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Cowboys Must Bench Ezekiel Elliott, Start Tony Pollard? 3 Factors ESPN Insider is Missing

What ESPN ignores in its evaluation that would have three-time Pro Bowler Elliott play a backup role to Pollard? Three things, specifically ...

FRISCO - This figures to be a classic "Eye Test'' vs. "Advanced Stats'' argument - at least until the Dallas Cowboys take the field, at which time I predict that Ezekiel Elliott will experience a perfectly productive 2022 season with Tony Pollard as his also-productive sidekick.

But until then? There are going to be "deep dives'' from smart folks like ESPN’s Bill Barnwell predicting the demise of Zeke and calling for his benching.

Earlier in his career, Barnwell asserts, "You could have made a case for Elliott remaining as the primary runner. There are no arguments to be made after last season.''

Barnwell then suggests that Pollard should be Dallas' starting running back.

The ESPN analyst mentions "FDOE marks'' and how often each player has been "targeted on his routes'' and of course, yards per carry.

What ESPN ignores in its evaluation that would have three-time Pro Bowler Elliott play a backup role to Pollard? Three things, specifically:

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1) Situational football. Elliott does not have Pollard's home-run potential. That's inarguable - and it shows in Pollard averaging 5.5 yards per carry compared to Elliott’s 4.2 yards. But to simply focus on that ignores situations that include the two players being asked to do different things, including the fact that when Dallas needs a yard (on third-and-1, say), the Cowboys run a play designed to gain a yard.

And they give the ball not to Pollard, but to the runner more likely to get that single "dirty'' yard: Elliott.

2) Injuries. It is unfair to evaluate Elliott's stats in 2021 without considering the ligament injury sustained in October. Under medical supervision, he played through it. There was no risk of further injury, but there was discomfort.

And there was an understandable lack of explosiveness that came with that.

Anybody who watched Elliott last spring and summer in workouts would not make the mistake of thinking he lacked "scatback'' traits. He told me he lost 10 pounds, down to 218, for the purpose of being more elusive.

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It was going to work - until the injury.

And how is Elliott's health today?

Coach Mike McCarthys said, "100 percent.''

3) The little things. Elliott is an elite pass-protection blocker. He is a skilled pass-catcher. And - in a category no computer can measure - he's a heart-and-soul guy in the locker room. Teammates root for him, rally around him, play hard for him because, as with QB Dak Prescott, he's a compelling personality who plays hard for them.

(Sidebar: With all due respect to anybody writing from their cubicle in Bristol: The way teammates react to Elliott, the way they gravitate to him, the way they are both amused by his status as a senior leader and a class clown? One has to be in the locker room, on the practice field, on the team plane, to truly understand this.)

ESPN brings up the Elliott contract, but breaks no new ground here. Barnwell writes, "The Cowboys insist that a player’s contract does not impact their depth chart status.'' I've never had anybody from here inside The Star actually say that; the truth is, teams are always aware of trying to justify their use of capital - from high draft picks to high salaries.

“Based on how they played in 2021, Pollard should be moved into the lead role,” Barnwell writes. “Will the Cowboys actually make that change? I’m skeptical. For one, the organization is paying Elliott like he’s a superstar. While Dallas would surely have cut him this offseason if that had been financially feasible, the team is on the hook to pay him $12.4 million in 2022. It can move on from his deal and save nearly $5 million in cap space in 2023 ...''

"Dallas surely would have cut him''? That's a bold statement. I'll say it a different way: Dallas surely would have worked to forge a new and more cap-friendly contract, as it did with DeMarcus Lawrence.''

As I've written often, the Cowboys have an escape hatch in Elliott’s deal after the 2022 season, and even at that time, my prediction today is that Dallas will try to retain him on a new, cheaper deal. But that's a long way off (and by the way, Pollard is due to be a free agent after 2022, so the puzzle becomes a bit complicated). 

The challenge for the Cowboys is about now, and it's about how to best utilize Elliott and Pollard. "Benching the superstar'' is a headline-grabbing concept. Putting both in position to help Dallas win - with Ezekiel Elliott, all things considered, retaining the top position on the depth chart - is the actual goal.