You don't sign the largest total value contract among all running backs — for a whopping $90 million — unless you're something special. You aren't named to three Pro Bowl rosters in your first five seasons unless you've got a lot of talent. You don't rush for 6,384 yards in your first five years, a top-15 total in NFL history across that span, unless you can really impress with your speed, vision, power and all the other desirable traits of a star running back.
But perhaps I should reconsider how I wrote the above three lines focusing on Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott. Perhaps, in all of the clauses following "unless," I should have said "...you have a really good offensive line." Because to be honest, you probably aren't doing a lot of those things above — winning rushing titles, getting Pro Bowl nods, and rewriting league history — if your offensive line is subpar.
And that's exactly the case for Dallas in recent seasons, with names like Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, Travis Frederick and La'el Collins consistently keeping the Cowboys atop the list of the league's most fearsome walls of protection. When injuries depleted the line last season, however, Zeke's yardage output, yards per attempt, yards per game and overall dominance took a real turn.
And for this reason, instead of calling him the "poster child" for the game's top-tier running backs or best contract values, NFL analyst Cris Collinsworth labeled him as the paradigm for a less desirable quality.
"Ezekiel Elliott — we've talked about it — the 90-million-dollar man, and probably the poster child for our case that it really is more about the offensive line than the running back," Collinsworth said in the latest episode of his podcast. "He had career lows last year, really did not look like he was as effective, but when you take out both tackles and your best guard, your running back's going to pay the price for it."
And though his counting stats took a tumble, his Pro Football Focus grades stayed relatively consistent, showing that his performance in past years truly may have been bolstered by an elite offensive line. Here are his PFF rushing grades by year:
As you can see, 2020's grade was a career low, ranking at No. 48 out of 70 eligible player. But considering it was only slightly lower than in 2018, when he led the league with 1,434 yards and was named to the Pro Bowl, it shows that it may have been less about his individual abilities and more about his surroundings.
Looking farther up the list will reveal another Dallas Cowboy, Tony Pollard, and his 79.9 rushing grade, which put him at No. 17 among all qualifying running backs last year. That's higher than some names you may be familiar with: Alvin Kamara, Josh Jacobs and the aforementioned Zeke, for starters. For that reason, Collinsworth would like to see him get a bigger opportunity.
"The guy that I almost feel sorry for sometimes in this offense is Tony Pollard," Collinsworth said. "I think Tony Pollard can really play, and he's just not gonna get the opportunities because he's not the guy that got the paycheck."
Pollard has two more seasons left on his rookie contract and could see his role increase should he continue to outplay Elliott analytically, though he also had some less-than-stellar counting stats, like a 4.3 Y/A figure, in 2020. Two effective running backs fighting for the role is never a bad thing to have, but the hope is that Dallas can make the choice that leads them to the most success.