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Zulgad: Give him the ball: Dalvin Cook’s workload can’t be a concern, if Vikings are going to win

Dalvin Cook
Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (33) dives for extra yards against the Houston Texans during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Dalvin Cook’s career-high 181-yard rushing performance a week ago against Tennessee was overshadowed by the breakout performance of rookie teammate Justin Jefferson, the Vikings’ epic meltdown in their final possession and ultimately an ugly loss to the Tennessee Titans.

But following the Vikings’ 31-23 victory over the Texans on Sunday in Houston, there was nothing to bump Cook’s name off the marquee. Cook, signed to a five-year, $63 million contract extension just before the regular-season opener, finished with 27 carries for 130 yards and two touchdowns and caught two passes for 16 yards. The 27 carries tied Cook’s career-high. He also had 27 rushing attempts during his rookie season (2017) against Tampa Bay.

This was the type of workload the 25-year-old Cook needs to get on a regular basis. It’s no accident that as Cook’s importance in the offense increased the Vikings (3-1) went from looking incompetent in their first two losses, to being competitive against the Titans and finally winning their first game of the season against the Texans.

Yes, the Texans fell to 0-4, are a mess on the field and appear to have little desire to actually tackle or cover opponents. But the Vikings needed a win and how they got it, or who they got it against, wasn’t an a concern for coach Mike Zimmer’s team.

The only concern was getting the victory and the formula began with putting the ball in Cook’s hands as much as possible. No one has ever questioned that Cook is an elite running back, but giving him the contract he wanted, and ultimately got, was a concern based on his ability to stay healthy. A knee injury ended his rookie season after only four games and hamstring issues limited him to 11 games in 2018. Cook played in 14 games last season, along with the Vikings’ two playoff games, but still battled a chest injury that impacted him late in the regular season.

But now that Cook has his contract, the one thing the Vikings can’t worry about is protecting him. He’s too valuable and, being a running back, there is no reason to save him. It’s not as if limiting him by five carries per game in 2020 is going to pay off with Cook taking on a bigger workload in 2024. The Vikings’ offense needs Cook right now and the fact Minnesota doesn’t look like a playoff team can’t factor in the thought process of general manager Rick Spielman, Zimmer or offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.

Cook has a burst off the edge and a willingness to take on tacklers up the middle. He’s quick, he’s strong and he’s a player the Vikings need to give the ball to a ton and worry about the impact later.  The thing with Cook is the Vikings are going to have to hold their breath each game with Cook, given his injury history.

He left Sunday’s game early in the fourth quarter after his 15-yard gain put the ball at the Texans’ 4-yard line. Cook gingerly walked off the field, but when Alexander Mattison followed with a touchdown run on the ensuing play to put Minnesota up by 15 points, Cook came out to celebrate with his backup.

Cook returned to the field on the Vikings’ next possession after the Texans had pulled within eight points. Cook got his first carry on second down and immediately broke another tackle to get a first down. He followed that up with a 9-yard run. The Vikings decision-makers then shocked everyone by taking Cook off the field in favor of Mattison. Mattison gained 8 yards over three carries to set up third-and-6 from the Vikings 48. Cook trotted back on the field, but Kirk Cousins’ pass for Adam Thielen was broken up and Minnesota had to punt.

The Fox announcing team, like everyone else, was mystified as to why Cook was standing on the sideline. Was he banged up? Sure. Could he be on the injury report this coming week? Yes. But if Cook is able to stand on the sideline, in no obvious pain, not having him in the game at that moment was football malpractice.

Fortunately for the Vikings, Cook’s excellence for much of Sunday overshadowed his team’s late-game decision-making.