Even the Cowboys, rich in their running back history, are adjusting to ‘less RB friendly’ NFL

OXNARD, Calif. — NFL teams releasing fan-favorite players is not a new concept, but the Dallas Cowboys releasing running back Ezekiel Elliott this offseason was another sign of a changing league.

The three-time Pro Bowler was officially let go in March after spending his entire seven-year career in Dallas. He’s yet to sign elsewhere.

Running backs have been integral to the franchise over the course of its history, but the Cowboys are refocusing their offensive priorities as the rest of the NFL does too.

“Obviously, this franchise has had some of the best running backs in the league. When you look at Tony Dorsett, you look at Emmitt Smith, you look at Zeke Elliott — we’ve had great running backs and great respect for that position,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said.

With Elliott gone, Dallas’ next running back is Tony Pollard, who earned his first Pro Bowl selection in a breakout 2022 season. The Cowboys placed their new RB1 on their franchise tag. Pollard will make around $10 million on the one-year deal.

Tony Pollard is the starter at running back for the Cowboys this season. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Tony Pollard is the starter at running back for the Cowboys this season. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

“We tried to make a deal with Tony, it wasn’t something that worked for either one of us,” Jones said at training camp. “So we’re gonna play under the tag this year and respect that and we’ll see where we end up going forward.”

The Cowboys aren’t the only ones not signing running backs to long-term deals. Tuesday morning, the Giants announced a new one-year contract with Saquon Barkley that’s worth up to $11 million.

But not all running backs are happy with what they’re getting. A large contingent of NFL running backs, including Pollard, met on Zoom this past Saturday to discuss the condition of the running back market. Raiders star Josh Jacobs refused to sign the franchise tag, so he’s currently not reporting to training camp.

“There’s no free lunch. You have to weigh the impact to the team on every decision that you make, and the system will cause it to evolve,” Cowboys team owner Jerry Jones said. “And the system has gotten more, relative to the budgets you have, it’s gotten more quarterback friendly and less running back friendly. That isn’t just the Cowboys. That’s the game as it is today.”

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Last season, NFL teams averaged anywhere from 3.4 to 5.4 yards per rushing attempt. Teams’ average yards per pass attempt ranged from 6 to 8.2. As passing is more efficient, quarterbacks and wide receivers are getting the money that may have gone to running backs in the past.

“It’s a distribution process,” Jones said. “If one player gets $1, then the other one doesn’t get it. And so you distribute it as best you can.”

While the Cowboys back away from long-term deals with running backs, they’re working toward extending stars like quarterback Dak Prescott and wide receiver CeeDee Lamb. Prescott has two years left on a four-year, $160 million contract. Lamb also has two years left on his current rookie deal with a nearly $18 million fifth-year option still available to him.

“I actually feel really good about where we are. Not only in the intermediate, but also the long term,” Stephen Jones said. “I think our contracts are all structured in a good way and we’re very motivated to sign these young guys.”

The running back position, once a cornerstone of Dallas’ offense, may not be as important as it once was. But if the Cowboys want to build on the progress that they’ve made the last two years, with back-to-back playoff appearances, then they’ll continue to adapt to the ever-changing game.