Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. He is now writing a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.
This offseason was filled with a lot of noise surrounding Dalvin Cook.
There was drama over whether he would attend training camp without a new contract. There were debates over whether spending top dollar on a running back with an injury history was worth it. There was reporting all over the map about negotiations between his side and the Minnesota Vikings.
Since Cook signed an extension and got back on the field, the noise has gone quiet and he’s reminded everyone in the first four weeks that he is the centerpiece of the Vikings’ offense -- an offense that will have to carry the Vikings if they want to get back into the playoff race.
Over the last two weeks, Cook has 49 carries for 311 yards (6.4 yards per carry). Against the Houston Texans he scored two touchdowns en route to a 31-23 win.
Even teammates who have been around Cook for a few years are impressed.
“If you look at the one touchdown he had from this past weekend he broke like six tackles on like a 5-yard run,” tackle Brian O’Neill said. “You don’t see that from a lot of people. He’s a special talent.”
There aren’t many teams in the NFL that lean as heavily on their running back as the Vikings. Cook is only eight carries behind league leader Josh Jacobs in total attempts and ranks No. 1 in yards and touchdowns. He’s needed as the center of defenses’s attention. Last week Houston put eight men in the box on 33.3% of Cook’s runs and he still lit them up.
That played into the Vikings hitting on big plays in the passing game. Kirk Cousins went 9-for-11 with 180 yards and one touchdown when using play-action.
It also helped the Vikings’ struggling defense stay off the field. The Vikings controlled the ball for 36:11 in the game.
“We know what [head coach Mike Zimmer] is trying to get done,” Cook said. “He wants to play good defense, manage the clock and limit the other team’s possessions as much as he can. Being around a coach like that, you see the mindset that he’s in.”
Things haven’t come easy for Cook this season. Pro Football Focus ranks the Vikings’ run blocking 23rd in the NFL and Cook led the league in broken tackles last week.
“Sometimes they’ll play the replay on the scoreboard and you’ll kind of look at it and you’ll just be like, did he really just do that again?” O’Neill said.
“Dalvin's got great heart, great toughness and physicality, but he's a hard runner and he's got really good balance,” Zimmer said.
For Generation X or Millennial football fans, the combination of highlight reel runs and reliance on a running back may remind you of running backs from the 1990s. Well, you’re not alone. On Wednesday, Cook explained that he’s been watching Barry Sanders highlights on his iPad and studying his movements closely.
“I watch it because how he sets his runs up, how he develops things in his mind and I kind of see it from a clear-eye view,” Cook said. “Every time I watch his plays, I see something different from him, and how he sees things, and I just want to be as explosive as he was. And I know that’s not possible, but I’m going to try to match it as best that I can.”
Statistically speaking, Cook isn’t far off the pace of a Sanders-like season. If he keeps up his current rate, Cook would run 300 times for 1,696 yards (5.7 yards per carry) and score 24 touchdowns. Sanders’s average season was 320 carries for 1,597 yards and 10 touchdowns -- though in his best four-year stretch, Barry averaged nearly 1,800 yards per year.
The Vikings might not want Cook running that much.
“We try to spot him throughout the course of the ball game. I think [Alexander] Mattison had seven carries last week or something like that,” Zimmer said. “But when it gets to the end of the ball game, we’ve got to get Dalvin in there. When the game’s on the line, we’ve got to get him in there because he’s so [multi]-dimensional.”
In the coming weeks the Vikings will need all of Cook’s dimensions to get back in the race. Despite his rushing success, he only has 40 yards receiving. Last year he caught 53 passes at 9.8 yards per reception and made up 14.4% of Cousins’s total passing yards. This year he’s been responsible for just 4.5% of Cousins’s yards.
It’s clear that in any era a running back can’t do it on the ground alone. Those 1990s Detroit Lions teams tell us that even the GOAT running back can’t carry a team. Sanders only played in six playoff games during his 10-year career. Detroit lost in the first round the year he cleared 2,000 yards.
The 4-0 Seattle Seahawks are next on the Vikings’ schedule. Since they have scored the second most points in the NFL, it’s likely to take more than just Cook breaking tackles to compete with them. The Vikings will need to carry over their passing game, which has averaged 10.4 yards per attempt the last two weeks and continue some of the things they did early in the game against Houston in which they kept DeShaun Watson to only six first-half completions.
“Hopefully we can continue to stay healthy, we can keep getting better with the young players that we have, they can understand schemes and understand game situations,” Zimmer said.
Of course, it helps the Vikings’ odds to have Sanders -- er -- Cook in the backfield controlling the game.