The Dallas Cowboys Haven't Been Closing Out Games Like You'd Think

The Cowboys are finishing games the opposite of how they drew it up at the start of this season, but it's still working.

When the Dallas Cowboys selected Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall in last April’s NFL Draft, the idea was simple. They wanted to build an offense so dominant on the ground that any late-game lead would be safe.

With a 10-1 record through 12 weeks, that plan has certainly come to fruition. Dallas has won 10 games in a row since opening the season with a loss in Week 1 against the New York Giants. They’re the clear leader for the top overall seed in the NFC and the current favorite to win the Super Bowl.

The Cowboys rank first by Adjusted Rushing Net Expected Points per play and Elliott is in line to possibly be named both Offensive Rookie of the Year and league MVP. If not him, both honors could go to teammate Dak Prescott.

But with all this success, the structure hasn’t exactly gone as planned. The idea to run down an opponent’s throat with a lead in the fourth quarter hasn’t really been the way Dallas has won games this season. In fact, it’s been the exact opposite.

Run and Defend

Let’s start by saying Ezekiel Elliott has been incredible. Among 29 running backs with 100 or more carries, he’s second in Rushing NEP (the counting stat) and third in Rushing NEP per attempt (efficiency). He also leads those backs in Success Rate -- the percentage of plays that positively impact NEP -- at 49.17 percent.

Much of Elliott’s value, though, has come in the first three quarters of games. When the fourth quarter comes -- which is the time he and the offensive line are supposed to be running through opponents -- the production drops off. Here’s Elliott’s splits this season by quarter:

QuarterCarriesYardsRushNEP/attSuccess Rate

Through the first three quarters, Elliott is the best back in football. The league leaguer in Rushing NEP per attempt is Miami's Jay Ajayi at 0.15. Elliott tops that in two separate quarters and also he has a greater than 50 percent Success Rate in the first three quarters. But in the fourth quarter when teams are focusing more on stopping Elliott, his production decreased dramatically.

The average Rushing NEP per attempt among backs with 100 or more carries is 0.00 and the average Success Rate is 40.2 percent. Elliott drops below both of those averages in the final quarter.

His presence on the field was also supposed to “help out the defense” by letting them see less plays. While that statement always seemed bogus from the start, it’s come true in a way. Yes, the Cowboys are seeing less plays per game. The defense has been on the field for 672 plays, tied for the fifth-fewest in the NFL.

However, the Cowboys are also allowing 5.9 yards per play on defense, which is tied for the fifth-most. By Adjusted Defensive NEP per play, the Cowboys rank 23rd. Instead of having the offense take pressure off the defense in the fourth quarter, the defense has been at its worst when closing out games. Below is a table of stats and rank for the Cowboys defense by quarter:

QuarterPlaysYards per Play1st Down %TDs Allowed
1133 (31)6.78 (31)32.3% (26)4 (6)
2189 (15)5.66 (14)31.7% (22)6 (t-8)
3165 (t-11)4.70 (3)27.3% (11)3 (t-5)
4185 (22)6.58 (31)37.8% (32)11 (29)

In the fourth quarter, the Cowboys have seen the 11th most plays, giving up the second-most yards per play, which is the highest rate of opposing first downs and the fourth-most touchdowns. That’s not a dominant way to close out games.

To the Rescue

When the Cowboys need to move the ball in the fourth quarter, their best option has been Prescott throwing the ball. While the defense may be focused on stopping the run, Prescott has been more efficient in the final quarter of games. Like Elliott, Prescott is among the league leaders in Passing NEP per drop back (second) and Success Rate (first) overall, but unlike the running back, the signal-caller's numbers have gotten better at the end of games.

QuarterComp/AttPassing YardsPassNEP/DBSuccess Rate
157/79 (72.2%)7760.3752.94%
264/105 (61%)7670.2852.78%
345/66 (68.2%)5530.2957.97%
459/85 (69.4%)6830.5560.23%

Prescott has been asked to throw in the fourth quarter more than any quarter except the second, and the results have been extraordinary.

Putting It Away Early

Luckily for the Cowboys, this situation hasn't been a problem even though the way they’ve handled the fourth quarter has been the opposite of what they imagined. That’s ok because the team has been so dominant in the first three quarters. Dallas has entered the fourth quarter without a lead just twice this season, and they won both those contests. The Cowboys have a plus-95 point differential in the first three quarters and an average lead of 8.6 points heading into the fourth.

In four games, they have led by two touchdowns or more going into the final 15 minutes.

Dallas has been the NFL's best team through 12 weeks and there’s little evidence to prove otherwise. And while the Cowboys are still getting the job done, it hasn’t been in the way anyone was expecting. With the final stretch of the season and playoffs ahead, this is something to keep an eye on.