Tony Pollard has long been one of the league’s most underrated running backs. The reason is that the Dallas Cowboys refused to use Pollard throughout his rookie contract, even when Ezekiel Elliott played with an injured knee in 2021. But in the final year of his inexpensive rookie deal, Dallas has flipped the script.
Since Elliott’s return from a minor knee injury, Pollard has continued to out-snap the well-compensated first-round pick. And while there is no guarantee that the trend will continue, it’s probably a trend that should continue, given each player’s impact on the offense.
The Cowboys Are Blessed With Versatility
Many fans fail to understand that the conversation surrounding running backs is not black and white. It’s not a “this or that” situation. Both can play, and both should play, sometimes on the field at the same time. We’re not debating a quarterback where only one sees the field.
And the point of this piece is not to slight Zeke, but to emphasize just how good Pollard is. The Cowboys should look to maximize his impact before they most likely lose him in the offseason.
Patrik Walker, who writes for the Cowboys’ team website, talked with RB coach Skip Peete about the two-headed monster Dallas has in the backfield. Peete said all the things Cowboys fans have wanted to hear for multiple years, and now that dream has become a reality for fans.
The only disagreement fans might have is with Pollard’s 30-snap max, which he is proving to be unimportant. Pollard has plenty of juice left after 30, as he showed in Week 10 when he played 72 snaps and notched a career-high 22 carries, averaging over five yards a pop.
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There is a yin and yang between the two runners, although not in the way many believe. Most would associate Zeke being the physical presence, while Pollard brings the finesse. However, that narrative falls flat.
Pollard is not a 190-pound scatback. He’s a sturdy 215-pounder who can take the down-in and down-out punishment of a lead back.
The biggest tick in the win column for Elliott is his ability in pass protection. He is one of the best blockers at the position over the last decade, and it shows in the team’s blocking statistics when he’s on the field versus off it.
But as pure runners, it’s not easy to make a case for Zeke over Pollard.
Tony Pollard Is a Special Runner
According to Sports Info Solutions, only Josh Jacobs and Aaron Jones have a higher EPA generated per rushing attempt than Pollard. Pollard’s wins above replacement also ranks third in the NFL, behind Jacobs and Nick Chubb.
Additionally, Pollard ranks ninth in positive EPA play percentage, meaning he is avoiding negative outcomes at a high rate. For transparency purposes, Zeke ranks third in that category.
But Pollard’s explosiveness and elusiveness are his greatest assets. According to PFF, only Chubb and Saquon Barkley have more 15+ yard runs. Pollard has 12 in 136 carries compared to Chubb (17 in 200 carries) and Barkley (15 in 224).
In fact, only Kenneth Walker III has a higher breakaway percentage than Pollard among backs with at least 100 carries. And nobody averages more yards after contact than Pollard. Elliott ranks 40th in breakaway rate, the singular biggest difference between the two backs in the run game.
With the importance of explosive plays, it pays to have the dichotomy between the two runners.
When filtering down to just the on/off splits between Zeke and Pollard, we see that the team averages 1.7 yards before contact with Elliott on the field compared to Pollard’s 1.5. But Pollard averages 4.1 yards after contact compared to Zeke’s 2.4.
Additionally, Pollard breaks 17.6% of the tackle attempts against him, while Zeke sits at 9.3%. Pollard ranks 11th in the league among players (QBs included) with at least 100 carries; Zeke ranks 29th.
With Pollard on the field, Dallas averages 0.11 EPA per play on rushes. For reference, the best rushing attack in the NFL on a per-play basis is Baltimore, who averages 0.058 EPA.
The Passing Attack Is Mostly Better With Pollard Too
From an EPA perspective, Elliott holds the advantage between the two. With Elliott on the field, the Cowboys’ passing attack averages -0.01 EPA, whereas they average -0.04 with Pollard on the field.
However, that’s likely due to Dak Prescott’s propensity to throw interceptions while Pollard is on the field. Dallas’ INT rate is 3.4% with him on the field compared to 2% with Elliott playing.
Besides depth of target, the Cowboys’ passing attack is better with Pollard on the field than off, whereas it’s worse with Elliott on the field compared to off it. To reiterate, this is not meant to slight Zeke, but to emphasize the importance of Pollard to the offense.
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There are some caveats to the Cowboys’ brilliance with Pollard on vs. off the field.
Pollard has improved as a pass protector, but the team overall does not block for Prescott and Cooper Rush as well with him on the field. The team’s sack rate is 5.2 with Pollard on the field compared to 2.3 off it. With Elliott on the field, it is 1.3% compared to 5.8 off it.
Overall, the team’s blocking ability is better with Zeke than Pollard, a development that should surprise nobody.
Finding a Way To Bring Both Back in 2023
Paying a running back is a rule meant not to be broken, but Pollard feels like an exception, depending on his price. Dallas already paid Elliott a pretty penny, making it unlikely they get a deal done to keep Pollard around for the long run.
The only way they can feasibly do it is if they can figure out how to talk Elliott into a contract restructuring that slashes his cap hit and allows them to pay the two backs essentially what they’re paying Elliott. Zeke’s cap hit in 2023 is currently $16.72 million, and in 2024, it’s $14.32 million.
According to Spotrac, Pollard’s market value sits at $7.7 million. However, Over the Cap has a valuation of $10 million. Dallas could potentially backload a deal with Pollard to make the cap hit easier to swallow until they can get out of Elliott’s deal.
Pollard is two years younger than Elliott and has significantly lower miles on him. But paying two running backs is quite a decision to make.
However, as Peete said, having runners with complementary skill sets is important, and maybe the Cowboys feel similarly, especially given how Pollard played while Zeke was on the mend.
The Cowboys have a top-five RB in the NFL, and Zeke is on the team, too.