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Point/counterpoint: Tony Pollard needs to get the ball a lot more for the Cowboys

It’s become an annual question. How will they use Tony Pollard, the talented but underutilized back?

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Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Chargers
How much more of this do we need to see?
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys have finished their first set of OTAs. While it is not wise to read too much into these very limited practices leading up to the layoff before training camp, one thing drew a lot of attention. The first string offense came out with both Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard on the field. This is something many have been clamoring for. Pollard is very effective when used. The problem is that he has not seen the field nearly as much as seems to be warranted. The reports from the OTAs spur hope that Kellen Moore is going to find ways to get him more involved, including with those two-back sets. Our David Howman and Tom Ryle have thoughts about this.

Tom: I think it is a great idea to get Pollard some more touches, and having him on the field along with Elliott is an intriguing way to do so. Don’t just take my word for it. Bob Sturm of The Athletic has an article up about the various ways this can benefit the team, and bemoaning how they have failed to take advantage.

I think Pollard is a significant player who is ready to add electricity to an offense. He is badly underutilized. USC coach Lincoln Riley has featured a two-RB scheme that made Oklahoma an innovative offense for years with his variations in the Air Raid offense. Given the Cowboys’ obsession with him, I had hoped they would have stolen his scheme a bit more with this clear need.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts how using Pollard more as a slot receiver can benefit Dallas. He is not only dangerous as a receiver, he is a great player to use in jet sweeps. If the ball goes to him, he has the skills and instincts to get through traffic for extra yards. And his abilities make faking the sweep more effective. Sturm shows multiple examples of this, as well as how he can also line up with Elliott in the backfield to good effect.

David: Far be it from me to suggest taking the ball out of Pollard’s hands - I maintain he’s the best running back on this roster - but playing out of the slot isn’t the way to do it in my mind. Pollard was used as a receiver somewhat in college, and I wouldn’t be opposed to giving him a few more chances in that regard than he currently gets, but that has more to do with his relative underutilization at the moment.

My reason for being against giving Pollard reps out at receiver is because the data strongly suggests that running backs just aren’t very efficient pass catchers. Allow me to enter yet another article from The Athletic into evidence, this one from analytics guru Ben Baldwin. The piece has several charts that look at various efficiencies of running backs compared to wide receivers and tight ends on pass plays. Let’s look at the one below:

Expected Points Added by depth of target, courtesy of The Athletic

To sum this up, the farther away from the line of scrimmage a running back is targeted, the less efficient they are. This data is from 2018, which was the year before Pollard entered the league, so you could argue that Pollard is just a different breed. But considering that this data did include guys like Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson, and Christian McCaffrey all at their prime, I’d have to be very skeptical of such an argument.

Tom: I do think Pollard is a good receiver, but you do add a valid point. And here’s another thing that may be overlooked by many. As someone pointed out on Twitter, Pollard probably wasn’t lining up in the slot because Moore has some grand design to use him more there. The Cowboys were without Michael Gallup, James Washington, and Jalen Tolbert in that practice. Pollard probably got those reps working out of the slot because they had a shortage of healthy bodies.

That certainly does not mean I think it is a bad idea at all to use him there. I just think we are getting our hopes up for no real reason. It is frustrating that they have these kinds of plays available but didn’t use them more last season. As I said, I especially like using Pollard for jet sweep action. When they do get the ball directly to him, he is a runner, his strength. And I admit to preferring Pollard take that contact than CeeDee Lamb, who has to stay healthy as the WR1. The Cowboys often used Lamb as the man in motion on jet sweeps, and that should be avoided.

It just seems a waste to keep Pollard on the sidelines as much as Moore does. I’m also not in favor of just using him primarily as relief for Elliott when the starter needs a series off. I think he could offer a lot more as a back they move around in the formation to give the defense more to worry about.

David: I think there is a very realistic middle ground here between giving Pollard more touches and not using him in inefficient ways. I always go back to the Saints from 2017 to 2018, and the plan that definitely-not-the-next-Cowboys-head-coach Sean Payton used between Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. In 2017, Ingram had 288 touches to Kamara’s 201; both broke 1,500 scrimmage yards and both made the Pro Bowl. The next year, Ingram had 159 touches to Kamara’s 275; Kamara once again broke 1,500 scrimmage yards, although Ingram had just 815.

Still, Payton managed to make good and mostly equal use of both players, and he did it without forcing one of them into a role that didn’t suit them. I think, if anything, the changes to this receiving corps might force Kellen Moore and Mike McCarthy (who has a long history of running back committees in Green Bay) to get more creative in the way they split the touches between these two. With only one entrenched star receiver being available at the start of the year, it won’t be as much of a given to run so much 11 personnel. That might open it up for more 21 or 22 personnel going forward, which we’ve already seen Moore experiment with to some degree.

Tom: Well, it needs to move from the experimentation stage to being part of the scheme. I think we agree that Pollard needs the ball in his hands more, but have different thoughts on how to do it. We will just have to wait and see what Moore and McCarthy can cook up, and hope they don’t treat Pollard like they did last year, where things started off with some promise but then it just dissipated.