There was a time not long ago when the Dallas Cowboys had one of the most desirable running back situations in the league. They had a resilient veteran in Ezekiel Elliott leading the way and a young complementary back in Tony Pollard stepping in without missing a beat whenever he entered the game. But in the blink of an eye, the Cowboys running back situation is approaching a crossroad. With Elliott’s production falling and Pollard nearing free agency, what are the Cowboys to do? Before planting your flag, let’s lay everything out on the table to better understand what could lie ahead.
The Ezekiel Elliott situation
The Cowboys' fourth overall pick from 2016 will be entering his seventh season as the team’s starting running back. He has already amassed 1,650 carries for a total of 7,386 yards. With receptions, he’s nearing 2,000 total touches. He’s only 26 years old, but that’s a lot of mileage from a position that takes a significant amount of pounding year in and year out.
Elliott’s wear is showing. His numbers are on a rapid decline, both in volume and efficiency. His 58.9 yards per game last year is 50 yards fewer than what he was producing during his rookie season. Statistically, he’s half the runner he used to be.
After the first four weeks of action last year, Elliott was starting to look like his old self. He was accelerating through holes, cutting well, and powering through would-be tacklers to churn out every little yard. He even scampered off for 47 yards in Week 4 against the Carolina Panthers, which was the longest run he’s had since his rookie season five years prior. It was as if Zeke had been rejuvenated and was primed for a career year.
Unfortunately, the excitement started dwindling as Elliott’s production faded. Zeke never reached the 70-yard mark in any of his last 12 regular-season games and had eight games where he never eclipsed the 50-yard mark. It was as if he was a totally different running back.
Later, we found out that Elliott suffered a partially torn PCL back in Week 4 and since he couldn’t make the injury worse, he just played through it. Suddenly, everything made sense. Elliott’s elusiveness had been compromised, his burst was missing, and every inkling of contact caused him to lose his balance, turning potential big runs into much smaller gains. It was hard to watch.
Elliott’s injury didn’t require offseason surgery and enough time will pass that he should be at full health by the start of the 2022 season. However, that doesn’t change the fact that Elliott still has a lot of wear and tear on his body. What injury is next?
With Zeke, the hope is that he gets healthy, looks just like he did at the start of last season, and then we hold our breath that he can stay healthy. If he pulls it off, he could be in for a big season; however, anything short of that and we have a problem. And that problem is his contract.
When the Cowboys signed Elliott to a six-year, $90 million extension back in 2019, the team built in an escape hatch after the 2022 season. With things getting progressively worse, it’s looking more and more likely the team pulls the lever and gets out of his contract. The Cowboys still have to account for $30 million of his salary. $18.2 million of that will hit this year’s books whether the team cuts him or keeps him as his entire 2022 base salary is guaranteed. That is why there is essentially no chance he’s released this season as it does absolutely nothing to help the Cowboys financially. Next year is a completely different story. While they’ll still have to account for the remaining $11.8 million of his bonus money (signing/option/restructure), they are not obligated to pay him anything more as his base salary for subsequent years look as follows:
- 2023 = $10.9 million
- 2024 = $10 million
- 2025 = $15.4 million
- 2016 = $16.6 million
Barring some incredible resurgence, Elliott’s days in Dallas could be coming to an end.
The Tony Pollard situation
As much criticism as Elliott receives, Pollard receives an equal amount of love. And deservedly so because he’s been fantastic. He stutter-steps his way to the line patiently waiting for a crease, has an incredible burst, and caps it off with outstanding breakaway speed to hit the home run. He’s an upright runner who generates a lot of speed and uses that momentum to fall forward for extra yards. For someone who’s not nearly as thick as Elliott, Pollard surprisingly grinds out a lot of extra yards after contact. And his efficiency is night and day different than what Elliott has been producing.
This leaves fans scratching their heads as to why the team continues to lean heavily on Zeke while Pollard’s touches are limited. It’s baffling because the more action Pollard gets, the more success the Cowboys have. Whether because of his production or a favorable game script, the Cowboys have never lost whenever Pollard has more than 10 carries in a game. They are a perfect 11-0. Not only do they always win, they usually blow teams out. The offense has averaged over 36 points during those 11 games.
It’s important to point out that Pollard doesn’t have the wear that Zeke does. Pollard comes in fresh and doesn’t get overworked. In fact, if you look at Pollard’s three-year career in the NFL, it’s very comparable to Elliott’s first year. They have nearly the same amount of total carries, yards, and average exactly 5.1 yards/carry.
Regardless of how we choose to compare the two, it seems rather evident that Pollard is the more explosive runner right now. If the team is going to move forward with just one of these guys, wouldn’t it make sense to go with the fresher legs of Pollard?
Pollard is in the last year of a cheap rookie deal when he’ll count just a smidge over $1 million against the cap. If the team sees Pollard as a part of their future, it would be wise of them to try to work on an extension before the new season begins. A three-year, $21 million extension could secure his services for a little while longer.
A fresh start
A third option could be to just let the 2022 season play out, move on from both Zeke and Pollard, and then look to next year’s draft to replenish the running back position. Rookie running backs hit the ground running, and don’t always require premium draft capital, so this could be the cheap way to go.
The Cowboys have options. It feels like a foregone conclusion that the team won’t be able to justify allocating that much cap space for Elliott if the production is not there. At least, that’s the message they’ve conveyed after parting ways with the contracts of Amari Cooper and La’el Collins. It’s also puzzling why they are so reluctant to use Pollard more. If Pollard goes out and has another year being used like he has been only to walk away in free agency, it would be one of the more squandered uses of a player's ability in recent history.
The Cowboys may have had missteps in how they’ve handled the running back situation thus far, but what matters now is what they do going forward. Is it continue to roll with Zeke and hope for better health? Is it time to make the switch to Pollard and get him extended before his price goes up? Or should the Cowboy just cut their losses and try it all over again with a brand new rookie running back in 2023? Let us know which route you would take if you were in charge of the Cowboys.