‘Dream come true:’ Cowboys RB Tony Pollard on first NFL start as Elliott cheers him on

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Todd Brock
·6 min read
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Tony Pollard didn’t have much advance notice before making the first start of his young NFL career.

With two-time rushing champ Ezekiel Elliott expected to play through a nagging calf injury, it wasn’t until on-the-field warmups that the shifty second-year player out of Memphis learned he’d be getting the lion’s share of the Cowboys’ carries against the 49ers’ stingy run defense.

“It was a last-minute game-time decision,” Pollard told reporters in a postgame press conference. “All week, we knew he was banged up a little bit, but a guy like Zeke, we always expect him to play. So it was definitely a surprise.”

It wasn’t exactly a case of ‘Zeke who?’ in the Week 15 game, but Pollard put forth a workmanlike effort, grinding out 69 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns on 12 carries. And most of that total came on a 40-yard jailbreak late in the fourth quarter as Dallas tried to nurse a three-point lead.

“I thought Tony was excellent,” Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said after the 41-33 win. “Tony’s a dynamic player. I thought he was excellent coming out of the backfield. We had some tough sledding, obviously, in the inside run game, but Tony did a heck of a job.”

Even on that run, the original call was to send Pollard right back into the teeth of the San Francisco defensive line.

“I didn’t think I would end up breaking as many tackles as I did,” Pollard confessed. “It was our normal go-to run play, up the middle. It was a little crowded, and I bounced it outside. My guys did a good job holding their blocks, and I just used my natural ability to make up for the rest.”

While Pollard has shown flashes of big-play ability over two seasons as a pro, his opportunities have been limited in part by the team’s leaning on Elliott as the bell cow. But staying ready is the backup’s job, and Pollard rose to the occasion on Sunday.

“Unbelievable,” rookie receiver CeeDee Lamb said of Pollard’s late scoring sprint, calling it “icing on the cake.”

“That run he had at the end of the game was special,” added quarterback Andy Dalton, who was himself suddenly thrust into the starting role after Dak Prescott went down in Week 5.

Quarterback. Tight end. Offensive line. Secondary. Running back. ‘Next man up’ has been a prevalent theme of the Cowboys’ 2020 season. Pollard says that just speaks to the makeup of the men on the roster.

“It’s big,” Pollard said, “just knowing that everything doesn’t have to run through one guy or a few guys. [There are] 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.”

Pollard has been taking more of the weight off Elliott’s shoulders in recent weeks. He’s seen his snap count increase noticeably over the past few months as offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has found new ways to get him involved in the rushing attack as well as passing plays.

On Sunday, Pollard was involved to the tune of 63 receiving yards on a team-high six passes from Dalton.

“He’s so versatile,” Dalton said of Pollard after Sunday’s win. “For him to not only be able to do it in the run game, but also in the pass game. You get him the ball in space, and he’s able to make guys miss and turn either a quick completion or runs into big gains. I think that’s what makes him such a special player, and we’re very fortunate to have a guy like that, that if Zeke’s going to be out, you can hand him the ball and get him the ball and he’s able to show what he can do.”

“Obviously, with Zeke being out,” Lamb said of Pollard, “I know he felt a lot of weight on his shoulders when he was named the starter. Guys like TP, they’re ready for it. He worked his tail off, and for him to go out there and have the game he had, I’m proud of him.”

“It was big for me,” Pollard told members of the media. “A dream come true: being in the league, getting the chance to start a game, knowing the team would be dependent on me a little more. I just tried to take advantage of my opportunities and make the most of them.”

And as he did, Pollard says the man he’s normally behind on the depth chart was behind him all day long.

“Zeke’s like my number one fan,” Pollard said of Elliott. “Any situation where he can’t go and the team has to run through me or any one of the other guys, he’s like the number one fan on the sides. Definitely a good guy to have on your side.”

Elliott was just as complimentary of his understudy and the performance he had.

“It was great. He’s a guy you know is super-explosive,” Zeke said, per the team website. “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.”

Elliott also shared details on the decision to put himself on ice just before kickoff, the first time in his career he’s missed a game due to injury.

“Honestly, I hadn’t been feeling the best all week, but on game days I’ve been able to go normally,” Elliott said. “But at first, I was feeling good, but [Saturday] I felt a tug. And that’s something I can’t really play with. I can play with pain and soreness, but with a tug, I can’t be as explosive as I need to be.”

“Zeke went through the week, was obviously a little further behind than he was last week in the work,” McCarthy explained. “In the early pre-pre-pregame, we just felt like it was not in the best interest to go with him. We’ll see how he’s evaluating tomorrow and see where he can go come Wednesday.”

Elliott emphasized that he has no plans to pull the plug prematurely on his 2020 season.

“Oh, no, I’m not shutting it down,” the superstar rusher said. “We’ll see how it goes, and I’ll see if I can get out there next week.”

If he can’t, though, Pollard will be ready and waiting in the wings.

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