Eight years ago, the Dallas Cowboys decided to let a highly productive running back named DeMarco Murray walk away rather than give him a long-term contract. With Tony Pollard now officially playing 2023 on the franchise tag, could history be repeating itself?
With Monday’s deadline now passed, Pollard and other franchise-tagged players who did not get new deals are ineligible for contract changes until the 2024 offseason. Pollard will either be tagged again by the Cowboys or become an unrestricted free agent.
With Ezekiel Elliott gone and Pollard now the undisputed featured back, many are projecting a huge season for him. Last year he managed 1,007 rushing yards and made his first Pro Bowl despite splitting carries with Zeke. Even a modest uptick in touches could easily have Pollard among the league’s top producers in 2023.
Even if Pollard has personal bests this year, he’ll have a hard time topping what DeMarco Murray did in 2014. In the final year of his rookie contract, Murray went off for a Cowboys single-season record of 1.845 yards and 13 touchdowns, plus another 416 yards receiving. He made his second Pro Bowl, his first All-Pro Team, and even received votes for Offensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player.
In one of the more surprising moves in recent Cowboys history, they refused to reward Murray’s big year with a big new contract. They didn’t even franchise him; Murray was allowed to find a new home in free agency and ended up going to the Eagles.
Dallas’ logic seemed pretty clear. After spending first-round picks on offensive linemen Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin from 2011-2014, plus having a strong passing game featuring Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten, they felt confident that a premium running back wasn’t needed. They weren’t going to pay Murray what he deserved and lose spending power at other more critical roster positions.
Murray’s next few years did little to prove the Cowboys wrong. He struggled mightily in that one year with Philly, only starting six of 15 games and seeing his stats plummet. He did return to the Pro Bowl in 2016 as a new member of the Tennessee Titans, but 2017 was another down season that finally led to his release and retirement.
Would Murray have still been a superstar with more years in Dallas? It’s possible; we all saw what Elliott did in the offense in his first few years. But the Cowboys were dubious about Murray’s longevity and felt they could get what they needed at RB with much cheaper options. Even with Romo missing 12 games and the passing game disappearing in 2015, veteran band-aid Darren McFadden still managed 1,089 yards on the year.
Back to today, Tony Pollard’s already received more from Dallas than Murray did. The franchise tag will pay him $10.1 million in 2023; Murray only got about $3.6 million from the Cowboys in those first four seasons.
Even if Pollard’s stats explode this year, will Dallas just hand him a long-term deal? Will they even franchise him a second time? The Murray precedent indicates that they may let Pollard, who turns 27 next April, find his payday from another NFL team.
The Cowboys just invested a first-rounder in Tyler Smith and have decisions to make on new deals for Tyler Biadasz and Terence Steele. With Tyron Smith perhaps in his last year and Zack Martin not getting any younger, other offensive line needs are right around the corner. There are also big contract talks involving Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb, and Trevon Diggs already going, and a major one with Micah Parsons on the horizon.
Sure, Dallas just had Ezekiel Elliott on a big deal the last few years. But this is starting to feel more like 2015 when the Cowboys were trying to maintain a contending roster and having to save money where they could. Plus, Elliott had been a star from his first moment in Dallas and a former fourth-overall pick. He was always seen as a long-term asset.
Pollard is more comparable to Murray in this discussion. He was a mid-round pick who’s certainly broken out as a legitimate NFL starter, but it’s come with some mitigating concerns. How will Pollard hold up in a featured role? If his touches go up, will his athleticism take a hit over the course of a long season? And with increased mileage, especially as a speedster, can Pollard be trusted to remain effective for years to come?
Eight years ago, the Cowboys leaned on their offensive system and allowed DeMarco Murray to leave despite turning in one of the best single seasons in franchise history. Even if Tony Pollard goes off in 2023, is this front office going to make a different decision now? If they’re consistent, Pollard will probably be looking for a new home next spring.