It was a career day for Tony Pollard in the absence of Ezekiel Elliott, but the Cowboys running backs coach explains why the team needs both for a Super Bowl run
FRISCO, Texas - With the decision to rest Ezekiel Elliott and his knee (sprain) in the eventual Week 7 victory over the Detroit Lions, the Dallas Cowboys showed they learned from the mistakes of 2021 and will likely now have a healthy Elliott for the back end of the season. But, by Tony Pollard stepping in and doing precisely what they knew he could on Sunday en route to a career-best day, calls for RB2 to become RB1 are again showering down upon the roof of Cowboys headquarters.
Not a single drop of that precipitation has found its way past the shingles and into the interior of the building, however, and for good reason.
Owner and general manager Jerry Jones made it clear on Sunday evening that the team "goes as Zeke goes", a definitive proclamation there will be no schematic changes in what has become a mostly 60-40 rep split between the two (in favor of Elliott), but those who yearn for a deeper understanding now have it - running backs coach Skip Peete delivering the intel with more efficiency than Amazon Prime.
Peete was as blunt as he was honest in his assessment of the situation at RB in Dallas.
"I've always felt - at that position - you've always gotta have two guys that help each other," said Peete. "And it helps if the running styles are a little bit different. The contrast presents a different effect to the defense. I learned that a long time ago."
It something he was taught in his near-decade spent with the Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders as RBs coach under the late, great owner of that organization.
"You've got to have a fresh back in the game at all times," said Peete. "… [It works] because you have guys that are both starters but they share the workload and, at the end of the day, you have a fresh back from play No. 1 to however many plays you have. I learned that from my former boss, Al Davis. It's something the Raiders have always done - going back to Mark van Eeghan and Clarence Davis to Bo Jackson and Marcus Allen, they always had two guys."
Peete moved from the Raiders to the Cowboys coaching staff under Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett, where he carried (pun intended) that dual-back philosophy over to Dallas.
"I've always had two guys here," said Peete. "Julius Jones and Marion Barber, then Felix Jones and Marion, then Felix and DeMarco [Murray]."
For those pointing at what Pollard did on Sunday as a means of weaponizing it against Elliott, Peete and the Cowboys say hold your horses, because giving roses to one doesn't mean taking a bouquet away from the other. As a matter of fact, and Pollard confirmed the following in his post-game interview when admitting he was fatigued, Peete says there's added reason(s) as to why Elliott is the primary back for the Cowboys.
By the time Pollard sprung the 54-yard touchdown run to help end the Bears, his gas light was on.
"[Pollard] played a total of 30 plays, and I think that's his max - as far as total play count - because then the juice doesn't become the same and he's not as quick, not as fast," said Peete. "When he got that long run on third-and-1, soon as he got to the sideline he said, 'Coach, I'm done. Done for the game. I've got no more.'
"Tony's obviously a very talented runner and good all-around back, but some guys are race cars. Some guys are high-quality, expensive sedans and those sedans can go for a long distance at a very high rate, whereas race cars go very fast and quick and run out of gas."
There's also the aspect of using the muscle memory of defenders against themselves over the course of a 60-minute football game - getting accustomed to try and tackle a bruiser (and hurdler) in Elliott before then being tasked with getting hands on a "slasher" back in Pollard.
"The guys defensive guys have told me that you run the same play and they get used to stepping up and trying to make a hit on Zeke, so he runs the same inside zone or the same outside zone and gets to the second level to make the tackle," Peete explained. "And then Tony comes in running the same play but their angle is messed up due to the fact he's faster. So all of a sudden he's by them and they're turning to run and catch him. [The contrast] puts more stress on them."
So, there you have it.
Elliott is the "very physical, downhill runner", according to Peete, that hammers opponents into being tenderized for Pollard's cuts, and the latter is why the Cowboys understand Pollard will routinely average more yards per carry - seeing as it's Elliott doing the heavy lifting to set his counterpart up for the home run play.
"[Halfbacks like Pollard] are always going to have a bigger average, and make more explosive plays but, at the end of the day, when you get into certain games, the race car can't handle that punishment because they get worn down. I think you need both [types]," said Peete.
Bottom line is it's not a great problem to have, because it's not a problem at all. Elliott and Pollard work well in tandem and that's been proven, and there are times when one will have a better game than the other, but there are also times when they'll both eat hearty against a defense that simply can't adapt well on the fly to whomever is in the backfield - something that is especially threatening when they're on the field at the same time.
At that point, it's a guessing game as to which of them gets the ball, if either, and it's that added unpredictability that continues to serve the Cowboys very well in a season that has seen their passing attack stumble so often on a weekly basis over the first half of the season.
So expect to see plenty of both Elliott and Pollard going forward, as you have thus far this season - the injury in Week 8 notwithstanding - as Peete and the Cowboys carry Mjolnir and Needle into each contest and refuse to put one or the other down.
Because two weapons are always better than one.
"We're fortunate to have two very talented guys," said Peete. "…Years ago, I'd say 'Thunder and Lightning' but that's been used 80 million times. I always think of it now as a sledgehammer and a sword. The sledgehammer is crushing and pounding, and the sword comes in and slices you up."