A lot of time has passed since Mike McCarthy mentioned wanting to run the ball, comments that were twisted in many different ways, and it is hard to know what to think of the run game as a whole. Half a season in for the 2023 Dallas Cowboys and they are working very hard while accomplishing very little. Ezekiel Elliott is out, and with all due respect to him it does not seem like his presence would fix this issue, and Tony Pollard is in which is what a lot of people wanted to see in terms of where the lion’s share of the carries went.
While the Cowboys are discovering more of a positive identity on offense as of late, there are places to highlight where improvements can be made (we did so earlier in the week with Brandin Cooks and his real lack of utilization). What’s more is that if this team is going to compete deep into January and beyond. they are going to have to be well-rounded which means they will have to develop some semblance of a run game.
Tony Pollard’s production has been unpredictably low so far this season
There are often times in the NFL when we don’t know the numerical value of something but our gut (or the ol’ eye test) tells us something to which numbers ultimately match and everything checks out in our brains. I’d imagine that most of your guts and eyes tell you that Pollard’s production has been quite poor here in 2023.
We are eight games in, technically more remaining than played, and Pollard has not had much to write home about.
2023 Tony Pollard
- 120 carries
- 474 rushing yards
- 2 rushing touchdowns
- 35 targets
- 29 receptions
- 190 receiving yards
We’ve included Pollard’s contributions in the passing game here since they do matter, but for the rest of this conversation we are going to be focusing on the ground game only. Plus it is not like 29 catches for 190 yards across eight games is extremely significant.
The issue with Pollard remains a bit unclear at this point. Some have noted that he returned this season from a fractured fibula which he suffered in January, that is certainly fair and something that should be discussed in our overall consideration.
Others have noted that Pollard is not cut out for “lead running back” usage and given that this is his first season as the group’s RB1 that is a difficult narrative to push back against based on the data at hand. Again, there is potential life to this notion.
Additional theories revolve around the rotting cast of offensive linemen and the overall offensive scheme that was a bit stutter-y for the first five games of the year; however, we have seen the Cowboys offense find a real groove over the last three contests, namely behind the arm of Dak Prescott and the hands of CeeDee Lamb. Say what you will about Dak or Mike McCarthy, but they are having success in that area together.
On the offensive line though, consider that the Cowboys actually grade out better as a run-blocking group than a pass-blocking one.
Run block composite ratings through week 9— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) November 8, 2023
The Ravens having great run blocking and Lamar as a rushing threat is a real challenge for defenses pic.twitter.com/fxgsWf5dGH
Pass protection composite ratings through week 9— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) November 8, 2023
I still think the Chiefs offense will put it together at some point pic.twitter.com/ckBl42p9Ez
So this furthers the idea that Prescott, Lamb and McCarthy (obviously there are more people involved, but you get the point) are able to overcome the issues of the offensive line and are having success through the air. Consider that Lamb just became the fourth wide receiver in team history to record at least 450 receiving yards in a three-game span as even more proof (2018 Amari Cooper, 2009 Miles Austin and 2007 Terrell Owens).
Multiple things can be true and it would not be fair to look through anything and at the end say that things are 100% Tony Pollard’s fault, but at this point he certainly has more than his fair share of responsibility for the issues on the ground. Consider that he quite easily out-performed his 2023 self last year with significantly fewer carries (again just focusing on the ground game) through the first eight games of the season.
2022 Tony Pollard (2023 numbers)
- 81 carries (120)
- 506 rushing yards (474)
- 5 rushing touchdowns (2)
A quick thanks to our friends at Stathead for helping pull the numbers, but that is obviously a bit alarming. When I tweeted it out many noted that this was because Pollard was in the secondary position as far as Cowboys ball-carriers were concerned and not the primary one that he is in the here and now. That idea seems a bit grandiose for me, but it is hard to knock it as noted up above.
On the subject of last year’s primary ball-carrier though, something I was curious to see was what Ezekiel Elliott’s first eight games of 2022 looked like. For what it is worth Zeke played seven games before missing two so it took ten total weeks for him to play eight games, but here are the number nonetheless.
2022 Ezekiel Elliott (2023 Tony Pollard)
- 124 carries (120)
- 485 rushing yards (474)
- 6 rushing touchdowns (2)
It was definitely a bit sobering to see that Pollard hasn’t even matched Elliott’s production in terms of the first eight games played. The touchdown numbers for Zeke are obviously high given how much goal line work he received, but the YPC is essentially the same. And it shouldn’t be.
Again, the tweet I sent sparked some interesting responses with a lot of people saying what a mistake it was for Dallas to let Zeke walk. I want to reiterate that I do not mean any disrespect to Zeke given that he was a very good player for our favorite team and always seemed to try his absolute hardest, but this is an indictment on Pollard more than it is an indication that Dallas let a great option walk.
The numbers are what they are and it should be said that this season’s Cowboys have played in a lot of blowouts and that game management gets impacted by those sorts of things. But the sample size is large enough and improvements have been seen and made elsewhere enough to where the last place left to look is the runner himself.
Tony Pollard is obviously an extraordinarily talented ball-carrier and the Cowboys would be wise to continue to use him, but they have to work on ways to help him spring loose so that he can utilize the speed that we have come to know from him. Obviously it might also be worth considering handing out a few more carries to the likes of Rico Dowdle.
The run game issues have not necessarily cost the Cowboys a game yet, but we are reaching a critical point in the season. Everything has to be operating at its peak power and right now that is definitely not happening here.