a carry in 2021 and 3.8 yards per carry in 2022. His last Pro Bowl selection came in 2019, Jason Garrett’s last year as head coach.

“We’re a running back by committee [team],” McCarthy said. “But I think he’ll definitely play at the level that he’s played at in my time here [since 2020]. I don’t see any drop-off in the way he moves. He’s in good shape. … He has come in here and picked up right where he left off.”

Dallas’ coaching staff will now be forced to become more creative as they won’t simply be slotting in either Elliott or the departed Tony Pollard as the primary ball carrier.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing because none of the last seven Super Bowl champions had a player rush for 1,000 or more yards. The last team to win it all and have a 1,000-yard rusher was all the way back in the 2016 season when a 30-year-old LeGarrette Blount ran for 1,161 rushing yards on 299 carries for the New England Patriots. Quarterback Tom Brady finished second in NFL MVP voting that season.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a challenge. I think it’s exciting,” Cowboys offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said Tuesday when asked about being a running back by committee team.  “I think part of our process now is figuring out what all these guys do. Well, it’s nothing that’s new to the league.”

Schottenheimer coordinated an offense that led the NFL in rushing (172.3 rushing yards per game) as the New York Jets offensive coordinator in 2009, and that attack featured three players with 70 or more carries: Thomas Jones (1,402 rushing yards on 331 carries), Shonn Greene (540 rushing yards on 108 carries) and Leon Washington (331 rushing yards on 72 carries). The three current Cowboys running backs he referenced when talking about running back by committee  were Elliott, offseason free agent signee Royce Freeman and 2023 sixth-round pick Deuce Vaughn. Last season’s number two running back Rico Dowdle will also likely factor into the competition for snaps along with returners Hunter Luepke (2023 undrafted free agent), Malik Davis (2022 undrafted free agent). Undrafted rookie Nathaniel Peat took all the carries at the team’s rookie minicamp over the weekend.

“We led the league in rushing in New York [where Schottenheimer was the offensive coordinator with the Jets] back in 2008 [2009]I think, and we had three guys that were carrying the ball,” Schottenheimer said. “But again, we got some new pieces. The guys have been around Zeke probably more than I have [Schottenheimer was a consultant for the Cowboys in 2022, Elliott’s last year in Dallas, before become the OC in 2023]. Thrilled he is back. Learning Royce Freeman. Deuce [Vaughn] just, I think that’s the biggest thing is getting those guys, the reps, getting those guys to work. I think it’s the way you’re seeing it. I think last year there was like maybe nine or 10 1,000-yard rushers in the league just because it’s such a physical grind. Seventeen  games before the playoffs start and, we’re very, very comfortable and confident it’s going to work out really well for us.”

The Cowboys’ current backfield is comprised of players with a varied set of builds and running styles from Elliott (six feet tall while weighing 225 pounds) to Vaughn (five feet, six inches tall while weighing 176 pounds), something Dallas appreciates.

“It’s not cookie cutter,” Schottenheimer said when asked if he would rather have a group of backs who do the same thing or ones who have different talents. “Obviously when guys do different things, that’s harder on the defense. We have to be better with that because we have to offset tendencies of, ‘hey, this guy only runs outside. This guy runs inside. This guy is a gap runner. This guy is a gap, no pull, perimeter player’, whatever it is. So we have to be better with that. But I will say it does help us to be able to attack the whole field, which is really what you want to do running the football. You want to make the defense cover the whole field.”

Much of Schottenheimer’s focus when it comes to managing the Dallas running back rotation will zero in on avoiding the predictability he alluded to.

“The computer work that we have to do during the week is going to be maybe more of a challenge than it is when got that one guy that’s a bell cow, and he does a little bit of everything,” Schottenheimer said. “I think we’ll be able to mix and match the guys. They’re all really good players, however it plays out. We’ll have to be better during the week and just be mindful of what guys have done because we know the defense is looking for that, but it’s exciting and I think again, we got the right pieces.”

“I think we got a lot of young, talented guys,” Elliott said of the Cowboys’ running back room. “A lot of guys with different skill sets, and so I’m looking forward to getting in that room, getting to know those guys and helping them grow their football knowledge and share some of my experience with them.”

Cowboys running backs coach Jeff Blasko said Tuesday that he “thought” Elliott “had a very, very productive year running the football in New England” for a 4-13 squad. He was the team’s leading rusher (642 rushing yards) and pass-catcher (51 receptions. The 2023 season was the eight-year veteran’s worst: he totaled career lows in rushing yards (642), rushing touchdowns (three), carries (184) and yards per carry (3.5).

Elliott won’t necessarily be the defined RB1 of the committee despite being far and away the most accomplished back on Dallas’ roster. Blasko said the coaching staff’s approach to the committee “may change weekly” and that it will be about “feel.” The Cowboys still believe Elliott can be exactly what they need in short yardage situations.

“He’s, obviously a can of kick-ass in that department [short yardage],” Blasko said of Elliott. “He’s a guy that over the course of his career can create on his own in those situations. Everything doesn’t necessarily have to be blocked perfectly. He’s kind of been an eraser for that: covering up whether it’s a mental error or a fundamental [blocking] error. He’s been able to kind of to be a band-aid, so to speak, to kind of cover that up. I think there were times last year where having a bigger body type that can hammer it home, I think would have helped us.”

The three-time Pro Bowler’s third down conversation rate on rushes with less than five yards to gain for a first down was 72.2%, the fifth-best mark in the league among the 44 running backs who have at least 600 carries since Elliott entered the NFL in 2016 as the fourth overall pick.

“I think you guys all know what I’m going to give when I’m on the field,” Elliott said on May 1 at the 11th annual Reliant Home Run Derby, an event in which the proceeds went toward the Salvation Army  “I’m going to do whatever I need to, whenever I can to help this team be successful.”

The Cowboys have course corrected their approach to the running back position, opting to not draft a running back in the first five rounds of the NFL Draft since hiring McCarthy in 2020, but that doesn’t mean they won’t look to exchange some draft capital via trade for a reliable back should the early season committee approach fail to bear fruit.

“A lot of teams do that (committee approach), and do it successfully,” Cowboys COO and executive VP Stephen Jones said Saturday, via The Athletic. “A lot of teams kind of move toward that because of the wear and tear that comes with this league. As I’ve said, too, we’re not done yet. We continue to look at players, look for ways to improve not only the running back spot but any other position on this team.”

Owner and general manager Jerry Jones is well aware that teams can win a Super Bowl without a “bellcow” running back, but if the Cowboys’ run game fails to yield results through the first half of the season, he could handle the running back position like he did his wide receiver position in 2018, the season after he released Dez Bryant. Dallas started the season 3-4 after having a “by committee” wide receiver room and then decided to trade its 2019 first-round pick to the Raiders to acquire Amari Cooper during its bye week. The Cowboys certainly won’t be trading a first-round pick for a running back in 2024, but Jones alluded to being open to adding to the position via trade at running back position if necessary.

“We can probably trade with another club for the next six-or-seven months, can’t we? … I’ve seen teams win the Super Bowl with running backs that they traded for mid-season,” Jerry Jones said after the 2024 NFL Draft concluded on April 27. “The point is that this thing is a long way from being over when you have to line up next fall.”

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