FRISCO, Texas – It’s like the big Christmas present tucked in the corner that is saved for last. The anticipation grows after you open gift after gift and say thank you after thank you. All the while, your eyes on that present, waiting.
Soon the Dallas Cowboys will open that present tucked in the corner and show everybody just what they plan to do with running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard in 2022. For now, it remains something of a mystery because neither will play in a preseason game before the Sept. 11 opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC) and the glimpses in training camp practices were some of the basic staples the Cowboys have used before.
“We certainly want those guys to get touches, and it’s a matter of finding those different roles,” offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said. “Both of them we want to get creative with, get them on the field at the same time. And then obviously when one guy is down, the other guy is in there contributing. So, I think it will be a fun task for us to kind of pair those guys up and be creative with how we can utilize them in different positions and find opportunities for success.”
Moore’s biggest challenge is not in splitting up the carries between Elliott and Pollard. Elliott will remain the lead ball carrier, proving last season before getting hurt that he remains one of the elite backs in the NFL.
It will be replacing the 113 receptions, 1,467 yards and 14 touchdowns that wide receivers Amari Cooper and Cedrick Wilson Jr. put up last season -- and this is where Pollard may be able to best help the offense.
The Cowboys traded Cooper to the Cleveland Browns and lost Wilson in free agency to the Miami Dolphins. To date, the Cowboys have opted to go with CeeDee Lamb and untested and inexperienced receivers, but what many are forgetting is Pollard’s past.
At Memphis, he mostly played wide receiver, working the slot.
“There is a ton of it on film. A lot of it is coming back to him,” Moore said. “I think he does have more than just that. He’s not going to run [just] the running back route tree, the quick game and just kind of the completion plays. He can stretch people vertically, and I think that will be a huge advantage for him to put people in conflict of how they want to handle him.”
Said Dak Prescott, “He can get out there and be one of our best pass-catchers, and just the way that he's grown, just with his route running from the time that we've asked him to take on that role is impressive itself.”
Since the spring, Pollard has taken some wide receiver reps. Offensive assistant Kyle Valero, who has mostly worked with receivers since joining the staff in 2014, has served as Pollard’s individual coach after he is finished with running back meetings.
“It’s definitely coming back to me, getting out there, being more comfortable doing the receiver thing,” Pollard said.
Pollard is bigger than many think (6-foot, 212 pounds), but he has never gone through the down-to-down pounding of an every-down running back.
Meanwhile, Elliott has had a strong summer. His injured right knee has healed, and he said he has the quickness and burst back to get him to and through the holes.
Running backs coach Skip Peete is in his second tenure with the Cowboys. In his first from 2007 to 2012, he worked through the Marion Barber-Felix Jones tandem and later the Jones-DeMarco Murray tandem.
“They’re both going to play,” Peete said. “Depending on the game, depending on the situation -- how much are they going to be involved at the same time? -- that aspect will work itself out. We’re not saying, ‘He’s going to play this many plays in this game.’ I don’t think you ever go into a game doing that. I think you say, ‘We’re going to utilize both of these guys,’ and some game plans are going to be heavier more with both of them playing than just one playing.”
The cries for more Pollard and less Elliott started last season when Pollard was averaging 5.5 yards per carry and Elliott was struggling with a partially torn posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Pollard had a career-high 719 rushing yards on 130 carries and 337 receiving yards on 39 receptions. He scored two touchdowns.
Elliott had 1,002 rushing yards on 237 carries and 287 yards on 47 carries. He scored 12 touchdowns.
“His elusivity, his explosiveness. I think I go in and pound them a little bit,” Elliott said, when asked how they complement each other, “then he goes in there and is going to break some long ones.”
Pollard's speed, however, is what separates him from other backs, and the Cowboys want to get him in space.
“Not having to worry about as many defenders,” Pollard said of his work outside. “I’m pretty much past the first and second line of defense. So at receiver, once you catch the ball, you just got to make a guy or two miss, then it’s off to the races.”
With the Green Bay Packers, coach Mike McCarthy had to turn to wide receiver Ty Montgomery at running back in 2016 out of necessity because of injuries to Eddie Lacy and James Starks. That history has helped with the plan for Pollard this season.
“They’re different players, but, to me, it really comes down to the expansion of job responsibility,” McCarthy said. “That’s all it really is, and where he plays and how he plays, that’s all part of the game and design of it. But it’s really expanded his opportunity to touch the football.”
Contractually, this is a big season for Elliott and Pollard. Elliott is in the final year of guaranteed money on his six-year extension he signed in 2019. Without a big season – or maybe even with one – he could be playing his final season with the Cowboys. Pollard is set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and so far there have been no discussions regarding an extension.
Pollard understands what the future may hold if he produces, especially with more touches, but he doesn’t have statistical goals in his head.
“I’d rather not limit it,” he said.
Kind of like how the Cowboys want to use him.