The Dallas Cowboys have made it clear that Tony Pollard is their new lead running back as they officially released Ezekiel Elliott last Wednesday. The team also placed the franchise tag on Pollard renting his services for one year at a cost of $10 million. While the future of the running back position for the Cowboys isn’t clear, we at least know the team will roll with Pollard in 2023.
This news should make a lot of fans happy as many were advocating for more opportunities for the Cowboys' explosive runner. In fact, it felt criminal at times to see the team's fresher-legged and more explosive running back underutilized during his rookie contract. After just 86 carries his rookie year, his rushing attempts went up 17% the following year, then up 28% the next year, to finally a 48% increase this past season. And wouldn’t you know it, Pollard put together a 1,000-yard season and was selected to his first Pro Bowl.
While Pollard’s touches did increase this past season, it was still baffling at times that the coaches didn’t put the ball in his hands more. Last year’s running back coach Skip Peete was rather upfront about Pollard’s usage as the team deliberately limited his snaps to keep him fresh. Peete has come out and said:
“the juice isn’t the same and he’s not as quick, not as fast. When he had that long run on that third-and-1 (talking about Pollard’s 54-yard touchdown against the Bears), as soon as he got to the sideline, he said, ‘Coach, I’m done. I’m done for the game. Done. I got no more.’”
Peete would go on to describe Pollard’s abilities with the following analogy:
“Some guys are race cars, some guys are high-quality, expensive sedans,” Peete said. “Those sedans can go forever and for a long distance, at a very high rate. Where race cars go very fast and quick and then they run out of gas. I’ve always just felt that at that position you got to always have two guys that are quality backs that can help each other, bounce off each other. And it helps if their running styles are a little bit different.”
While we all love the ball in Pollard’s hands, we want him utilized correctly so he can bring that extra gear to the offense. Running him into the ground would benefit no one. In trying to better understand Pollard’s efficiency throughout his career, we’ve plotted his rushing attempts in all 62 of his regular season games to see how his yards per carry stack up versus his usage. What we found was rather interesting.
Pollard’s yards per carry appear to peak at 13 rushing attempts and then slowly dips. The sweet spot for him is about 11 to 15 rushing attempts. Because the Cowboys were careful with Pollard’s usage, there isn’t a lot of data where he’s given extra carries so we want to be careful not to overreact to it. Additionally, even though his efficiency drops a bit, it doesn’t fall off a cliff. During his career-high 22 rushes last year against Green Bay, he still produced at 5.23 yards per carry efficiency. That’s pretty good.
While Pollard's slight drop-off in efficiency isn’t that worrisome, Peete’s comment about his juice not being the same appears to hold true. Over Pollard’s career, he’s had 14 games where he’s had a run of 25 yards or more, but in none of those games did he hit the 15-carry mark. Limiting Pollard’s touches preserves his juice. You might also notice from that graph that Pollard’s yards per carry numbers are a little down when he gets five or fewer carries. This obviously isn’t related to his lack of juice, but rather a result of him not getting enough opportunities to break a big run.
Another interesting correlation is how the Cowboys actually perform in games where Pollard’s usage is near that sweet spot. When he gets 12 to 18 rushing attempts, the Cowboys are a perfect 14-0. When they under-use him, they are just 4-14 (.222), but that winning percentage goes up to 17-11 (.607) when he gets 5 to 11 attempts. And in the two games where Pollard has more than 18 rushing attempts, the Cowboys lost both of them.
We just witnessed the Cowboys part ways with a running back who once had the juice, but then showed a significant decline when his mileage caught up to him. Right now, Pollard has 510 career carries which are still less than what Zeke had after just two years in the league.
Whether Pollard is part of the Cowboys' long-term plans to where they’d want to preserve his shelf-life or if he’s just here for another season, the team needs to get another running back on the roster that can carry some of the workload.
The Cowboys are well aware of this, but this is a good draft class for running backs. The team shouldn’t feel pressured to use early draft capital for a player like Texas’ Bijan Robinson or Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs. There are some great runners who will be available in later rounds. With players like Auburn’s Tank Bigsby, Georgia’s Kenny McIntosh, UCLA’s Zack Charbonnet, Texas A&M’s Devon Achane, or Pittsburgh’s Israel Abanikanda, the choices are plentiful. The Cowboys' Pro Bowl running backs on either side of Zeke, DeMarco Murray and Pollard, just so happen to be third and fourth-round picks respectively, so we know finding a good back in later rounds is doable.
Draft a rookie running back, preserve Pollard’s explosiveness, and collectively assemble a nice one-two tandem that will assuredly pack a greater punch than what the Cowboys had a year ago. That’s the path to success for the Cowboys' 2023 rushing attack.