The inimitable DannyPhantom recently examined the question of how the Dallas Cowboys should approach the running back situation this season. He sees it as primarily a choice between Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard, and presents a great deal of facts and data for consideration. However, there may be one error. He sees it as still being an open question, but the decision is probably already made. The Cowboys plan to ride Elliott hard all season.
It shouldn’t be a major basis for this decision, but the onerous contract that Dan acknowledged in his article is one of the biggest drivers of this decision. Stephen Jones is obsessed with the salary cap. Due to the dead money costs, the team is locked into his contract at least through this season. And if they are paying that much money for a player, the player better be out there performing. That is the logic applied, even though it is fallacious. The players that give you the best chance of winning should be getting the reps. There is certainly an argument that the team is more successful when it leans more on Pollard than Elliott. But the latter will be the lead dog on the team due to the paycheck he receives. It is not an assumption that Jones thinks that way. He and his father Jerry have both made comments in the past that tell us exactly that.
During the NFL Draft, Dallas also tipped us that they were very intent on improving the running game by taking Tyler Smith in the first round with the intent of moving him from tackle to the guard position. As a first-round pick, Smith is expected to be a starter, preferably from the very start of camp. His college history indicates that he is an impressive run blocker but sketchy in pass protection. That in itself hints that the move inside will be good for all involved. If he does work out the way the team is counting on, the running lanes should be much better when the Cowboys have the ball. The selection of tight end Jake Ferguson in the fourth round also showed that the run game is going to be relied on, as he showed some real value as a run blocker in his college career at Wisconsin, which does a good job of teaching players how to do just that. Further, the early talk about some competition for the starting center job also may be driven by an attempt to get better run blocking there.
The idea of just moving Pollard to the starting job is not a workable one. Pollard is not the kind of back you want taking the handoff 15 to 20 times a game. He is the same height as Elliott but nearly 20 pounds lighter. While he shows surprising ability to break tackles and run through traffic, he is just not built the way Elliott is. The starter’s mass allows him to survive the pounding expected on early down runs. Remember that the injury he suffered last season occurred when he fell on a pylon on the sidelines, not in a collision in the middle of the field. If he is back to full health as expected, Elliott should be the early down back.
Further bolstering that argument is that the Pollard should be used better by Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore. They need to quit treating him primarily as the RB2 to come in and spell Elliott every few series. He needs to seen more as a weapon in the passing game. More two back sets should be employed, with Pollard moving all over the field for the snap. He can line up in the backfield with Elliott or another big back like JaQuan Hardy, move out to the slot, be involved on screens, or even split out wide. He could even be effective in an old school I-formation with a fullback leading the way for him, and absorbing some of the pounding along the way. Mostly though, try to get the ball in his hands out past the line of scrimmage or on the edge as much as possible where he can best use his skills.
There are a couple of other things that argue for using Elliott heavily. He is highly unlikely to see another deal with the Cowboys. Getting as much as possible out of him for the next two or three seasons will be the kind of return on investment Stephen Jones loves. It is not a good reason from the point of maximizing wins, but it does factor in. And Jones, like his father, is much more involved in influencing the game-day decisions than owners should be. His desires do carry weight.
Then there is Elliott’s age. He will be 27 to start the season. History shows that running backs tend to see a marked fall off in production about age 29 or 30. Elliott has a good chance of having two or three more seasons left in him. From a roster management standpoint, using up his productive years makes sense. The status of his contract fits nicely with doing that.
Clearly the ground game is a big part of the plans for this season. While that may be bucking the trend in the pass-centric NFL, it is what Dallas is intent on doing. A healthy Elliott behind an upgraded interior line would be their best bet to do so. If the Cowboys can get the early down rushing average closer to five yards a carry, they could make this all work. There is an advantage in having more flexibility on second down with shorter yardage to go to get another set. Kellen Moore started his coaching career under Jason Garrett, and the former head coach was a big believer in a balanced offense. While that did not fare so well for Garrett’s career, it probably still has an impact on his thinking.
We will find out if this comes together for Dallas. Clearly, if the team goes this direction, as they are clearly headed, we want it to succeed.