Ezekiel Elliott or Tony Pollard? Cowboys are clear what plan is at running back

ARLINGTON, Texas — In the Dallas Cowboys' postgame locker room, Ezekiel Elliott cradled an imaginary trophy midair.

The seventh-year pro’s message: He worries not who carries the football each Sunday. He wants to carry something bigger and better.

“All I'm worried about is winning, and at the end of the season. I want to be holding up that Lombardi,” Elliott told Yahoo Sports while hoisting his imaginary trophy. “We’ve all got the same goal and that’s for this team to be successful.

“It doesn’t matter to me or him if it’s me or him doing it.”

Tony Pollard, in Elliott’s reference, was him.

Because as Elliott rested a hyperextended knee ahead of the Cowboys’ bye, Pollard gave a large subsection of Cowboys fans — heck, even NFL fans and undoubtedly fantasy owners — what they wanted: to see how he could handle a primary opportunity.

In a 49-29 win over the Chicago Bears, Pollard embarrassed (in Bears linebacker Roquan Smith’s words) the league’s 29th-ranked run defense. He averaged 9.4 yards a pop en route to 131 yards and three touchdowns rushing. Pollard added 16 more yards on a reception, his 147 yards and three touchdowns each career highs.

Pollard’s catchphrase four days before kickoff rang through quarterback Dak Prescott’s ears. “They call it,” Pollard had quipped, “Imma haul it.”

“He went out there, backed those words up, and that’s who he is honestly,” Prescott said. “Him saying that statement is not about, ‘Hey, give me 30 carries so I can show you.’ It’s, ‘Hey, whatever coach calls for me to do, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability for this team.’

“He’s talented as hell and he’s not just another back for us. He’s a playmaker and a weapon that we will continue to use.”

How ‘X’ factor powered Pollard’s career day

The Cowboys didn’t use Pollard instead of their passing game against the Bears. But they gave him opportunities on which he capitalized powerfully. It was that descriptor — “powerful” — that Pollard’s teammates wanted fans to hear. At 6-foot, 212 pounds, Pollard doesn’t stand as physically imposing as Elliott. And yet, teammates say, he’s more than just the shifty weapon he’s often perceived as.

“I feel like that’s something he doesn’t get enough credit for: how strong he is,” left tackle Tyler Smith, who blocked for Pollard’s 54-yard score, told Yahoo Sports. “His stride doesn’t break. His strides are powerful. That’s one of his ‘X’ factors, I feel like.”

Pollard scored first with 10:50 to play in the second quarter, cutting left and then zigzagging up the middle of the Bears defense the play immediately after Prescott had netted 25 yards on a quarterback keeper.

Pollard burst seven yards up the middle for his third-quarter touchdown, with uncanny balance as he essentially hopped the final yards to the end zone undeterred by Bears defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad’s grasp on his ankle. Try to trip Pollard at your own peril, teammates said.

“When he hits that hole, he’s going 1,000 miles per hour,” tight end Dalton Schultz told Yahoo Sports. “It’s like the guys who are sneaky athletic? He’s sneaky powerful. Zeke’s got run-you-over power. [Pollard]’s got like, if you try to arm-tackle TP, your arm is going to feel like it’s being ripped off. It’s like trying to grab a moving car. It doesn’t really work.”

The Bears backups had no further luck. By the time Pollard had raced the 54 yards for his and the game’s final score, four Bears defenders were horizontal in his wake.

“The last one was tough because I was winded,” he said afterward. “But I got in there.”

How will Cowboys handle Zeke, Pollard going forward?

The Cowboys enter their bye at 6-2, second in the NFC East, before a Nov. 13 visit to Green Bay, where Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy spent 13 years as Packers head coach.

By then, Elliott is expected to be healthy enough to play. The bye week factored heavily into Dallas’ decision to rest him, the risk-reward calculus favoring three weeks’ rest for his hyperextension for just one game missed. At first glance, the Cowboys have a decision to make when he returns.

Or do they?

Tony Pollard (20) finished with 147 total yards in Ezekiel Elliott's absence as the Cowboys nearly hung 50 points on the Bears. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
Tony Pollard (20) finished with 147 total yards in Ezekiel Elliott's absence as the Cowboys nearly hung 50 points on the Bears. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

Despite Pollard’s dominance Sunday, and with Green Bay's 27th-ranked run defense waiting in two weeks, Pollard finished the game with a somewhat surprising 14 carries and one reception. Cowboys teammates pitched in 15 additional carries for the 200-yard rushing game. Elliott’s contributions need not drastically change for Pollard to receive this level of opportunity going forward.

“We didn’t press him to his limit on juice left,” Cowboys team owner Jerry Jones said of Pollard. “He probably had, I’ll guess, a double handful of carries left with a lot of zip.”

Jones also, in his usual loyal-to-Elliott fashion, emphasized his belief that the Cowboys “go as Zeke goes.” Jones described Elliott as “important to this team and every bit as important as he was before the game.” And when asked by Yahoo Sports whether he understood the argument for giving Pollard the primary load, Jones dissented.

“No, there’s no argument,” Jones said. “Zeke’s ability to punish, Zeke’s ability to deliver it, Zeke’s ability to what he does for us in pass protection and frankly Zeke’s ability to make big plays are there. We’re going to go as Zeke goes. I really mean he’s that integral to our success this year.”

Elliott, who has rushed for 443 yards and four touchdowns (4.1 per attempt) this year, welcomes that. The more the Cowboys offense can ramp up to complement Dallas’ deepest defense in recent history, the more likely he and fellow 2016 draft classmate Prescott finally overcome the playoff hump Dallas has faced since its last NFC Championship appearance following the 1995 season. Pollard’s jump to 506 yards and five scores in eight games only reinforces the Cowboys’ belief that their duo is dynamic.

“Tony is a very disciplined runner and he’s got the home-run speed,” McCarthy said. “His ability to run inside the tackles, but then when he gets on the perimeter he’s dangerous because he breaks tackles and he can finish the run.

“We look at Tony as a one and Zeke as a one. We’re very fortunate to have this duo of backs.”

Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein