ARLINGTON, Texas — Leading the Miami Dolphins, 24-6, with 5:27 to play, it was time for the Dallas Cowboys to let Ezekiel Elliott kill the clock with the running game, like they had done so many times since taking the running back with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft.
But as the Cowboys went on the field, Elliott remained on the sideline.
In his place was rookie Tony Pollard, the Cowboys’ fourth-round pick.
All Pollard did as Elliott watched was run five times for 40 yards, including a 16-yard touchdown with 3:45 to play that finished off the Cowboys’ 31-6 win against the Dolphins.
As happy as Pollard was to score his first pro touchdown, Elliott might have been happier.
“It’s definitely very helpful, because we’re going to be fresh,” Elliott said. “When you’ve got two guys that can roll and that load gets divided in two, it’s not me getting 30 to 35 touches a game anymore. We’re taking care of it together. That’s definitely going to pay off.”
It’s not as if Elliott had a quiet day, rushing 19 times for 125 yards in the win.
Through three games, Elliott has 55 carries for 289 yards and two touchdowns. It’s the best three-game start to his career, yardage-wise, with the second-most carries. He had fewer carries in 2018 (48) in part because the Cowboys needed to throw more because they trailed in the second half.
“They’re going to be awesome to complement and piece together in so many ways,” offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said. “[Pollard] did a phenomenal job. He really did. I think the best credit is that you didn’t consciously think, ‘Oh, is Zeke in or is Tony in?’ Whoever was in was in, and you just called the game and let it fly.”
The Cowboys just guaranteed Elliott $50 million and made him the NFL’s highest-paid running back, so some might see the split workload as an unwise investment. But, the Cowboys see it as an embarrassment of riches on an offense that can win in multiple ways.
In each of their first three games, the Cowboys have scored at least 31 points and put up more than 470 yards on offense. Dak Prescott threw seven touchdown passes with 674 yards in the first two games, spreading the ball around to Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Randall Cobb, Jason Witten, Devin Smith and Blake Jarwin. Against the Dolphins, he threw for 246 yards on 19-of-32 passing with two touchdowns, but the Cowboys ran it 34 times for 235 yards.
Pollard finished with 103 yards on 13 carries.
It was the first time the Cowboys have had two running backs go for more than 100 yards in the same game since Emmitt Smith had 122 yards and Chris Warren had 104 in an Oct. 4, 1998 win against the Washington Redskins.
Elliott was 3 years old. Pollard was 1.
“I remember that game,” said coach Jason Garrett, who had 169 yards and 1 TD in that win. “It’s obviously a tribute to the offensive line. They did an excellent job in the game to control the line of scrimmage throughout. Getting Zeke going is a big part of what we are trying to do offensively. He can control the tempo of the game when we run the ball well. Tony Pollard going in there, I told him afterwards he was looking like an NFL running back.”
The Cowboys were preparing to use Pollard a lot if Elliott’s holdout stretched into the regular season. They initially saw him as a change-of-pace back but realized he can run between the tackles fairly well. Even though he does not have Elliott’s power, he kept the pile moving forward.
“Obviously he’s a smaller back, but he puts his pads down and can make some yards,” right guard Zack Martin said. “He’s extremely dynamic, and it’s great to have two backs, kind of a 1-2 punch like that.”
It might not be an either Elliott or Pollard proposition, either.
For one snap Sunday, at least, Elliott and Pollard were on the field together with the rookie catching an 8-yard pass from Prescott.
“It’s still a little early in the season,” Pollard said. “We’ve got a little something now that we haven’t really used too much. But I’m sure there’s going to be a lot more coming.”