‘Contagious’ energy of Dalvin Cook fueling Vikings’ run

    Covered the 49ers, Raiders and Warriors for the San Jose Mercury News. She joined ESPN in 2017.

EAGAN, Minn. — A shift took place when the Minnesota Vikings drafted Dalvin Cook 41st overall in 2017.

The franchise that had been centered around the run game over the previous decade with one of the greatest to ever do it — Adrian Peterson — would maintain that identity. But Cook personified the modern running back — a player who was just as dangerous running as he was catching the ball.

Over the past three seasons, the Vikings morphed their offensive philosophy around Cook. And he has become the face of the franchise on the field and on the Vikings’ website and social media platforms, in ads and publications, and for Vikings’ Table, the team’s effort to fight hunger in the Twin Cities.

Coming off a breakout season in 2019, Cook, 25, signed a five-year, $63 million extension that came with $28.2 million guaranteed. The Vikings paid him as if he is the face of the franchise. And he has delivered.

After a 1-5 start to the season, the tide appears to be turning in Minnesota, largely because of Cook. In back-to-back wins over the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions, Cook totaled 478 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns. He made NFL history in that stretch by becoming the first player to score a touchdown on each of his team’s first four possessions against Green Bay. He joined Jim Brown and Deuce McAllister as the only players to record 225 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns in consecutive games.

Cook has emerged in the MVP conversation and if this recent streak continues, that’s where he’ll stay. And his play has willed his team to the verge of contention at a critical juncture.

They have a way to go, but the 3-5 Vikings are looking to make a playoff push. In essentially a must-win game against the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN), the Vikings will rely on the face of their franchise to continue his remarkable run while carrying his team along with him.

Cook and the Tennessee Titans’ Derrick Henry are in a tug of war for the NFL’s rushing lead. One week, it’s Cook, who captured the lead after running for 206 yards against Detroit. The next, it’s Henry, who regained first place after another 100-yard performance Thursday in a loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

Henry leads the NFL in rushing with 946 yards. But Cook, who has 858 yards, leads in rushing touchdowns (12), yards per game (122.6) and yards after initial contact (2.82), the latter of which is on pace to be one of the best marks in the past 15 seasons.

For Cook, those numbers don’t just reflect his individual achievement.

“I think it’s good for us up front,” Cook said of his offensive line. “Getting that confidence going into the back end of the season, knowing what we’re trying to get done, knowing the identity of who we [are]. I think that’s key for us up front, for the guys up front. It’s always good to be out front in statistics, it just shows the hard work you put in, but I’m big on letting my guys know up front that this thing can be done.”

Injuries limited Cook to 31 games over his first three seasons, including some nagging issues down the stretch last year. He spent the offseason focused on building strength. He wanted to come back bigger, faster and better able to withstand the wear and tear on his body.

It has paid off. Despite missing a game-and-a half this season because of a groin injury sustained at Seattle in Week 5, Cook hasn’t slowed and has shown he can shoulder a heavy load on offense.

“How Dalvin goes, we normally go,” offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said.

Since Week 8, Cook has rushed for 221 yards after contact. No other player has rushed for even 200 yards in that span — except for Cook last week. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Cook has gained double the rushing yards over expected (238) than the next closest player, the Browns’ Nick Chubb (112). It’s a measure that illustrates Cook’s individual performance, isolating him from the circumstances around him, including Minnesota’s 17th-ranked run block win rate.

The Vikings are a self-proclaimed run-first team, and Cook accounts for 33.7% of their touches from scrimmage, the highest mark in the NFL. That approach has helped the Vikings climb out of their early-season hole.

And it has arguably helped no one more than quarterback Kirk Cousins. In seven games Cook has missed that Cousins has played with Minnesota, the QB has a 3-4 record, a 43.4 Total QBR, a 69.3% completion percentage with 11 touchdowns and 11 turnovers, including seven interceptions.

It’s often Cousins’ salary — $96 million from 2020-22 — that comes under fire when it’s Cook who has been doing the heavy lifting. Cook is averaging 0.23 expected points per carry compared to Cousins’ 0.14 EPA per dropback. In today’s NFL, it’s rare that a player is more efficient rushing than his QB is throwing.

But that doesn’t seem to matter as long as the Vikings are winning.

“The contract and how much Kirk Cousins is being paid has no bearing on what you should or shouldn’t ask him to do,” said ESPN Monday Night Football analyst and former NFL quarterback Brian Griese. “Here’s the best usage of his talents with what we have around him, and that’s to throw the ball 20 to 25 times. I think that’s smart. The season was going in the wrong direction and they had to look at themselves during the bye week and do some self-scouting and really look at what are some of the things that they’re doing well and put together a game plan for the remainder of the season, and I think that’s what they’ve done.”

With Cook on a tear over the past two weeks, Cousins has a 139.9 passer rating with four touchdowns and no interceptions.

“I don’t think they care how much they’re paying anybody,” Griese said. “I think they look at it and say where can we get the most production? The last two weeks there’s no question that they have had better balance and Kirk Cousins has been playing better because of It.”

A month ago, the air was different around this team.

Cousins was being scrutinized after he threw three interceptions in the first half of a 40-23 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. After tossing just six picks a year ago, Cousins was leading the league in interceptions with 10.

“Really with a situation like that you can do nothing but just let your quarterback know a thousand percent that you’re there for him,” said Cook, coming off Minnesota’s Week 7 bye. “Kirk knows that. We’re a thousand percent behind him, no matter what goes on. That’s our brother, that’s our leader, and everybody has their time.

“An interception is part of football, but it’s how we bounce back from it. And I’ve got so much trust in Kirk that we’re going to go out there and all of us as a collective group and turn this thing around and get this thing going.”

It’s that selfless attitude that resonates with Cook’s teammates.

Cook joked with receiver Justin Jefferson, hyping up the first-round pick from LSU for his notoriety. The same way he once was a one-man cheering section in the locker room for former third-string quarterback Kyle Sloter, repeatedly yelling “Sloter House,” an ode to an inside joke that ended up on T-shirts, while the QB gave an interview.

On a team that faced a leadership void with the departures of Stefon Diggs and Everson Griffen, Cook assumed a role that came naturally to him.

“Just the way he runs the ball I feel like is inspiring to me as a teammate,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said. “When I’m about to go out on defense and play my position, I see Dalvin and how he’s putting in work, how he’s taking hits, how he’s finishing runs. I want to be able to match my teammate and his effort, his desire and his fire.

“I feel like that kind of energy is contagious. He’s obviously a special player and has all these tangible [skills] — he’s fast and things like that, but his heart and want-to is what is really contagious for the team.”

Cook has scored a touchdown in all seven games he has played this season. And he pays tribute to his blockers with each score by handing off the ball in the end zone for them to finish off with a spike.

When it was Ezra Cleveland’s turn in Green Bay, the rookie right guard almost didn’t know how to react.

“When he was calling my name and stuff I got really nervous and then he gave me the ball, he was pointing over to the side of the end zone, so I ran over there and spiked it,” Cleveland said. “I actually almost fell over, believe it or not, but I was able to keep my feet running and stay up off the ground, so that’s good. It wasn’t on SportsCenter’s ‘Not Top 10’ for me falling.”

As the Vikings made their way back to the locker room after beating Detroit on Nov. 8, players danced and yelled in jubilation in the hallway of the Delta Club inside U.S. Bank Stadium.

The team set up a camera that caught the celebration, which included safety Anthony Harris deadpanning into the frame with a message: “Dalvin Cook for MVP.”

The MVP award might as well be called “most valuable quarterback” given that a non-QB has won it only four times in the past 20 years, the last being Peterson eight years ago.

But Cook’s case is getting stronger every week. He has totaled the most yards in division games this year leaguewide with 526 in three NFC North matchups. He’s the first player to score a touchdown in each of his first seven games of a season since Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith in 1994. He has four multiple touchdown games this season, the most of any running back, and he just reached a career-high 127 yards after contact against the Lions.

He has willed his team back into contention and is putting up some of the best numbers — historic numbers — at his position this season.

If anything, Cook staying on this pace could give the Vikings their first NFL rushing leader since Peterson topped 2,097 yards in 2012. That season only further cemented Peterson as the face of the Vikings.

History could be repeating itself in Minnesota as Cook tries to carry his team back into the hunt.

“I feel extremely blessed to have him as a teammate,” Kendricks said. “It’s cool as an old [school] football fan thinking about when I was a kid when I used to love watching running backs play. Now watching him, this is kind of that reality as myself growing up 28 years old and I get to watch him living out his dreams and him run for the end zone and things like that.

“He’s a special player. The best in the league, in my opinion.”

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