'Zeke Who?' Dallas Cowboys in No Panic with Explosive Rookie Tony Pollard

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystAugust 19, 2019

HONOLULU, HAWAII - AUGUST 17: Tony Pollard #36 of the Dallas Cowboys runs his way to the endzone during the preseason game against the Los Angeles Rams at Aloha Stadium on August 17, 2019 in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
Alika Jenner/Getty Images

A kernel of truth exists in every joke. Otherwise, the joke wouldn't be funny. 

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones playfully responded, "Zeke who?" when reporters asked him about Ezekiel Elliott's status Saturday after Dallas' 14-10 preseason victory over the Los Angeles Rams

Jones' tongue-in-cheek comment came after the team's fourth-round rookie running back, Tony Pollard, averaged 8.4 yards per carry and scored a 14-yard touchdown in his second taste of NFL action. Through two preseason contests, this year's 128th overall pick has averaged 6.7 yards per touch. 

The better Pollard plays, the more leverage the Cowboys have in negotiations with Elliott in his holdout. Conversely, the 24-year-old running back and his representation certainly don't view their current status as a laughing matter. 

"I didn't think it was funny and neither did Zekewe actually thought it was disrespectful," agent Rocky Arceneaux told ESPN's Chris Mortensen

To be 100 percent clear, Elliott is an elite talent and Pollard can't replace what the two-time NFL rushing leader brings to the offense. Also, the Cowboys will be a much better offense with both in the lineup. 

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

However, Pollard's emergence shows the franchise isn't beholden to Elliott's contract demands, because the offense can still be effective with the rookie as the featured back. 

Originally, the Memphis product projected as a change-of-pace option. The Cowboys needed someone...anyone...to take some pressure off of Elliott, since the 2016 fourth overall pick has averaged 25 touches per game throughout his three-year career. Elliott is the only back to eclipse 300 regular-season carries twice since his arrival. 

Last year's backups, Rod Smith and Darius Jackson, carried the ball only 50 times and averaged a woeful 2.9 yards per carry. The Cowboys front office made running back depth a priority this offseason and drafted Pollard and Mike Weber. 

Pollard's value derives from his versatile skill set. He averaged 1,620 all-purpose yards per season over the last three years as a runner, receiver and returner. NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein described Pollard as a future part-time player, not a possible lead back. 

"He has enough talent to handle the packaged/gadget plays, but with kick-return value diminishing leaguewide, he will need additional fundamentals training at one position to be more than a shiny toy that is rarely out of the box," Zierlein wrote. 

The Cowboys scouting department and coaching staff saw something different. 

"I know people think he's going to be this gadget guy," running backs coach Gary Brown said in May, per Pro Football Talk's Charean Williams. "He's more than that. He's bigger than what you think he is, and he runs powerful for a guy you think is a gadget guy. I think he can do all our runs and more."

Brown's words were prophetic. The 6'0", 209-pound back showed excellent vision and burst against the Rams, albeit against Los Angeles' second-string defense. 

Marco Garcia/Associated Press

"I thought he did a good job running the football," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett told reporters after Saturday's contest. "When you're playing against [Rams defensive coordinator] Wade Phillips, he's going to do everything he can to stop the run on early downs. It was going to be tough sledding for us, but I do think we found some creases there early on. Obviously, the touchdown run was big for us."

Two factors are working in the Cowboys' favor and contributing to why they could endure an extended holdout from Elliott.

First, Pollard is much further along in his development than expected. 

"Tony is very poised," Garrett added. "He plays with maturity beyond his years, and we're only a couple of preseason games into it and not a lot of plays into. It kind of follows with what we've seen in practice and just how he handles himself. ... He's got a long way to go, but he's going about it the right way."

Dallas' offensive coaches haven't even tapped Pollard's full potential. He's a legitimate weapon out of the backfield, which is why he invokes comparisons to the New Orleans Saints' Alvin Kamara. But he's only caught one preseason pass. 

"One of the most exciting players to me of this training camp,'' quarterback Dak Prescott said of Pollard, per the Dallas Morning News' David Moore. "The things that he's been able to do running the ball, catching the ball out of the backfield. He's making plays."

Michael Owen Baker/Associated Press

Secondly, an argument existed a few years ago that any back or skill position player could excel behind Dallas' offensive line because the starting front five was the best in the business. Pollard isn't running behind six-time Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith or three-time first-team All-Pro right guard Zack Martin. Neither flew to Hawaii because of lingering back issues. Travis Frederick's return from Guillain–Barre syndrome is already one of the year's best stories, but the offensive line isn't at full strength. Once Smith and Martin return, it will make Dallas' attack even more potent—whether Elliott or Pollard is in the lineup. 

Seeing Pollard's early production and knowing the offensive line will improve should make the Cowboys resolute in their current stance. The organization doesn't need to budge if it doesn't want to do so. NFL Network's Jane Slater reported two weeks ago that Dallas already had top-five "highest-paid" offers for their respective positions on the table for Elliott, Prescott and wide receiver Amari Cooper.

For Elliott, a top-five running back contract based on the current market is wide-ranging. The Rams' Todd Gurley makes $14.4 million annually, while the fifth-highest-paid running back, the Buffalo Bills' LeSean McCoy, earns $8 million per season. Obviously, Elliott wants to be on the higher end of the market, if not the highest-paid running back. 

As a result, the holdout could last into the regular season.

Jones set the price with the existing contract offer. The Cowboys lack the financial flexibility to waver, since Prescott, Cooper, cornerback Byron Jones, linebacker Jaylon Smith and right tackle La'el Collins are all due extensions. The Cowboys can't cave to Elliott's demands, and they don't have to thanks to Pollard. 

"He knows exactly what to do, and he knows how to do it," Jones told reporters of the rookie running back. "If he goes out there and he plays to that level he's going to be [at] for the next several weeks, he's going to be right in the middle of it early. That will really complement what we're doing with Zeke, not replace that, I mean that, not replace it." 

The joke is on Elliott, though, because Pollard is better than expected. 


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