FRISCO, Texas - If you're not getting better, you're getting worse. That's a phrase that can be used often in any circumstance, but especially in football, where the NFL is driven by parity every season.
The Cowboys were able to make a run and get into the playoffs, winning the NFC East for the third time in five seasons. But even owner/GM Jerry Jones has made it clear that his team needs to keep improving and take its success to the next level.
So as we head into the 2019 offseason, let's look at each position on the team and what needs to transpire so the Cowboys can indeed take that next step.
Today, we'll break down the running backs.
His Next Step?
How much more can Ezekiel Elliott do? He has won the NFL rushing title in two of his first three seasons, and in 2017 he finished 10th (983 yards) despite a six-game suspension. He has yet to miss a game due to injury. The Cowboys' offense runs through him, even with the midseason addition of Pro Bowl receiver Amari Cooper.
If there's a place for improvement, it's the red zone – and that's more of an offensive problem than specifically an Elliott problem. Looking deeper, the Cowboys ranked last out of 32 teams in goal-to-go efficiency, scoring touchdowns only 52 percent of the time when inside the opponents' 10-yard line. At times they opted to throw in those situations, often because the defense committed a lopsided number of players to the line of scrimmage. But at their best, the offense has found success running against a loaded box.
Elliott had 15 rushing touchdowns as a rookie and seven touchdowns in 10 games in 2017. He got six in 15 games this past season. Injuries on the offensive line, including Travis Frederick's absence due to Guillain-Barre syndrome, didn't help matters.
Their Next Step?
Elliott is the definition of a featured running back. He had the most rushing attempts (384) in the league last season. He had the fifth-most catches by a running back (77). He also played 89.2 percent of the offensive snaps in the first 15 games before the Cowboys rested him in the regular-season finale at the Giants.
Elliott also played through some minor knee and ankle injuries at points throughout the season. Do the Cowboys try to manage his workload next season? It starts with finding more efficiency when he's not in the game.
Rod Smith, Elliott's primary backup the last year and a half, averaged 2.9 yards on 44 carries in 2018. Darius Jackson was the only other running back with a carry (six for 16 yards in one appearance).
Decisions to Make?
Besides Elliott, Jackson is the only running back on the 2018 active roster who's under contract in 2019. Smith is a free agent. So is fullback Jamize Olawale, who caught two passes for 13 yards and mostly played special teams.
How much will a fullback be featured under new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore? That's one question. The more pressing matter is who fills out the running back rotation. In three seasons Elliott has never missed a game due to injury. (The Cowboys went 3-3 during his 2017 suspension.) But the club needs to fill out the depth chart this offseason.
Now, to the financial side of things. Elliott, at the very least, will be under contract the next two seasons because picking up his fifth-year option is a mere formality. He's also eligible for an extension as one of several Pro Bowl players under contract (quarterback Dak Prescott, wide receiver Amari Cooper, cornerback Byron Jones) who will eventually be seeking new deals. Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones told reporters this week that the front office will be taking a "holistic" look at roster decisions, likely meaning they must balance pressing issues (such as the impending free agency of pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence and wide receiver Cole Beasley) with players who will be up in a year or two. The timing of those decisions is uncertain.
If Smith doesn't return, the Cowboys could look to add a backup running back in free agency or turn to the draft for help. Besides Elliott, the fourth overall pick in 2016, the club hasn't drafted a running back in the first three rounds since DeMarco Murray in 2011. But with several good prospects in this year's class, it might be a possibility. Keep in mind that wide receiver Tavon Austin, a versatile player who can line up in the backfield, is also set to be a free agent.