Don’t ask if it should be Zeke or Pollard for the Cowboys. Grasp that it can be both.
We live in a world where too many want binary choices. They think there can only be one clear-cut answer to things. And they believe that one option has to be right while the other must be wrong, and often absolutely so.
That applies to so many aspects of life, but we aren’t looking to get into some of the deeper things. This is about an aspect of NFL football where it applies, particularly for the Dallas Cowboys. Against the Los Angeles Chargers, Tony Pollard had himself a day, running the ball for 109 yards and a touchdown on just 13 carries while adding three pass receptions for another 31 yards. Meanwhile, much more highly-compensated Ezekiel Elliott only managed to garner 71 yards on 16 handoffs and 26 yards on a pair of receptions. He did have the other touchdown of the game on his own scoring run.
A lot of people out there are looking at those numbers and saying that Pollard is obviously the better back now and should be getting more opportunities than Elliott. His 8.4 yards per carry is almost twice Elliott’s 4.4. The latter did have the edge in receiving with 13 yards per catch versus 10.3, but of course they are running backs, so that is just not considered. There are still Zeke loyalists who point to the importance of his superb pass blocking to keep Dak Prescott upright as one reason to not be so eager to switch the two in the depth charts. It certainly can be a reason Elliott was on the field for more than twice as many offensive plays, 44 to 21.
It all leaves me like the little girl in the commercial asking “Why not have both?”
In the passing game, we are almost always aware of the aggregate of all receptions, since that is a major stat for the quarterback. But we don’t tend to think of the running game in its entirety as much. If you look at this as two players combining for 180 yards on the ground, or 237 yards total from scrimmage, more than half of the total for Dallas, that seems to be something you should be loathe to move away from.
Still, the argument goes, Pollard should clearly be getting more touches since he is more productive out of the backfield. There are a couple of counters to that. First, Elliott is a bigger, stronger back, weighing almost 20 pounds more than Pollard even after losing several pounds during the offseason. That makes him more suited to pounding against the defense. Then, when Pollard comes in as the change of pace back he was always meant to be, the defense has to adjust for a quicker, more elusive runner. Just a split second’s misjudgment can be the difference in a short gain or a long one.
Further, after some of those tough Elliott collisions, the defense can begin to wear down a bit. Add that to the load that is the Cowboys offensive line run blocking, and Pollard can benefit from defenders trying to catch their breath and recover their strength, especially if the offense does not give them a lot of time between plays. Elliott making those shorter gains and taking more of a beating that he can better endure might just be helping Pollard rip off some of those more dynamic looking plays.
Even if you don’t buy those points, don’t forget that Elliott had some key plays against the Chargers. On the final game-winning drive, he first converted a third down with a seven-yard reception. Then he got another on a three-yard run on third and one. Meanwhile, Pollard came up short on the play just before Greg Zuerlein boomed the game winner, being stopped for just three yards on a second and six before clock confusion led to having to call timeout to get the kick off.
What the Cowboys have are not interchangeable backs, but complementary ones. And if you were paying attention, you noted that Elliott only had two more touches in total, so Kellen Moore is hardly underutilizing Pollard to any great degree.
Elliott is bringing the thunder to the running game, while Pollard is the lightning. You can call that corny or whatever, but it can win a lot of football games.