2 games into RB1 stint, Tony Pollard is answering the Cowboys’ question

Tony Pollard didn’t rush the ball on the play or even score.

But one third-quarter play in the Dallas Cowboys’ 30-10 victory over the New York Jets demonstrated why the Cowboys are high on Pollard in his first year as the team’s lead running back.

Pollard caught a checkdown in the right flat, muscling a 2-yard pass from Dak Prescott five yards after the catch for a first down. The Cowboys appreciated his physicality and situational awareness running uphill. But Pollard also didn’t simply beeline to the flat. On his way, he landed a solid chip on Jets defensive lineman Micheal Clemons, who was engaged with Cowboys right tackle Terence Steele. Pollard’s pass-protection boost helped keep Prescott’s pocket clean through two hitches.

“The chip that he had was wicked,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “Like, it was really cool. He’s playing physical away from the ball as well, which again just speaks to the competitor he is.”

The Cowboys released seven-year starting running back Ezekiel Elliott this offseason with the belief that Pollard was ready for the lead role. No matter that his slimmer-than-Elliott frame raised external questions about his durability, or that a playoff leg fracture slowed his offseason. The Cowboys believed Pollard had the skill to run between the tackles in addition to his explosive plays in space. They believed, too, that he could handle a heavier load than he was asked to his first four seasons.

Tony Pollard's first season as the Cowboys' bell cow back is off to a promising start. (Stefan Milic/Yahoo Sports)
Tony Pollard's first season as the Cowboys' bell cow back is off to a promising start. (Stefan Milic/Yahoo Sports)

Through two weeks, a limited sample size has validated Dallas’ decision. Pollard collected 82 yards and two touchdowns from scrimmage in a 40-0 win over the Giants. Against the Jets, he contributed 109 yards and scored on a 2-point conversion.

Pollard sees room for improvement in his efficiency. But no injuries or wear-and-tear concerns popped up after he carried the ball a career-high 25 times, generating a career-high 32 touches.

“You’re a little sore, little banged up, but nothing major,” Pollard told Yahoo Sports this week over Zoom. “No damage or anything like that. So for the most part, I’m good. Get some treatment, some prehab, get in the cold tub, get some massages, and I’ll be ready to go.”

No player in the NFL has touched the ball more than Pollard through two weeks. Only San Francisco 49ers weapon Christian McCaffrey has as many touches.

“I think he answered the question, ‘Can I do that? Yeah, I can,’” Schottenheimer said. “Here’s a guy who we’ve all asked: ‘Can he be a bell cow?’”

“There's no question he can be a bell cow.”

Cowboys envision versatile role for Pollard

The trajectory of Pollard’s career usage has traveled steadily in one direction: up and to the right. As a fourth-round rookie in 2019, he received 101 touches. Then 129 followed by 169 and last year 232. Pollard told his team and fans alike: “You call it, I’ll haul it.” His 14.5-touches-per-game 2022 average reflected increased usage, this year’s 24 touches so far per game still heavier. Pollard considers not only the breadth of his opportunities but also their variety.

“I’m looking forward to any chance I get to get the ball, especially in space getting the ball on little tosses, little swing passes, screens,” he told Yahoo Sports over Zoom this week. “I feel like we left a lot of meat on the bone. But we’re going in the right direction.”

That meat on the bone lies in two key areas: red-zone efficiency (the Cowboys were just two-of-five vs. the Jets) and eliminating negative plays. Pollard has ripped off a rush of more than 20 yards each of his two games with the type of escapability that threads through the highlights from his rookie contract years. And some short-yardage plays have been extremely valuable, like Pollard’s 1- and 2-yard touchdowns in the opener. But against the Jets, four of Pollard’s runs lost yardage. Three more netted at zero.

The quest for efficiency and production continues. Pollard’s 95.5 scrimmage yards per game are a career high but his 4 yards per touch and 3.6 per carry a setback from last season’s 5.9 and 5.2, respectively.

The Cowboys still controlled the Jets game, dominating the time of possession with a 42:15 to 17:45 advantage while converting 50% of third-down attempts to New York’s 10%. Prescott’s 81.5% completion rate helped drive that. And Pollard’s pass protection helped position Prescott for efficiency. Against a struggling Arizona Cardinals team this week, the Cowboys may not need more offense than that. But against Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots next, followed by the Cowboys' longtime NFC thorn, the San Francisco 49ers, they will.

Pollard will aim to continue hauling forward on rushes and receptions alike. And he’ll aim to keep dialing into his increasing responsibilities as pass protector along the way, completing more blocks worthy of Schottenheimer’s “wicked” descriptor.

“The integrity of the pocket as far as when we’re having dropback passes, we always emphasize the inside of the pocket, wanting to keep the integrity of the inside,” Pollard told Yahoo Sports, speaking in partnership with Chili’s. “So just having body presence, whether I’m trying to get out on the route or helping a guard or tackle clean up on their man if they’re getting a little loose on the edge or [there’s] leakage.

“Just being a little more [of a] body presence, as far as the pocket.”