Ezekiel Elliott Isn’t the Player He Once Was. That’s OK.

Published in DMagazine.com

On Monday Night Football’s game against the Eagles, Dak Prescott completed 21 of 26 passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns. That quarterback stat line looks a lot like the last time this team was consistently good. It looks like a Troy Aikman type of game. I don’t bring up that name to live in the past or to invoke some Platonic ideal of Dallas Cowboyness that exists only in the mind. Rather, I say it to point out the reason The Triplets complemented each other perfectly was because they had an enviable run-pass balance. It’s the type of balance that this season’s Cowboys have reestablished in back-to-back wins. And within that balance, they’ve seemingly found another equilibrium: the balance between Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard.

Zeke isn’t the same player he once was. You can make a good argument that the Cowboys ran Zeke into the ground during his first four seasons. In three of those seasons, he had at least 300 carries—a number that’s so taxing, running backs with that high a workload almost always have a drop in production the following season. The lone year Zeke didn’t reach that 300-carry threshold was the 2017 season, when he got suspended for six games. Not coincidentally, Zeke’s rushing yards per game have steadily decreased from his first year.

Luckily for Zeke (and good for him), he got paid before the start of the 2019 season. And because the league now sees that position with diminishing importance, where players who run the ball have almost become interchangeable, Zeke might be the last running back to get that sort of contract. He got $50 million guaranteed. The following year, Derrick Henry—still the best running back in the league—got about half that. That same year, Christian McCaffrey, arguably the most exciting offensive player in the game, as devastating a receiver as he is a runner, only netted about $38 million guaranteed.  

Zeke’s no longer a 1,500-yard back. Neither is he the hub on which the offensive game plan revolves. Physically, he might be the oldest 26-year-old in the NFL. But that doesn’t mean he’s not an important member of the team. Zeke’s great at blocking, good at catching passes out of the backfield, and, so long as he isn’t trying to dance around defenders, he can still get those tough yards. The Cowboys still need Zeke to win. But the best version of Zeke, now, is one who splits carries with Tony Pollard.

Since about halfway through the middle of the awful 2020 season, good things have happened once Pollard gets the ball. The 24-year-old has the burst of speed that’s been pounded out of Zeke’s legs. Using them together, and often, opens up the game for Dallas. Pollard and Elliott combined for just 15 carries in the season-opening loss to Tampa Bay, but that’s been practically doubled in the games since, combining for 29 and 28 carries in wins against the Chargers and Eagles, respectively. With that, the team has reestablished an offensive balance that’ll serve them better than if Dak Prescott must throw 58 times, as he did in their lone loss of this season. Just as a point of comparison: the last two games, combined, Dak hasn’t thrown as many passes as he did in that loss.

Prescott is a top-tier, franchise quarterback. Still worth whatever he got paid. As a quarterback, he’s still the same player he was before he broke his leg. But to not relive Antonio Ramiro Romo’s career in 2021, Dak’s at his best when he has fewer than 30 passing attempts per game. Because that means the Cowboys aren’t trailing by so many points that the only way to make it competitive is for Dak to pass on just about every play. And if the team isn’t in a deep hole, then that likely means this much-improved defense is keeping opponents from running away with the game while the Cowboys offense finds its way. When the offense eventually gets into rhythm—they’re too good not to—then the defense can rest. That likely means Zeke and Pollard are getting used in tandem, and the running game is helping the Cowboys control the pace.

Once all that happens, Cowboys fans can bask in the glory of this football utopia. Where the imagined, best-case pre-season scenarios become much more realistic. Dak is healthy. The offensive line is, too. It’s a place where Trevon Diggs wearing No. 7 makes you forget about the struggling quarterbacks of the past who wore that same number—Ben DiNucci, most recently. The same goes for Micah Parsons and his No. 11 jersey (Roy Williams, the wide receiver, I still think of you). This is the type of place where the Cowboys control the game to the point where no one fears Mike McCarthy will settle for a 56-yard game-winning field goal attempt. Or that his mishandling of the clock will eventually cost the Cowboys a win. Or that another missed extra point from Greg Zuerlein will do the same.

This type of life is possible. But only if Zeke and Pollard, together, can provide the productivity at running back that the former once did by himself. That with coaches using them both more equitably, everyone else—from offense to defense—will benefit. They will be like two same-sized gears helping turn a larger one.

The Cowboys are good. How good? That, we won’t know for certain until around Thanksgiving. That’s when they’ll start playing in the cold, in places like Kansas City, Washington, New York, and Philadelphia. The best chance to win those games won’t be with Dak throwing 50 times and a trio of wide receivers combining for 300 pass catching yards. The best chance to win those games will come if Elliott and Pollard both touch the ball as often as Dak throws.

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