Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard operated as arguably the best one-two punch at RB in the entire NFL in 2022, but the Cowboys have their work cut out for them if both are to return for 2023
FRISCO, TX — There are positions the Dallas Cowboys are still trying to master, as far as consistency is concerned, but the role of running back isn't one of them. If anything, the problem is they have too much talent at the position, if there is such a thing (ahem, there isn't), and that raises questions about who should take the lead between Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard.
Those were answered in 2022, with RB splits that would routinely see Elliott start at times, but Pollard at other times; and the same would apply to the fluctuation at times in in-game reps during a contest wherein there wasn't a near 50/50 split.
But now, as 2023 preparation begins and NFL free agency draws near, the prevailing question that takes center stage is as obvious as it is difficult to answer:
Will both Elliott and Pollard return in Dallas?
It's time to take a closer, offseason look at the RB situation in North Texas.
This is one position the Cowboys have almost always thrown capital toward, the glaring exception being when they instead flipped a running back for a historic amount of capital. That guy was Herschel Walker, and the team that got flee- … who agreed to the NFL trade that set the world on fire resides in Minnesota, in a deal that literally (and I do mean literally) launched the Cowboys into orbit as the dynasty team to beat in the early- to mid-1990s.
But, generally speaking, what an embarrassment of riches the Cowboys have had at RB in their organizational lifetime.
From Don Perkins and Walt Garrison to Calvin Hill, from Tony Dorsett to NFL all-time rushing leader Emmitt Smith, from the late Marion "The Barbarian" Barber to Julius Jones, from DeMarco Murray to Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard — with plenty of solid backs in between — if it's one thing Dallas knows how to do, it's draft and develop at this position (hell, they even turned Darren McFadden into a 1,000-yard rusher again in 2015).
They've also had missteps, however, one example being in trusting Felix Jones to carry the load as RB1 and then repeating the error with Joseph Randle, who left plenty of meat on the bone before being forced out of the league due to a list of off-the-field issues.
But, for the most part, you'd be hard-pressed to find another club as good at eyeing RB talent as the one in Dallas.
What a ride it was in 2022, having finally seen Tony Pollard unleashed by former offensive coordinator Kellen Moore to create a true dual-threat combo alongside Elliott. Pollard became the "sword" to the "sledgehammer" that is Elliott — a description so eloquently created by Peete to paint the picture of how the two play off of each other — en route to the first 1,000-yard season of his NFL career and first-ever Pro Bowl nod.
And while Pollard was providing the explosiveness, Elliott was grinding defenses down slowly but surely over the course of the game, and it helped that the Cowboys learned their lesson from the 2021 season and, this time around, rested the two-time rushing champion when he suffered a knee issue midway through the season.
Pollard would later get the same type of rest, sitting against the Tennessee Titans in late December and entering the playoffs at full strength, before things took a horrible turn against the San Francisco 49ers.
It was an overall successful year at the position, though, and that includes drafting and developing a promising young back in Malik Davis — one who flashed whenever given the opportunity. Having lost Rico Dowdle to season-ending injury early in the 2022 campaign, the incumbent RB3, Davis stepped in and put a lot of good things on film.
Having a phenomenal eye for talent comes at a cost, no matter the position.
This time around it'll be in the realm of trying to figure out how they can keep Elliott and Pollard together for 2023 and beyond, seeing as the latter is set to be an unrestricted free agent coming off of the aforementioned breakout season.
The loss of Pollard to a fractured leg in the NFC Divisional Round put his value on full display, seeing as the Cowboys could muster only one offensive touchdown in that contest, and the front office will undoubtedly try to keep him on the roster going forward. To do so might require reworking the contract on Elliott, though, currently set to hit the team's salary cap for $11.9 million.
It's possible the two sides could agree to a pay cut, having already recently restructured Elliott's contract in 2022, and discussions will be had regarding this — something the front office confirmed from the 2023 Reese's Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama.
"Obviously, we're probably one of the top teams in the league already with what we pay running backs," said Executive Vice President and Director of Player Personnel Stephen Jones. "We have to make sure how we pay attention to this and how we spread it out — how we divide up the pie. We have to re-look at that.
"We have to look at Zeke and, obviously, Tony is looking to make more money. So, we have to re-look [at] the whole thing in terms of running back and what that looks like. .. Oh yeah, you always want Zeke. But do the numbers work? You can't define what Zeke does for our football team. He's a competitor and what he brings — just a special guy."
Well, the special guy and the breakout star can both be in a Cowboys uniform next season, but only if all involved are on the same page; and that includes Pollard, who will get plenty of offers from other teams.
Any change atop the totem would create a vortex that pulls Davis and possibly a returning Dowdle upward on the depth chart, and you can bet the Cowboys will also add developmental talent this offseason to challenge them in training camp.