That status of Ezekiel Elliott for Week 16 is very much in question, but his future with the franchise isn't. The two-time NFL rushing champ missed last week's contest against the San Francisco 49ers, due to a nagging calf bruise that required more rest than anticipated, marking the first time in his NFL career wherein he's missed a game due to injury. In his stead, backup running back Tony Pollard gave the 49ers fits as a receiver out of the backfield, and his 40-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter justifiably earned headlines this week and some quality fantasy football points.
"They are two different type [of] backs," team exec Stephen Jones said on Tuesday when asked about the RB room, via the team's website. "… Zeke is a tremendous weapon for football, because physicalness does have an impact and does wear down and does win when it can be a part of not making as many mistakes as we've made a lot of times [on offense] when we've seen that earlier this year."
The contrast was on full display against the 49ers when, although Elliott was out and Pollard was the starting running back, he did most of his damage as a receiver. Pollard finished with 63 receiving yards on six catches -- at one point leading both teams in the category -- before being slowed in that regard by halftime adjustments from defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. It was on the ground where Pollard struggled for much of the game, his first 11 rushing attempts yielding only 29 yards (2.63 yards per carry) before he finally got into space and made the 49ers pay with a home run swing to close the coffin.
CeeDee Lamb would then nail it shut with a 47-yard kick return for a touchdown.
Pollard had a day balanced by struggles and big plays, and it's the former that put the value of Elliott on full display. For while Elliott has lacked the home run swing as of late that Pollard carries, the All-Pro running back gets the dirty yards between the tackles and is one of the best in the league at powering through tackles -- when healthy -- in contrast to the shiftiness of Pollard that requires him to dodge them altogether.
Even in a down season fueled by the absence of Dak Prescott, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, La'El Collins and a now-retired Travis Frederick, the Cowboys are all-in on not trying to figure out ways to split up a running back duo that could be one of the best in the league when things get back on track following a exceedingly tumultuous 2020.
"We've always frankly known that -- with Pollard -- we had an alternative there that was another way to do it, but a good way to do it," Jones said. "They make quite a tandem."
Key word: Tandem.
A decision on Elliott against the Eagles will be made later in the week and could end up being another game time decision, sources tell CBS Sports.
For the Cowboys, when it comes to the Elliott/Pollard dynamic, it's about acknowledging they have two different types of batters that feed off of each other, without caving to the storylines that believe you can only have one nice thing at a time or deleting the memory of recent attempts at swapping pieces. There are two nice things in the Dallas running back room, and the hierarchy is the way it is for a reason, much akin to previous tandems like Marion Barber and Felix Jones, or DeMarco Murray and Joseph Randle.
Without Barber as a threat, Jones struggled to prove himself a dominant NFL starter and lost his job to an incoming Murray, and Randle failed in similar regard -- football-wise -- after the Cowboys refused to meet Murray's asking price in free agency. Keeping it centered on Randle's on the field issues and not his legal ones, the mercurial back started in only six games post-Murray, before losing his job to Darren McFadden, a player who had a proven track record as a starter and forced Randle out of the role with the help of an injury on the latter.
Jones added he "won't bet against" Pollard as an RB1, a statement of affirmation that prevents an igniting of headlines that read: "Cowboys believe Tony Pollard is a career backup".
But the bet was already placed on Elliott, and three times, once with the fourth-overall pick, a second time by going toe to toe with him in a battle in federal court with commissioner Roger Goodell in 2017 that cost them millions in both court costs and a $2 million fine assessed by the league, and a third time with a six-year, $90 million contract extension in 2019 -- all investments in his long-term future with the Cowboys. Barber landed an extension himself in 2008, like Elliott, but his durability issues doomed him in Dallas, something Elliott has never missed games because of (until Week 15 of 2020).
The Cowboys have been trying to find another dynamic duo for a while now, having tried mightily and failing just as spectacularly with Lance Dunbar, and Pollard is basically what the team wanted Dunbar to be.
, which would inherently give Pollard more reps but also feed into unfounded headlines, but it's about health at this point. That said, if Elliott is healthy enough to take the field, he'll continue pounding the table to do so. Even operating at quarter mast in the last several games, his calf bruise worsening with each week, he was still able to average 4.9 yards per carry in Week 11, followed by 3.2 ypc, 4.28 ypc and 4.00 ypc, respectively, before being held out against the 49ers.
It's been a down season also filled with uncharacteristic fumbles, yes, but owner Jerry Jones still lists Elliott as the best player on the team. All told, that's untrue (because, ahem, Martin), but it goes to show how the Joneses view Elliott -- as both a player and now as a mature leader in the locker room.
To Pollard's credit, on Sunday, he was operating behind the same wrecked o-line as Elliott is tasked with maneuvering behind weekly, but the Cowboys game plan entering the game hinted strongly at how they view him: as the halfback you get into space and not the one who creates his own with brutality. They rarely played from behind against the 49ers and still would not commit to the run game with Pollard as RB1, because they couldn't.
The home run in the fourth could not have arrived with better timing -- for both he and the team as a whole -- but the Cowboys know they have to walk and chew gum at the same time.
That's to say they are as aware of his first 11 strikeouts (regarding handoffs) as they are celebratory of the fact he went yard on his 12th swing. In that same vein, they know they might not get many homers from Elliott, but his ability to consistently put the ball in play and turn singles into doubles, doubles into triples and deliver RBIs has proven invaluable over the course of a full 60 minutes.
Pollard is and will continue to be an electric complement for the back alley brawl style Elliott, and that plan will be put back into place if the latter is cleared for takeoff against the Eagles. Even if the three-time Pro Bowler is on the field, however, don't expect him to take his full usual workload. Pollard will see more reps because of Elliott's injury, and so will third-string halfback Rico Dowdle, to prevent aggravating the ailment any more than is necessary as they scratch and claw to remain viable in the playoff hunt.
Of course, as mentioned, simply shutting Elliott down would also do the trick, but they've been wildly averse to doing that while mathematically still in the running for the NFC East crown.
Bottom line? Every great run by Elliott isn't a reason to try and release Pollard, and every great play by Pollard isn't a reason to try and release Elliott. The human body was designed with two legs, for example, and will always have to adapt when one has to be removed or is unexpectedly lost. That adaptation isn't always equal to the original design, let alone greater than, more often handicapping the body's ecosystem.
The Cowboys like how the body in the RB room is designed, and have no willingness to amputate.