(Editor’s Note: DallasCowboys.com senior writer and pro wrestling aficionado Rob Phillips’ new column, “Figure 4,” identifies four key statistics each week that impact the Cowboys’ on-field performance.)
FRISCO, Texas – Zeke Week is here.
The star running back is back from his six-game suspension as the Cowboys (8-6) cling to wild-card hope with two games remaining.
The team (including the running back rotation of Alfred Morris and Rod Smith) did an excellent job adjusting without Elliott during this three-game winning streak. But there’s no question Zeke gives them a home-run dimension on the field and an emotional boost in the locker room.
That’s where we start in this week’s stats column:
1. The Zeke Effect
This has been a really good discussion over the last six weeks. Just how much does Elliott mean to the offense? To the defense? To the identity of the entire football team?
One can argue his presence has an intangible impact on the way defenses scheme quarterback Dak Prescott and the Cowboys’ receivers. Certainly Elliott’s ability to grind out yards, especially in the second half of games, keeps the defense fresh.
Tangibly, here’s how productive Elliott is despite missing 43 percent of the season to date:
- Before his suspension, he ranked second in rushing yards (783) and tied for first in rushing touchdowns (7). If we're rounding up, that’s a 14-game pace for 1,370 yards and 13 touchdowns, better than current leader Le’Veon Bell (1,222 yards) and tied with current leader Todd Gurley (13 touchdowns).
- Elliott can still have another signature 1,000-yard season if he averages 108.5 yards in the final two games.
- He’s still the leader in rushing yards per game (97.9).
2. Jeff Heath, Playmaker
“Jeff Heath, the GOAT!”
That’s what teammates yelled while the Cowboys’ unassuming safety spoke quietly to reporters in the postgame locker room, just after his game-ending forced fumble on Raiders quarterback Derek Carr in the final seconds.
Heath simply doesn’t get enough credit for the plays he makes on the ball. The play against Carr saved the Cowboys’ season – and so did his pass deflection in the end zone one play earlier.
A first-year starter,* Heath is also in line to lead the Cowboys in interceptions (3) for the second time in three years. *He had a team-best 3 interceptions in 2015, and he technically tied for the team lead last season (2) if you count his pick against Aaron Rodgers in the divisional round.
That play, by the way, further cemented internal belief that Heath could handle a starting role at safety.
3. Witten’s Latest Milestone
Jason Witten has seen a lot in 15 seasons, but never a critical first down – the playoff race at stake – decided by the width of an index card.
The sheer insanity of Sunday night’s finish (arguably the wildest game in franchise history) overshadowed another landmark in the veteran tight end’s career.* Witten became the fifth player, and second tight end, to post at least 500 receiving yards in at least 14 consecutive seasons.*
Tony Gonzalez (TE), 16 straight seasons, 1998-13
Terrell Owens, 15 straight seasons, 1996-10
Anquan Boldin, 14 straight seasons, 2003-16
Larry Fitzgerald, 14 straight seasons, 2004-17
Witten, 14 straight seasons, 2004-17
4. Chris Jones’ Impact
The Pro Bowl rosters get unveiled tonight, and punter Chris Jones certainly should be in the conversation for a spot.
At first glance, you might say no. Jones’ net average is 41.7, fifth in the NFC. But he’s tied with San Francisco’s Bradley Pinion in the NFC for most punts inside the 20 (29).
And this might be the best measure of Jones’ impact: He has the fewest punt return yards against him in the entire league (55). By comparison, Houston’s Shane Lechler has the most: 473 yards.
The difference: Opponents have returned 41 punts against Lechler and only 14 against Jones. That’s the lowest in the league besides two Detroit punters, Jeff Locke and Sam Martin, who have split time this season.
Against the Raiders, Jones showed he can be a field position weapon on fake punts, too.
“He’s one of the best athletes that we have on our team,” head coach Jason Garrett said.