Dallas Cowboys: Who’s doing better, Ezekiel Elliott or Tony Pollard?

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

It’s a debate as old as time – Who’s the better Dallas Cowboys running back? Ezekiel Elliott or Tony Pollard? How should the workload be split? Who’s better at what? Should Zeke have even been re-signed (ok, no one’s really debating that contract)? Who gives the Cowboys the best chance to win? The list goes on, everyone has their opinion, and no one’s afraid to voice that opinion.

Since Tony Pollard arrived on the scene in 2019, Pollard truthers have been barking that their horse is the more efficient runner. That he should be getting an equal share of carries, if not more carries, than the veteran in front of him.

The Dallas Cowboys have seen a running game resurgence, but who’s leading the charge, Ezekiel Elliott of Tony Pollard?

Looking at the cumulative stats from this season, it’s clear Zeke has accomplished more. He has 59 carries for 229 yards and a touchdown. TP has just 36 carries for 162 yards and a touchdown. But as we all know, cumulative stats don’t tell the real story. Zeke has the best statistical totals since he entered the NFL because he gets more opportunities than anyone else. It’s that simple.

Quinton Bohanna could lead the Dallas Cowboys in rushing if you gave him enough carries. It’s the efficiency and value that matter most because there are opportunity costs to consider.

After Week 1, the Zeke hive got the rare opportunity to clap back at the Pollard crowd. Pollard played horrifically against the Bucs and Zeke outperformed him across the board. Rushing yards over expected (RYOE) looks at the blocking success of a given play and prescribes the amount of yards the offensive line has gifted a running back. If a running back gets less than that amount, he gets a negative number, and if he gets more, he gets a positive number.

In Week 1, Zeke added +0.71 RYOE, which put him in fifth place in the NFL. Pollard, on the other hand, was at the very bottom of the league. He performed considerably below expectations against Tampa and his numbers suffered accordingly.

Since then, things have swung back. Tony Pollard dug himself out of the week 1 hole and reclaimed the top spot on the Cowboys RYOE hierarchy.

With +0.78, Tony Pollard currently ranks third in the NFL in RYOE while  Ezekiel Elliott sits in 20th place averaging -0.29. So Pollard should be getting all the carries?

Not so fast.

Being efficient isn’t the only goal of a running back (although that’s a big one), short yardage conversions, receptions, and pass protecting also matter.

By the numbers, Zeke is the better short yardage player. Running for two-yards on 3rd-and-1 isn’t going to look pretty on the traditional stat sheet but it sure plays an important role. It’s for these reasons we look at Expected Points Added (EPA) to determine the value of a run (By looking at historical probabilities and determining the impact). When we look at the EPA between the two runners, it swings in Zeke’s favor.

Zeke is currently 0.04 EPA better than Pollard this season, indicating his runs have meant a little more (not necessarily because of him since EPA grades the success of a play and not the performance of an individual player like RYOE does).

Quinton Bohanna could lead the Dallas Cowboys in rushing if you gave him enough carries. It’s the efficiency and value that matter most because there are opportunity costs to consider.

Pass-protecting is another area where Zeke traditionally thrives. Most will give the nod to him here as well, although since the 2020 season, he’s been pretty pedestrian here and living on reputation more than execution.  Both are strong pass-catchers but Pollard has the ability to play out of the slot which gives him an added advantage. Plus, Pollard is the far superior player when operating in space.

Durability is something many Zeke supporters speak to when a debate like this arises but sometimes the value of durability gets lost in the macho element. In other words, what value did Zeke give the Dallas Cowboys last season by playing through a PCL injury? He was one of the least effective RBs in the NFL and stole opportunities from other, historically more effective, players.

Could Tony Pollard withstand 20 carries per game? No, but neither can Zeke. He hasn’t carried the ball for 20/game since 2018 and even in this run-heavy 2022 season, Zeke’s only averaging 14.8, the second-lowest of his career.

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As you can see, this isn’t a simple “who’s better” debate. Both players have special qualities and virtually no glaring weaknesses. This is a good problem to have.