OXNARD, Calif. – Tony Pollard got a “good luck” text from Ezekiel Elliott minutes before the start of his first training camp since the Dallas Cowboys dumped the two-time rushing champion in a cost-cutting move.
Pollard is the lead running back now, and trying to be true to his quieter personality as he takes the leadership role from the more boisterous Elliott.
Now nearly two weeks into camp, and a little more than a month from the opener, Elliott remains unsigned as Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones refuses to shut down the idea of his return.
As unlikely as that move would be by Dallas, Pollard knows better than to think he wouldn't have to adjust again to the dynamic in the running back room.
“At the end of the day, we know this game is a business,” Pollard said. “It’s a business first before anything else. And that’s just how we have to approach it.”
Pollard's position has been in the news most of the summer precisely because of business.
Elliott's departure elevated Pollard's stature as one of the running backs to get the $10.1 franchise tag, alongside Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants and Las Vegas back Josh Jacobs.
Pollard was the only one to sign the franchise tender. Barkley eventually worked out a different one-year contract, but Jacobs hasn't relented.
The difference is that Pollard was a fourth-round pick with a much less lucrative rookie contract. The former Memphis player will make more than three times the value of his rookie deal this year alone.
But that isn't the whole story with Pollard.
“That’s just a part of my mindset, the way I’ve attacked things throughout my life, throughout my career,” Pollard said. “Used to being the underdog, used to being undervalued and overlooked. It’s easy for me to just put the blinders on and go to work.”
Pollard has been close to a full participant in camp in California despite breaking his lower left leg and ankle in the Cowboys' 19-12 divisional round loss at San Francisco in January.
His progress wasn't a surprise to Mike McCarthy because of what the coach saw when his new lead back was rehabilitating the injury in the offseason.
At the same time, the running back group was undergoing a major transition without Elliott, who was popular with teammates because of how he played through injuries even as his production waned in the years after signing a $90 million extension.
Elliott was easy to see — and hear — in the locker room when it was open to reporters. Pollard was almost never around. Things are changing.
“His leadership responsibility has increased and the most important part of it he’s doing it within his personality,” McCarthy said. “I think he’s done a great job of being the leader, the veteran in the room.”
The Cowboys added a free agent in Ronald Jones, who has been in the NFL a year longer than Pollard but is four months younger.
Otherwise, they added two rookies in sixth-round draft pick Deuce Vaughn and undrafted free agent Hunter Luepke to go with second-year player Malik Davis and Rico Dowdle, in his fourth year.
There's also a new coach in the room in Jeff Blasko, who came with McCarthy to Dallas in 2020 but was with the offensive line before now.
The common denominator since 2019 is Pollard, who had career highs in rushing yards and touchdowns (1,007 and nine) and receiving yards and scores (371 and three) last season while becoming a much more potent threat than the declining Elliott.
“It’s been cool to see Tony’s growth since I’ve been here,” Blasko said. “Each year, you’ve seen the performance go up. But the leadership and the confidence, it's been really cool to watch from him.”
There is a throwback feel to this camp for Pollard, who was a rookie in 2019 when Elliott missed the entire preseason in a contract holdout.
Even if Elliott were to return, this time the depth chart won't change. And Pollard is trying to make sure his personality doesn't change, either.
“For me, it’s simple,” the 2022 Pro Bowler said. “Just being myself, going out there, attacking the day the way I’ve been attacking it since I got here. Just leading those guys by example, just through the success that I’ve had, through the way things played out for me.”
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