There were 40.8 million people who saw Tony Pollard outplay Ezekiel Elliott on Thanksgiving Day against the Las Vegas Raiders. That means there are at least 40 million people who would agree with the statement “Tony Pollard deserves more opportunities.”
Well, there is presumably one person who disagrees with that statement, and that one person dictates the personnel for the Cowboys. While we are all aware that Tony Pollard is being underutilized, the issue cuts deeper than attempts alone. It is clear the Dallas Cowboys have little faith in Tony Pollard to produce when it matters.
Tony Pollard’s usage suggests a general lack of faith in the running back
If there was a lesson about how to completely misuse a talented running back, Tony Pollard would be the prime example. You can point to the fact that Pollard ranked 41st by rushing attempts, 41st by offensive snaps, or even the fact that he saw 19 fewer targets than Elliott despite being the better receiving back last season. But none of those stats reveal the actual problem.
Unfortunately, it is a lot worse than we might think.
Because Pollard isn’t only underutilized, his workload decreases when the game is on the line. Pollard’s usage consistently declines when the Cowboys face a deficit or a tie game, which is the best evidence that Dallas doesn’t have faith in arguably their best running back.
When the Cowboys have the lead, Pollard receives nearly 38% of the rushing attempts, including 55.6% when Dallas has a 2+ touchdown lead. That number drops to 23.5% when the Cowboys are tied or losing, including 21.7% in a tied game. Pollard is often on the sideline in the situations that matter the most.
There is a reason that Pollard’s touches form roughly a U-shaped curve in the graph above. When the Cowboys are winning or losing by a sizeable amount, that is when they throw Pollard a few rushing attempts. But Ezekiel Elliott gets the lion’s share of the workload when it is close or tied.
And it isn’t as if this problem has improved over the years. In 2021, Pollard saw 28.6% of the attempts in situations where the Cowboys were winning by less than a field goal or trailing by the same amount.
This was evident in the Cardinals and 49ers game, two close matchups against good opponents where the Cowboys were tied or trailing for the entire game. Pollard received a combined seven rushing attempts in those games.
To put a cherry on top, Ezekiel Elliott had more rushing attempts in his first eight games than Tony Pollard has had over his entire career when the Cowboys are trailing or tied. Pollard needs more touches in close games against good opponents if they want to be competitive.
Now, this entire argument would be pointless if Ezekiel Elliott were the clear-cut better running back. But that is not the case; Pollard was inarguably the best rusher on the roster in 2021. To prove it, here is a laundry list of stats where Pollard finished better than Elliott last season: yards per attempt, yards after contact per attempt, missed tackles forced, longest run of the year, 15+ yard runs, breakaway percentage, yards per route run, yards per reception, and yards after the catch per reception.
In fact, an argument can be made that Tony Pollard is one of the most elusive running backs in the NFL. Tony Pollard consistently ranks inside the top ten in a metric created by PFF that combines missed tackles forced, receptions, yards after contact per attempt, and rushing attempts. This stat is known as “elusiveness rating,” and Pollard and Nick Chubb are the only running backs to rank top ten in this metric each of the last three seasons.
Now, keep in mind that this metric accounts for rushing attempts. This means that, despite his incredible underutilization, Pollard still manages to land in the top ten due to his pure talent alone. Even if you remain adamant that Elliott is the better running back, you have to admit it’s close, and Pollard should be used at the end of games for the skill set he brings to the table.
But Pollard isn’t being used at the end of games, and Kellen Moore, Mike McCarthy, and Jerry Jones are to blame. At the most basic level, Kellen is the offensive coordinator and likely decides who is in and out for certain plays. The fact that Moore doesn’t recognize the weapon he is leaving on the bench in high-leverage situations is an indictment of his coaching abilities.
McCarthy isn’t free of blame either. The head coach needs to understand how to put his team in a position to win. Since Pollard’s lack of usage is actively hurting the Cowboys, the fact that McCarthy hasn’t overruled Moore on his decision to keep Elliott in the game is incredibly disappointing.
And then we get to the man running it all. We all know which running back was picked fourth overall, we all know which running back Jerry decided to pay top dollar for, and we all know which running back sells more jerseys. Is Pollard’s lack of recognition and his misusage uncorrelated? Possibly, but it seems highly unlikely.
The truth is that, as fans who aren’t involved with this team day in and day out, we don’t know why Pollard is being ignored in critical moments. But whoever is responsible needs to recognize this massive issue, fix it, and put the Cowboys in the best position to win.