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Tony Pollard Better than Ezekiel Elliott? Has the Earth Become Flat?
The disdain for Ezekiel Elliott's game amuses me. Coaches and executives claim the burst he once had is no longer there. This comes from the eternal and unintentional comedic genius of the "anonymous GM," who observed that lack of burst despite Elliott playing with a ligament injury from October until the season's end, which would slow any back.
Then there's ESPN's venerable Bill Barnwell, who suggested that Tony Pollard should be starting in Dallas. According to SI's Mike Fisher (see link above), the basis of his argument is on "over expected" data, yards-per-carry data, and the passing game. We'll touch on some of the data-based arguments against Elliott in this article because, like most tools, they can be helpful but depending on how they are used, they are also infamous for ignoring the context underpinning the most important facets of running back play.
It's understandable that the general public overvalues speed with running back play because even some head coaches are guilty here. While Elliott was quicker and faster than Pollard based on their respective Combine workouts, the differences were marginal, and it's easy to perceive that Pollard is more explosive because he's beginning his runs more often in more open spaces than Elliott, which often means negotiating fewer bodies. More on that, too.
Since the public falls for the "because he's faster, he is better" argument all too often, it reinforces the outdated idea that running back is a primitive position that requires little conceptual and technical skill and good performers operate purely on instinct.
I've been dispelling this notion for years. The first section of this article sums it up effectively: What appears to be athletic responses to defenders based solely on instinct are proven techniques and concepts learned to the speed of instinct. The more you learn about what good running backs do, the more you discover a difference between backs leaning on raw athletic ability and backs who have a refined understanding of their position and the game.
I'm not the only one, the NFL is gradually arriving at this realization as they embrace pre-draft testing that measures how fast players process information on the field. One of the early discoveries: The closer the player begins his work in the middle of the field, the more important it is for that player to process information efficiently.
Guess which position is prominently mentioned?
Another common data point surrounding Elliott's potential demise is PFF's Elusiveness Rating. The site defines this metric as "an attempt to quantify the work a runner does independent of his blocking, looking at the number of tackles broken or avoided and the yards gained after first contact."
PFF offers a lot of value to football fans. Even so, one should expect that with any analysis conducted as students of the game, there will be efforts that come up short and are still evolving. Elusiveness Rating is one of them.
The metric is a conflation of two aspects of running back play: avoiding tackles and breaking tackles. Is the runner truly elusive or skilled after contact? Second, as I've detailed in the past, this is a flawed way of measuring either facet of running back play.
When it comes to power, which is a greater display: a cornerback slapping Saquon Barkley on the thigh pad and Barkley gaining 70 yards afterward or a defensive tackle and middle linebacker making being the bread for a Nick Chubb sandwich at the line of scrimmage and Chubb gaining 8 yards? Again, I've broached that there's a better way.
When it comes to elusiveness, which is a greater display: Barkley jump-cutting across two gaps to avoid a blitzing middle linebacker at the edge of the crease and bouncing the run for a five-yard gain to the boundary or Chubb hopping over the shot of a linebacker in a tight crease and, the moment his feet return to earth, he opens his hips to slide away from the oncoming safety who is inches from him and gains five yards?
When judging power, I'd answer Chubb, but PFF is measuring results over the process with this metric. When leaning too hard on this layer of analysis, one can lose perspective of factors that may have led to a temporary decline in performance or one placing too much weight on the results without accounting for the entire process of running the football.
When judging elusiveness, the scenario between Chubb and Barkley is close to even. Both are productive displays, and judging one over the other requires an understanding of the play design and the angles of the defenders threatening the runner.
In other words, one must account for situational football, which means the context of the game film. Once again, the closer the player is to the middle of the field to begin a play, the better he must be as a processor of information.
Elliott-Pollard: Metrics that Supply More Situational Context
When looking at Pollard's 2021 performance, judging him as a superior option to start ahead of Elliott is unfair to both Elliott and Pollard. Their utilizations are too different and where they intersect, Elliott was better in more difficult scenarios and with a significantly higher workload.
|Carries between the 20s||100%||72%|
|Runs for No Gain||36%||23%|
|Runs for a Loss||16%||11%|
|Gains of at Least 8 Yards||32%||26%|
|Carries vs. Boxes with 5 or Fewer Defenders||52%||18%|
|Carries vs. Boxes with 6-7 Defenders||44%||70%|
|Carries vs. Boxes with 8 Defenders||4%||6%|
|Carries vs. Boxes with 9+ Defenders||0%||6%|
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