FRISCO, Texas -- It’s the middle of the final padded training camp practice in Oxnard, California, and the Dallas Cowboys are facing fourth-and-1.
Ezekiel Elliott has been the primary running back option in that situation since 2016, but the Cowboys released their third all-time leading rusher in March and he recently signed with the New England Patriots.
In the past, a stadium could be filled with 80,000 fans, and all of them would know Elliott was getting the ball. More often than not, he would succeed.
On this day, Tony Pollard is lined up to Dak Prescott’s right. After the quarterback tucks the ball into Pollard’s arms, the running back goes right and sticks his foot in the ground to pick up the first down.
There are no fans in the makeshift stands at training camp, but it seems like everyone expected Pollard to get the ball.
As much as the Cowboys feel confident in Pollard’s ability to replace Elliott as their No. 1 back, it’s the gritty and grimy yards, like those in short-yardage and goal-line situations, that will ultimately tell the story.
“We have phone booth runs, and I like Tony in the phone booth,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s a crease runner, and I always go back to [Hall of Fame running back] Marcus Allen. He always said short yardage, goal line was the easiest play in football because you’ve got all 22 guys there, and it’s easy to find a crease and accelerate it, and Tony has that instinct.”
Pollard is listed at 6-foot, same as Elliott, but he is 215 pounds, some 11 less than Elliott. Their builds are different. Elliott is more compact, seemingly built to handle the battering a running back takes, but Pollard believes he can handle the tough inside runs, too.
“I mean, my style of running, like I try to run to avoid hits, but if it’s a situation that I can’t avoid it, then I’m finishing all my runs forward,” Pollard said. “I just keep that mindset, trying to be conscious of the hits I take, but at the same time not being timid out there or tiptoe into things or anything like that.”
Pollard does not have the same sample of experience as Elliott, but in the past two seasons he has shown the ability to succeed. Over that stretch, according to TruMedia, Pollard had 100 yards on 18 carries of third-and-2 or less, converting a first down 14 times. He has averaged 3.27 yards before contact and 1.89 after.
Elliott had 42 carries for 153 yards with 32 first-down conversions. He averaged 2.02 yards before contact and 1.62 yards after, but Elliott had five touchdowns to Pollard’s one.
In runs from opponents' 5 yard-line, Pollard had nine carries the past two seasons for 13 yards and three touchdowns. Elliott had 33 carries for 37 yards and 16 touchdowns.
“As a back, you understand the lanes. You understand what the play is designed to do,” Prescott said. “I mean Zeke, credit to him, the head, the neck he had on him, he had a lot of those times it was just, ‘Boom!’ And he could run straight forward and into people. I think TP offers a little different dynamic of the quickness and being able to slide into the hole. So I think the job is going to get done the same way.”
Pollard has shown he could handle more work every year since the Cowboys selected him in the fourth round in 2019. His carries have gone from 86 to 101 to 130 to 193 last season, when he ran for 1,007 yards and was named to the Pro Bowl.
But how much more work can he handle? He has had just one game in his career with more than 20 carries (22 versus the Packers last season) and two more with at least 15 (15 versus the Minnesota Vikings, 18 versus the New York Giants in back-to-back weeks last season).
Pollard, who is playing this season on the $10.091 million franchise tag, will be the No. 1 back, but McCarthy’s plan is to use several of them, even if Malik Davis, Rico Dowdle and Deuce Vaughn are untested at the moment. McCarthy is looking more at the touches per game than carries per game.
“That’s why the run-by-committee is usually the best way to go,” McCarthy said. “Running back is a stress position, each and every year. So you got to have a stable there.”
Pollard is coming off a broken leg and surgery to repair a high ankle sprain, injuries suffered in the playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers. He will not play in the preseason, but there has been no issue during the training camp practices.
“He’s put his foot in the ground on a number of runs,” McCarthy said. “I definitely think he’s back.”
And Pollard wants to prove there is more that he can do, even as a short-yardage and goal-line back.
“I’m prepared for any moment that they feel like I need to be in there for,” Pollard said, “and I’m ready for whatever.”