Dallas Cowboys: What Tony Pollard taught us about the running game

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports /

Tony Pollard taught the Dallas Cowboys a few things on Sunday…

The Dallas Cowboys finally saw what life would be like without Ezekiel Elliott, yesterday. Elliott, playing by far his worst season as a pro, has not been living up to the mammoth contract extension he signed two off-seasons ago. And while his poor play this season is related to the slippage in offensive line play, his individual decline has been apparent.  Zeke has done little this season other than simply take what has been given to him.

The calls for more Tony Pollard have increased each week of this season. Pollard, the explosive change-of-pace option, has outperformed Zeke in nearly every qualitative category the past two years, calling into question the intelligence of re-signing one of the most replaceable positions to such an enormous contract.

On Sunday, for the first time since Tony Pollard joined the team, the second fiddle got a shot a first chair. While he didn’t light the world on fire in raw numbers, his individual performance shined and in the process he taught the Dallas Cowboys some important things about their offense.

Big Play Ability Matters

Pollard’s first 11 carries averaged just 2.9 yards per attempt. But his 12th carry proved all the difference between him and the man he replaced. On carry No. 12, Pollard broke off a 40-yard run for a game-clinching TD. He broke two San Francisco tackles in a dazzling play only made possible by his individual effort and ability.

In 211 attempts this season, Elliott only has three runs of 15-yards or more. He’s been the antithesis of “explosive”, sparking much criticism in Cowboys Nation. Additionally, his 11 broken tackles for the season are less than one broken tackle per game played. If Zeke is really just taking what the offensive linemen are giving him, how much value is he really adding?

That was a question on many Dallas Cowboys fans’ minds as they watched his counterpart run behind the same line on Sunday. Not only did Pollard outperform Zeke in expected points added (Zeke has a negative score on the season and was last ranked 185th in the NFL in expected points added), but in Pollard’s limited opportunities just this game he added three broken tackles (more than 3x what Zeke averages).

The Dallas Cowboys Don’t Need a Bell Cow

Once upon a time, teams went out of their way to find that “bell cow” running back capable of carrying the load. Someone who could play all three downs and tote the rock 20-30 times per game. Most will agree, the Dallas Cowboys have that in Zeke.

Zeke has been a workhorse since entering the league. Since 2016 no player has more carries than No. 21. His durability is unquestioned, Aside from suspension, Zeke doesn’t miss games. Sure he missed Week 17 in 2018 but that was a pointless game and precautionary.

The argument for Zeke over Pollard has always been that Zeke can carry the load and Pollard can’t handle the volume or the role of Zeke. As a “Team Pollard” guy, I admit that’s probably true. But why do we desire a bell cow role anyway?

We don’t need to run the ball 20+ times per game. In fact, that’s actually a harmful strategy if you’re trying to score points. If you have a lead and you’re trying to kill the clock, it could be advantageous (but I can even argue against that) but not if you’re trying to build a lead.

Fans get hung up on 100-yard games and 1,000 yard seasons but they are misleading thresholds that says nothing about how much value is actually added. The reason teams with 25+ carries per game win more often than teams with <15 carries do, is because teams that are ahead on the scoreboard are more likely to run the clock by running the ball. And teams that are behind on the score are usually throwing the ball to try to catch up (again, because throwing the ball leads to points). It’s a correlation vs causation thing.

Tony Pollard only had 12 carries on the day and that’s just fine. There wasn’t a need to hand the ball off 25+ times. In fact, the Cowboys probably ran the ball a little too much because Pollard’s success rate on the day was only 33% (and Zeke’s below 50% himself on the season).

If over half of your runs are unsuccessful (meaning they produce a negative EPA) and the success rate and EPA on passing attempts are both better, why are some people trying to run the ball MORE?

The NFL is a Passing League

Which brings us to the final point; the NFL is a passing league and the Dallas Cowboys probably shouldn’t be running the ball half as often as they are.

More from Dallas Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys are averaging -0.2 EPA per pass attempt vs -0.84 EPA per run this season. Passing attempts are 4x more fruitful than rushing attempts this year (The fact that both numbers are negative is a depressing conversation to be had a different day).

Since Zeke joined the Cowboys, the passing offense has consistently produced more expected points than the running game, so why the heck are we running so often? And no, you don’t need to establish the run to make play-action work.

Not only do the Dallas Cowboys not need a bell cow to handle 25+ carries per game, but they also don’t need a committee to combine for 25+ carries per game either. They need to run the ball less and pass the ball more.

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There were lessons to be learned from Tony Pollard’s day on Sunday. Big plays matter, bell cow running backs don’t matter, and the Cowboys run the ball too much (especially on early downs). Think the Cowboys were listening?

  • Published on 12/21/2020 at 13:11 PM
  • Last updated at 12/21/2020 at 13:19 PM