FRISCO, Texas — Tony Pollard had been officially named a Pro Bowl running back for about a minute when his phone rang. It was Ezekiel Elliott.
“He might’ve been the first one to hit me up right after,” Pollard said.
Since the Cowboys selected Elliott No. 4 overall in the 2016 draft, he has been their everything at running back. Elliott has been named to the Pro Bowl three times. He has won two NFL rushing titles. He has four 1,000-yard seasons. He has reached double digits in touchdowns four times.
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He has the past production to say he should continue to be their everything at running back, but he doesn’t.
“I think we’re a better team when we’re going back and forth. Just the way we’re wearing down the defense, OK, I may go three, Tony may go three. He might run it three times in a row. You see how he’s wearing the defense,” Elliott said. “Honestly, man, TP is playing some really good football right now. We as a team, it only benefits our team the more touches he gets. I mean s—, you can’t say you’re a team guy when everything’s going good. Sometimes your role changes.”
With the Cowboys having at least a chance of winning the NFC East as they face the Tennessee Titans (8:15 pm ET, Prime Video) on Thursday, they can look to their opponent for the way they used to operate.
Derrick Henry is second in the NFL in rushing with 1,429 yards. He has 319 of the Titans’ 424 carries. Seventy-five percent of the time Tennessee runs the ball, Henry is the guy. Dontrell Hilliard has the second-most carries among running backs on the team with … 22.
The highest percentage of carries Elliott has had in a season was 69.2% in 2018 when he had 304 of the Cowboys’ 439 attempts — and that came with him sitting out the 16th and final game of the regular season. Through 15 games this season, Elliott still leads the Cowboys in rushing attempts (204), but his percentage of the work is down to 43.2%.
Some of that is due to injury — he missed two games with a hyperextended right knee that still causes him to wear a brace — but a lot of that is Pollard, who has career highs in yards (988), carries (186) and touchdowns (12). He has 33 catches for 310 yards — seven catches and 28 yards away from establishing career highs.
“There’s no doubt it benefits our football team because those guys are fresh,” All-Pro right guard Zack Martin said. “They talk about it all the time with those guys carrying the load like that. I’ve heard Zeke say it; there’s no excuse for them to gas out. They can just roll and do their thing. And it’s not like we have — there’s plays here and there that’s specifically for one or the other — but for the most part we run the same plays no matter who’s back there.”
Said coach Mike McCarthy, “We play our best offense when those two guys are rolling and touching the ball.”
Many wondered why the Cowboys did not work to more of a split backfield last season when Elliott played with a partially torn posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. He admittedly lacked explosion and lateral quickness, but he did not want to rest.
After the season, the Cowboys coaches were determined to get Pollard involved more.
Pollard is ninth in the league in rushing with 988 yards. Elliott, despite missing two games, is 16th, with 829 yards. The last time the Cowboys had two running backs with more than 800 yards apiece in a season was in 1969 with Calvin Hill (942) and Walt Garrison (818). The last time one team had two 1,000-yard running backs in the same season was the 2009 Carolina Panthers with DeAngelo Williams (1,117) and Jonathan Stewart (1,133).
This is the 10th time in team history the Cowboys have had two running backs with at least 150 carries apiece in a season.
“I want Tony Pollard and Zeke to be playing their best football when we’re going into the playoffs,” McCarthy said. “My goal and their goal is to win a championship. That’s why I have so much admiration for Zeke. Zeke, he’s won rushing titles. He knows what it’s like. He knows what it takes to get there, and I think Tony could be that guy too if we played that way.”
But the partnership of Elliott and Pollard has been better than either of them individually.
Elliott briefly paused when he was asked whether he missed having 25 carries a game.
“I like winning football, you know?” he said. “I’d like to have a long career.”
And he’d like it to be with Pollard.
“We’re hoping for another five, six, you know what I mean?” Elliott said.
When Jerry Jones told Pollard he had made the Pro Bowl, the owner said he was looking forward to the future. Their future could be just a few more weeks.
Pollard is set to be an unrestricted free agent, although the Cowboys could opt to put the franchise tag on him. Elliott has no more guaranteed money remaining on the $90 million extension he signed in 2019, and the Cowboys could seek to rework his contract.
“Right now I’m not really focused on that,” Pollard said. “At the moment, we got our eyes on something bigger. I’m grateful and honored to be in the Pro Bowl. I appreciate everybody voting for me, but hopefully I don’t get to be in it [because it takes place the week prior to the Super Bowl]. That’s what we’re planning for.”