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Cowboys' RBs: Two-Headed Monster or One Emerging Headache?

Rise of Tony Pollard has Cowboys suddenly splitting carries in crowded backfield with Ezekiel Elliott

Feed Zeke ... less?

As he promised, Dallas Cowboys' running back Ezekiel Elliott is better in 2021 than during his forgettable 2020. Leaner. Quicker. Faster. And - through two games - void of last season's fumble yips.

But add it all up and after Dallas' nail-biting 1-1 start, the two-time NFL rushing champion is only the 25th-leading runner in the league. He trails two quarterbacks (Jalen Hurts of the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants' Daniel Jones) within his own division and, shockingly, has fewer yards than another running back in his own backfield - Tony Pollard.

After Sunday's 20-17 victory in Los Angeles in which kicker Greg Zuerlein produced the longest walk-off field goal (56 yards) in franchise history, the Cowboys are now faced with a running back Rubik's Cube: How to split carries and maximize production from two talented, diverse backs both deserving of playing time.

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Because after two weeks this much is clear: The Cowboys don't have a starter and a backup. They have themselves two starters.

Whereas Cowboys fans still trust Elliott to gain the crucial four yards, it's now Pollard more likely to spring for 40. He's always provided a change of pace, but this season it's also an increase of production.

There's an undeniable difference in burst and speed and wiggle between Pollard and Elliott. Fans see it. So do coaches. Against the Chargers, Pollard did more with less, gaining 109 yards on 13 carries to Elliott's 71 on 16.

"T.P., he ran his tail off today," Elliott said after the game. "He's a great back, all-around, can catch it and run it. He's smaller but he runs hard, breaks a lot of tackles. He had a hell of a day. I'm proud of him."

The Cowboys have long wanted to lighten Elliott's workload in an attempt to keep him fresher for potential playoff games. (In his last 15 games he's had fewer than 20 rushes 14 times.) Pollard's continued improvement gives them that luxury this season.

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Pollard - ranked 17th in the NFL - has 16 carries for 123 yards and a score; Elliott 27 for 104 and a touchdown. While Elliott is a stronger, more savvy runner and a better blocker in blitz pick-ups - and an elite receiver quarterback Dak Prescott trusted on Sunday's crucial third down on the game-winning drive - he has a long run of 19 yards. Pollard has two runs longer than 20, including a 28-yard burst against L.A.

This, of course, is a good problem to be pondering. But how does two-backs-one-ball work?

In their 61-season history, the Cowboys have never sported two 1,000-yard rushers. Pollard and Elliott have that potential.

In the 1990s the Cowboys seemingly conducted an annual search for a running back that could spell Emmitt Smith. But despite trying Curvin Richards, Derrick Lassic, Sherman Williams, Lincoln Coleman, Troy Hambrick and Chris Warren, they essentially remained a one-back team for 13 consecutive seasons.

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Don Perkins and Dan Reeves seamlessly split carries for the Cowboys in the 1960s. Same with Calvin Hill and Duane Thomas on Dallas' first Super Bowl teams in 1970-71. The shared workspace didn't work so well in 1986, with Tony Dorsett ultimately pouting over giving up carries to Herschel Walker in Dallas' "Dream Duo." In 2007, Julius Jones was the feature running back but Marion Barber scored more touchdowns and went to the Pro Bowl without making a single start. In the 2010s, the Cowboys failed to define balanced roles for DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones.

They can look to Cleveland for the current model, where Browns' backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt provide the league's best 1-1a running punch.

Dallas' plan worked to perfection against the Chargers, with Elliott and Pollard combing for 180 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries.

"We just wanted to go with who's hot," Pollard said. "We both feed off each other. If he was hot, we would have went that way. It just turned out this way."

As long as the Cowboys win, it will be considered an embarrassment of running riches. But at the first sign of not maxing out potential, the two-headed monster could become one big headache.