With the team on a three-game losing streak and a combined 22 points scored in that stretch, panic erupted through Dallas Cowboys nation. Their young quarterback Dak Prescott was floundering. Once elite wideout Dez Bryant failed to show up as a difference-maker. The team overall looked listless as they fell below .500 heading into Week 13.
The elephant in the room loomed large without Ezekiel Elliott in the picture. It appeared that the answer to "what's wrong with the Dallas Cowboys?" was the all too obvious one: the team simply isn't the same because Elliott is out. They can't succeed without him.
While Elliott brings an air of dynamism that few backs in the league can match, placing the blame for Dallas' slump solely at the feet of his absence is disingenuous. It also discounts the reality of what's transpired in the four games Elliott has missed and does not give enough credit to just how strong of a replacement Alfred Morris has been.
Morris ripped off 127 rushing yards against Washington on Thursday Night Football, his highest single game total since Nov. 7th, 2013. His former team was unable to slow down the spry runner, as Morris ripped off steady gains at will.
Morris gained an average of 4.02 yards after defenders closed within one yard of him in Week 13. This metric correlates with running back performance, especially yards after contact and helps show what backs create on their own.
Morris has quietly been outstanding as a runner all year, consistently making defenders miss and earning extra yards. On the season, Morris' 5.42 average yards gained after close leads all running backs with 50-plus carries this season. Even as his team struggled in Weeks 10-12, Morris was excellent as a pure runner when given opportunities, clearing the league average in yards after close all three weeks. He's been a fantastic runner, even if the game script didn't work in Dallas' favor for him to receive necessary volume to flush the box score.
Alfred Morris yards gained after close and weekly rank Weeks 10-12
Week 10 - 5.59 (8th)
Week 11 - 4.10 (14th)
Week 12 - 4.07 (14th)
Morris benefited from pristine run blocking against Washington on Thursday night, as he averaged 0.57 rushing yards before defenders closed within one yard of him (NFL average - 0.25). Whereas "after close" helps quantify running back performance, yards gained before close correlates with measurements for run blocking. The offensive line hasn't skipped a beat with Elliott out of the mix.
Naturally, one could argue that defenses are far less concerned about Morris' presence in the backfield than they are when Elliott plays for Dallas. That may well be the case. However, that has not borne itself out statistically in how opposing teams are defending the Cowboys.
Percentage of carries against a loaded box
Ezekiel Elliott 2017 - 37.7 percent
Alfred Morris Weeks 10-13 - 60.9 percent
It's striking to see that Morris sees a loaded box, where there are more defenders in the box than blockers, on far more plays than Elliott. Morris also thrives even when opponents send extra attention his way. He averaged 5.59 yards per carry against loaded boxes since Week 10, leading all running backs with 15-plus carries in that span.
When considering all the factors and looking at the situation through an honest, factual and non-narrative-driven basis, it's hard to conclude that Elliott's absence is the primary reason for the Cowboys' three-game slump coming into Week 13. The opponents they faced tell a far more convincing story.
The absence of Tyron Smith and the woeful performance of backup Chaz Green gave up a legendary performance to Adrian Clayborn of the Falcons in Week 10. He collected seven of Atlanta's eight pressures accumulated over the left side of the Cowboys' offensive line. Dallas ran into two of the best defenses in the NFL in Weeks 11 and 12. The Eagles have a relentless defensive line that has racked up a whopping 160 pressures this season. The next-best team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, have 143. The Chargers then had their number on Thanksgiving. Not only do the Chargers have Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, both of whom have over 30 pressures this season, the team boasts what may quietly be the best cornerback tandem in the league.
A brutal stretch against tough competition coupled with a legitimate slump from Dak Prescott doomed the team the past three weeks. As soon as the Cowboys faced a banged-up, average defense in Washington on Thursday night, they got right back to their brand of football. Dallas was able to control the flow by earning a quick lead, and then the football world got to see just what a fantastic season Morris is having. Prescott made several key throws throughout the night, even if he still put up an uninspiring final stat line amid a thumb injury. It's okay to admit he's in a brief funk for the time being and isn't playing at the same level we saw from him in his near flawless first 24 career games.
Oftentimes, the temptation is to take the path of least resistance in the search for explanations for football and accept it as truth. Simple correlation equals causation analysis is easy to default to when operating in the small sample size of a single NFL season. The truth is almost never such an easy explanation, especially in a game with so many moving parts.
In the case of Zeke's absence from the Dallas Cowboys, the data certainly does not tell the story of his removal being the primary cause for their 1-3 stretch over the last month. Morris is playing extremely well and he's making Elliott's absence far more bearable than we'd like to admit. Our gaze needs to turn elsewhere when looking for the cause of Dallas' issues as they close out the 2017 season.
You can explore the charts and data provided by Next Gen Stats for yourself **right here**, as well.
Matt Harmon is a writer/editor for NFL.com, and the creator of #ReceptionPerception, who you can follow on Twitter @MattHarmon_BYB or like on Facebook.