ARLINGTON, Texas – Statistically, this was not the first start of Tony Pollard's career – but that's exactly why stat sheets can lie.
Technically, Sunday marked the second start of Tony Pollard's career. A lifetime ago, back in Week 2, he also started against the Atlanta Falcons. He took the first two carries of the game for six yards, and he was consigned to the bench for most of the rest of a 40-39 comeback win.
This was something else entirely. When Pollard took the field Sunday at the outset of this Week 15 matchup against San Francisco, it was crystal clear: Ezekiel Elliott had been downgraded with a calf injury. He wouldn't be subbing in.
That's exactly how, even with 28 career games under his belt, this 41-33 against the 49ers was a different opportunity altogether for Tony Pollard.
"It was big for me, a dream come true – being in the league, getting a chance to start the game out, knowing the team would be dependent on me," Pollard said afterward. "I just tried to take advantage and make the most of it."
Pollard certainly did that, and in a variety of ways.
With one notable exception, it was a tough day at the office for the Cowboys' running game on a rare occasion when Elliott wasn't in the lineup. The Cowboys slugged their way to 87 rushing yards as a team, coming well short of four yards per carry for most of the day.
It's not surprising that several of Pollard's biggest contributions, particularly early in the game, came as a receiver, as he caught six passes for 63 yards on the day.
"A lot of it was just not being greedy on offense and just taking what they gave us – taking the checkdowns," Pollard said. "They would leave the flats open, and we just took advantage of that."
That's obviously not the part of this game that will be remembered, though. Because as unremarkable as stretches of this game were, Pollard sealed the win with one of the best plays of the season.
Holding a 27-24 lead with 2:37 to play, Pollard bounce himself out to right tackle, juked Richard Sherman in the hole and spun through a combined tackle attempt by Fred Warner and Marcell Harris. All that fancy footwork pushed him into open space behind the San Francisco secondary, and he was off for a 40-yard touchdown that effectively clinched the win.
"My guys did a good job holding their blocks, and I just let my natural ability make up for the rest," Pollard said.
Added CeeDee Lamb: "The 40-yarder was just icing on the cake. He balled. Obviously, with Zeke being out, I know he felt a lot of weight on his shoulders when he was named the starter. But guys like TP, they're ready for it."
That's what will undoubtedly make this one special for Pollard. This is far from the first time the second-year pro has made an impressive play. It is the first time he's been asked to deliver without the safety net of an All-Pro behind him.
Sunday marked the first time in his four-year career that Elliott has missed a game due to injury. And while it might have been strange to watch Pollard without a uniform on, he gave a strong vote of confidence to his under study.
"It was great," Elliott said. "He's a guy who you know is super explosive, you know he can break one at any moment. Before the last play I told him to go put it on ice, and that's exactly what he did."
Ideally, it won't become a theme. Elliott was optimistic he'd be able to play earlier this week, so it's a reasonable guess he'll be available for the final two weeks of the season. Even still, the Cowboys' running back depth hadn't been tested in quite some time, and on Sunday it passed just fine.
"It's big. Just knowing that everything doesn't have to run through one guy, or a few guys," Pollard said. "There's different guys on the team that can carry the weight, help take some of the weight off the other guys' shoulders, the leaders on the team. It's definitely big."
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