It’s clear the Dallas Cowboys are at their best when they have both Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott in the lineup.
For all of the chatter and debate about how Pollard should start over Elliott due to his big-play ability — Pollard’s 5.9 yards per carry far exceeds Elliott’s average of 3.9 yards per carry — Dallas’ offense benefits due to the abilities of both players.
While the Cowboys continue to ride their running back duo to great success — at 7-3, they’re one of the Super Bowl favorites — the biggest topic entering the offseason for the franchise will be the future of both backs. The 25-year-old Pollard will enter free agency and is expected to be one of the top backs on the market. Meanwhile, Dallas will have an out in Elliott’s contract during the offseason as they can move on from the three-time Pro Bowl running back with a dead cap hit of a shade under $12.0 million.
The reality is, the Cowboys shouldn’t choose one over the other — they should find a way to bring back both running backs.
As Matt Lombardo of Heavy Sports points out, Dallas could very well find a solution by slapping Pollard with the franchise tag and restructuring Elliott’s deal to a more team-friendly contract.
“Don’t be surprised if Dallas uses the franchise tag on the 25-year-old and restructures Elliott’s contract to lower his cap number and keep both in Arlington,” said Lombardo.
Lombardo explains how the Cowboys could make it work financially.
“With the 2023 franchise tag projected to cost $9.57 million for running backs, and Elliott scheduled to collect $10.9 million in 2023 while counting $16.7 million against the cap, tagging Pollard and asking Elliott to take a pay cut may prove the easiest way to keep both backs in place in 2023 and beyond,” said Lombardo.
The Cowboys’ offense ranks seventh in the league in points per game (25.1 points) and fourth in the league in terms of DVOA, according to Football Outsiders. Those elite rankings are almost entirely due to the effectiveness of the running game, with Dallas ranking eighth in rushing yards and fourth in the league in touchdowns.
Pollard is arguably the best big-play running back in the league. The speedster pulled off two touchdown receptions of at least 30 yards in the Cowboys’ 40-3 win over the Minnesota Vikings, their biggest blowout victory on the road in franchise history.
His ability to not only pull off a big play, but also line up in the slot makes him one of the top dual-threat players in the league.
With that being said, the 209-pound Pollard works better in space than he does in goal line and short-yardage situations. That’s where Elliott excels. In fact, the 27-year-old Elliott punched in two touchdowns from goal-line situations in the win over the Vikings where Pollard came up short.
For example, Pollard came up short on two straight plays from within the Vikings two-yard line. Meanwhile, Elliott finished off the drive with a one-yard touchdown run on a third-and-goal conversion during the first quarter to give Dallas a 10-3 lead.
Team owner Jerry Jones explained why Elliott is so integral to the Cowboys’ success.
“There’s no argument,” Jones said following Dallas’ win over the Chicago Bears in Week 8. Zeke’s ability to punish, Zeke’s ability to deliver, Zeke’s ability, what he does for us in pass protection, and, frankly, Zake’s ability to make big plays are there, and we’re going to go where Zeke goes. He’s that integral to our success.”
As Cowboys running back coach Skip Peete explained following Pollard’s 131-yard outburst versus the Bears, Dallas’ offense works better with two backs.
“You got to have a fresh back in there at all times,” Peete said. “It will work because you have different styles and have guys that are both starters but they share the workload and at the end of the day, you have a fresh back from play one to whatever he have. I learned that from my former boss Al Davis.”
Peete further elaborated on why it makes sense to go with a two-back platoon system.
“Tony obviously is a very talented runner, good all-around back, (and) can play every down,” Peete said. “It’s just like some guys are race cars. Some guys are high-quality, high-expensive sedans. A sedan can go forever and a long distance at a very higher rate where race cars can go very high and quick and then they run out of gas. I always just felt at that position you got to always have two guys that are quality backs that can bounce off each other and it helps if the running styles are a little bit different.”
While Dallas fans may yearn for the idea of Pollard being the Cowboys’ only back, it would be a wise move for the franchise to retain both backs heading into the 2023 season.