OXNARD, Calif. — The Dallas Cowboys have a potent one-two punch with their running backs.
Ezekiel Elliott leads the way with his two NFL rushing titles, but he does need a little more help than he did in his first three seasons when he collected those titles. The Cowboys foresaw this and selected Tony Pollard out of Memphis in Round 4 of the 2018 NFL draft.
Elliott and Pollard provided Dallas with a nice combination as the backs combined for 1,945 scrimmage yards and 13 rushing and receiving touchdowns in 2020. Running back appears to be safe, and a third-string running back on the Cowboys' roster may be relegated to special teams.
According to coach Mike McCarthy, the Cowboys may actually employ more two-back sets earlier in the year to keep Elliott fresh for the late-season stretch.
"We got Tony Pollard. Rico [Dowdle] has looked really good," McCarthy said.
McCarthy also indicated that fullback Sewo Olonilua has had a productive camp through the first week with one padded practice.
"So, you have some younger guys that can play and produce," said McCarty. "So, it's not necessary for Zeke to run the ball 25 times, 30 times a game. The most important thing is that when you get to December, January football, you want to be in top form to be able to run the ball 25 to 30 times if needed."
One running back that has taken strides in the offseason and through the first week of camp is Dowdle, a former South Carolina undrafted free agent from 2020. The 6-0, 215-pound back provided Dallas with seven carries for 24 yards in his rookie campaign.
However, Dowdle's best play came in Week 9 on a kickoff return against the Pittsburgh Steelers when he raced 64 yards to set up the offense first-and-10 from Pittsburgh's 36-yard line.
Like most rookies, drafted or not, Dowdle had trouble acclimating to the NFL without a full offseason program.
"That last year, I just think with everything going on, he wasn't in NFL shape, number one," McCarthy said. "I think it took him a while to get accustomed to the conditioning of all of this. I think, like a lot of younger guys, he's feeling his way around. But I think you saw him the middle of the season, saw what he did with the opportunity with the kickoff return.”
"So, he has a lot of natural run instinct that we've been impressed with. I think when he got out here from day one you could see at the OTAs frankly he's one of those guys that's taken that second-year jump. He's more mature. But I think he's having a nice camp."
The Cowboys will use more two-back sets throughout training camp, not only because the NFL is trending that way with offenses, but to also help the defense get used to the looks.
Said McCarthy: "Base defense, five or six years ago, was probably 15, 17 percent — the teams I coached. Now, maybe it's 25 or 30 percent. So, you got to be cognizant of those trends, and we are. Because this time of year, [defensive coordinator] Dan (Quinn) needs to see a two-back set. With that, we need to do a little more of it. Because you need to line up to run the ball and you want to run the ball no matter what they're into. So, we need to have some more of that."
The use of two-back sets, even if it is to get the defense ready, will give Dowdle and the rest of the backs a chance to impress the coaches.
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