In all fairness, it isn't only Elliott.
Yes, my clickbaity title is an intentional choice, primarily enacted within the paradigm of rabid Cowboys fans who seemingly refuse to believe that their team has won a grand total of three playoff games since Super Bowl XXX. They and every fantasy football stathead who thinks that Ezekiel Elliott is a special preview of the Second Coming.
But this stuff is league-wide. Specifically, if you track the actual stats (you know the ones that win and lose football games?) you'll find that when it comes to the highest stakes situations, Elliott is actually pretty average.
Let me explain.
FiveThirtyEight's Josh Hermsmeyer decided to take a challenging look at situational running in the NFL. While Pro Football Focus' Eric Eager calculated that Zeke's total skill is likely worth no more than 0.2 WAR (wins above replacement) Hermsmeyer posited the supposition that perhaps his skill under certain circumstances makes up for that difference.
But that simply isn't the case.
When looking at three top scenarios in which running back specialty is crucial to winning a game (running to close out a game, short-yardage running in the red zone, and short-yardage running in the open field) Elliott is merely average in each and every one.
When rushing to close out a game (i.e. killing clock) Elliott ranks 22nd in the league on 45 such attempts, only adding 0.003 points to Dallas' win probability. When rushing in the red zone, Elliott ranks 16th in the league on 15 rushes in 0.30 EPA (expected points added) per play to his team's final total. And lastly, even in the category in which he performs best (short-yardage runs in the open field) only added 0.16 EPA per play, good for 10th in the league.
In each one of these instances, Elliott falls behind such illustrious running back names as Corey Clement, Jordan Wilkins, Kapri Bibbs, Isiah Crowell, Ty Montgomery, Justin Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers, Wendell Smallwood, Wayne Gallman, and Zach Zenner. Just to name a few.
While the skill all of these guys bring to the table certainly is legitimate, it is not worth what Elliott is demanding he be paid. In fact, the variability in players Hermsmeyer found amongst all of the different lists of situational running suggests a fact that has haunted fantasy footballers for years and propelled the New England Patriots to six championships in 18 years: a running back by committee approach is the best stratagem to get the most out of your run game.
Advanced analytics is beginning to do to the NFL what sabermetrics did to MLB. As was openly pondered on the FiveThirtyEight podcast, the traditional workhorse NFL running back may soon be going the way of the traditional NBA big man (i.e. extinct).
In all, that doesn't mean there's no value in having a running back like Elliott. He did lead the league in rushing last year (1,434 rushing yards at a healthy clip of 4.7 yards per attempt and 95.6 yards per game) and caught 77 balls for 567 yards through the air. That's got to count for something, right?
Well yes, and wanting better compensation than the standard rookie contract is understandable. But with two years still left on his rookie deal at $12.9 million it makes little sense for the Cowboys to cave to his demands for more money. Especially not when Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper are ahead of him in terms of when their rookie deals expire. Especially not when Le'Veon Bell just pulled this same gimmick with the Steelers and got absolutely shut out, ultimately making less money with the Jets this season than what Pittsburgh would've given him last. Especially not when Melvin Gordon is pulling the same gimmick with the Chargers and gaining absolutely no traction.
And even if he does eventually get paid, it will likely be nowhere in the neighborhood of Todd Gurley's $57.5 million/4-year albatross of a deal. Or at the very least, it shouldn't be.
In all, Elliott is good. But he plays a position that is just not that good in the game anymore. And that is what makes all the difference.