Tony Pollard, Not Ezekiel Elliott, Must Be Lead RB for the Cowboys Offense

Brent SobleskiSeptember 27, 2022

Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Pollard (20) runs the ball against the New York Giants during the second quarter of an NFL football game, Monday, Sept. 26, 2022, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
AP Photo/Adam Hunger

The chants of "Free Tony Pollard" will grow louder with each passing week.

The Dallas Cowboys running back is on the verge of stardom as a breakout performer. The only thing preventing the fourth-year ball-carrier from completing the jump is the organization's insistence on keeping Ezekiel Elliott (with his ridiculous contract) as the starting back.

It's clear who the more explosive and effective runner is.

During Monday's 23-16 victory over the New York Giants, Pollard carried the ball 13 times for 105 yards, or an impressive 8.1 yards per attempt. Comparatively, Elliott toted the rock 15 times for 73 yards, or 4.9 yards per carry.

The performance indicated a changing of the guard—no, not Jason Peters taking over next to Tyler Smith, though that should happen sooner rather than later, too—could commence in the backfield.

Dallas' reliance on Elliott is understandable based on his previous production and his financial status. The 2016 No. 4 draft pick is a three-time Pro Bowl selection with four 1,000-yard campaigns. He's only 27 years old, so he has yet to hit the point in his career when his performance hangs in the air like Wile E. Coyote before falling off a cliff. Elliott is also the game's highest-paid back with an $18.2 million salary-cap charge.

Return on investment is important. Winning games is even more so.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - SEPTEMBER 26: Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys runs the ball against Darren Evans #37 of the New York Giants during the second quarter in the game at MetLife Stadium on September 26, 2022 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

The Cowboys are 2-1 with upcoming contests against the rival Washington Commanders, reigning Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams and NFC East-leading and undefeated Philadelphia Eagles.

To fully unlock the offense, Pollard must become a bigger part of it. Coordinator Kellen Moore knows this, too.

"We certainly want those guys to get touches, and it's a matter of finding those different roles," Moore said of Elliott and Pollard two weeks before the regular season began. "Both of them we want to get creative with, get them on the field at the same time. And then obviously when one guy is down, the other guy is in there contributing. So, I think it will be a fun task for us to kind of pair those guys up and be creative with how we can utilize them in different positions and find opportunities for success."

Yet the coaches called Pollard's number only 15 times through two contests. He did add six receptions. A significant occurrence came late in Monday's contest, even though Elliott still managed more carries.

Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore talk during an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)
Mike McCarthy (left) and Kellen Moore. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

During the Cowboys' penultimate offensive drive, when they needed a first down or two to secure victory, Pollard opened the series behind quarterback Cooper Rush. He immediately gained 15 yards on three snaps before Elliott rotated back in.

Pollard isn't seen as a physical closer. Elliott said as much.

"His elusivity, his explosiveness. I think I go in and pound them a little bit," he said. "Then he goes in there and is going to break some long ones."

The 6'0", 209-pounder is deserving of the explosive designation because he is. Last season, Pollard posted one more run of 20 or more yards than Elliott despite 107 fewer carries. The Memphis product is a slasher with plenty of juice when he bursts through the hole. But he isn't simply a change-of-pace back. Pollard is capable of carrying a more significant workload.

As ESPN's Mina Kimes noted, Pollard ranked third last year in yards after contact when running up the middle. Coming into this year, he ranked fourth in missed tackle rate per touch since 2019, per Pro Football Focus. The 25-year-old presents a blend of underappreciated power and excellent balance to offset his slighter frame.

Part of the reason why Pollard isn't a traditional 220-plus-pound thumper is because of his background. He bounced between running back and wide receiver during his time with the Tigers. His natural fluidity in route running, including his work in space, makes him a significant weapon, if properly utilized.

"He's not going to run [just] the running back route tree, the quick game and just kind of the completion plays," Moore said. "He can stretch people vertically, and I think that will be a huge advantage for him to put people in conflict of how they want to handle him."

The Cowboys have yet to utilize this aspect of his skill set, though.

Last season, Pollard finished sixth on the team with 39 catches—a respectable number but one that can grow with expanded usage. Zero Monday wasn't exactly inspiring. Dallas has an opportunity to deploy Elliott and Pollard at the same time, but the staff has failed to get creative with personnel packages. Moore can use them in a split-back scenario with Elliott in the backfield and Pollard in the slot or vice versa.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - SEPTEMBER 26: CeeDee Lamb #88 of the Dallas Cowboys catches a 1 yard touchdown pass against the New York Giants during the fourth quarter in the game at MetLife Stadium on September 26, 2022 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
CeeDee Lamb. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Dallas' depth at wide receiver is questionable with Michael Gallup yet to return and James Washington on injured reserve. The coaching staff should be doing everything in its power to get the team's best players on the field as much as possible. Pollard's snap count must increase in the coming weeks to further help Rush and eventually Dak Prescott.

A switch in roles between the two backs could help both as well as the team.

Elliott's rushing yards per game have declined in each of the last five seasons. Through three games, his production is shy of last year's pace. The seventh-year runner already has 1,690 carries on his body, and the wear and tear show over time.

If Pollard becomes the lead back, Elliott can benefit from fewer touches and maximize his opportunities when on the field. A similar setup occurred when the New Orleans Saints had Mark Ingram II and Alvin Kamara. After one season, the two flipped roles with Kamara getting the spotlight and Ingram serving as the hammer. Dallas should follow this blueprint.

Egos and money always get in the way. This can't happen with Dallas off to a strong start despite injuries at multiple key positions. Winning cures all. Elliott taking a back seat to Pollard wouldn't be a negative. It's the right thing for the Cowboys to do.

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.


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