DALLAS — The Dallas Cowboys proved in their 31-23 win over Washington Thursday at AT&T Stadium that giving running back Ezekiel Elliott enough carries to where he eclipses the century mark rushing is the recipe for winning football.
If that is the key to stockpiling wins, then why weren't the Cowboys doing it to start the season? Are those games against Carolina and Seattle, which are very significant in terms of the conference games winning percentage tiebreaker, somehow irrelevant because they were in September? If Elliott getting 100-plus rushing yards is the prime component for winning football, why weren't they doing it sooner?
The reality is that aside from trading for receiver Amari Cooper, which has opened up their passing game, there really isn't anything different in terms of the running game or the emphasis on Elliott.
After the 24-13 loss in Seattle in Week 3, Cowboys COO Stephen Jones told "G-Bag Nation" on 105.3 The Fan [KRLD-FM] that they were even doing a good job running the football. The difference was something else.
"You start out, you've got to give Seattle credit," Jones said. "That's a tough place to play, but not unlike the first game, we got ourselves in tough situations. We got ourselves behind the chains. Got behind on the scoreboard and we ran the ball well. We just didn't run it enough, and I think that's, at the end of the day, that's a product of getting behind and feeling the pressure to start to throw the ball and not stick with that run. We just got to get into a better rhythm."
For the first eight games of the season (only one, versus Tennessee, was after the Cooper trade) 22/45 of the Cowboys' pointless drives featured penalties. 7/23 of their three-and-outs also featured penalties.
Factor in that quarterback Dak Prescott was the third-most sacked quarterback in the NFL during that span with 28 take-downs, that Prescott was the most-sacked quarterback on first down with 11, that they had the ninth-longest yards to go on second down and also ninth-longest on third down, and it is easy to see how Cowboys drives were getting rocked to the point it was almost impossible to get Elliott the ball.
Since then, Prescott has been sacked just three times on first down through three games, Dallas has the 10th-best yards to go on second down at 7.3, and the Cowboys have the third-best third down conversion rate in the NFL in that span at 48.8 percent.
The key to winning is to giving Elliott the football. Dallas is 20-6 when he carries the ball 20-plus times and 15-3 when he gets 100-plus yards. However, the key to Elliott getting carries isn't as much about the commitment of the play-caller, Scott Linehan, to get him the ball as much as it is the execution of Elliott's teammates.
When Dallas has found themselves behind the chains, it has taken the 2016 rushing champion out of the action. In the past three games, the Cowboys have been executing better, which has enabled them to use their best offensive weapon of all.
Can the Cowboys keep riding Ezekiel Elliott to success or do they need to figure out more ways to get it done? Share your thoughts on the current state of the Cowboys with Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane.