Zulgad: No sweat: Dalvin Cook's absence won't cause Gary Kubiak to abandon run

NFL: Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings
Dec 8, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (33) runs in the first quarter against Detroit Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Dalvin Cook’s importance to the Vikings’ offense is obvious.

The running back’s versatility and ability makes him a threat in the run game, the pass game and means he can provide pass protection when needed. Cook’s ability to stay on the field for all three downs — something Adrian Peterson couldn’t do — makes him one of Gary Kubiak’s most valuable players.

So why didn’t the Vikings offensive coordinator seem even a bit panicked on Wednesday as he talked to reporters about Cook and the fact he reportedly won’t take part in any team-related activities until he has a new contract? “That’s part of the business,” said Kubiak who joined the Vikings as an assistant head coach and senior offensive advisor last year and replaced Kevin Stefanski as coordinator after the season. “We all understand that. Those guys will do their job. We have to stay focused on our job as a football team moving forward.”

There are many reasons why Kubiak isn’t concerned.

First, Kubiak has 25 years of NFL coaching experience, including 10 as an NFL head coach. Kubiak was coach of the Denver Broncos when they won Super Bowl 50 in 2015, he was the Broncos’ offensive coordinator when that franchise won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1997-98 and served as quarterbacks coach for the 49ers in 1994 when they won a championship. Kubiak also was a backup quarterback for three Denver teams that reached the Super Bowl from 1983 to 1991.

Second, Kubiak has the luxury of being the offensive coordinator, meaning any real concerns about Cook’s situation land on the desks of executives Rick Spielman and Rob Brzezinski and then coach Mike Zimmer. Kubiak has seen this movie before and isn’t about to worry about it on June 17.

Third, and most importantly, Kubiak knows what everyone inside the TCO Performance Center knows. Cook is going to show up for the Vikings’ mandatory reporting date. He isn’t going to cost himself the chance to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2020 season by not showing up for the first day of training camp. The difference between Cook being an unrestricted and restricted free agent — that’s what he would be if he holds out — could be millions of dollars. Cook also would be subject to hefty fines for each day of practice he misses during camp.

Kubiak’s play-calling is going to give Cook every opportunity to prove just how valuable he is to the Vikings’ offense. Best case, for Cook, is that he will do that with a new contract that will be fair to both sides, but is unlikely to approach the $16 million per season that Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey will make, or the $15 million per year that Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott agreed to last year after holding out from training camp.

Cook rushed for 1,135 yards on 250 carries (a 4.5 yard average) and 13 touchdowns last season and also caught 53 passes for 519 yards in 14 games. That’s the most regular-season games in which he has played in his three-year career. Cook, who will turn 25 on Aug. 10, added 112 yards rushing on 37 carries (a 3.0 yard average) and two touchdowns and caught nine passes for 44 yards in two playoff games.

“He has as good a grasp on what we do and how we go about it,” Kubiak said. “He could teach class (on the Vikings’ system). He’s that bright and that smart of a football player.”

There is no doubt that Cook deserves a raise from the $1.3 million he is set to make in the fourth and final season of his rookie contract. But the issue is how much of an investment should the Vikings make in him? Cook plays a position that is considered easily replaceable by many in today’s NFL. Part of the reason for this is because a guy like Kubiak has proven he has the ability to build excellent running games with backs who aren’t headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“I love running backs,” said Kubiak, who has been in charge of a Top 10 rushing offense in 14 of 23 seasons as an offensive coordinator or head coach. “I’ve had some really good ones in my day. I’ve got a couple of world championship rings because of one I’m thinking of in my head right now.”

Terrell Davis, the player to whom Kubiak is referring, does have a place in Canton. But Kubiak has had success leading a ground game with a variety of players. This includes standouts such as Davis, Clinton Portis and Arian Foster, but also on the list of 1,000-yard rushers under Kubiak are Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Reuben Droughns, Steve Slaton and Justin Forsett.

You think the Vikings won’t mention Kubiak’s ability to turn running backs into, at the very least, one-hit wonders, during negotiations with the Cook camp? Alexander Mattison, the Vikings’ third-round pick in 2019, averaged 4.6 yards on 100 carries in 13 games last season and would love to see his workload increase.

The one thing we know is that with Zimmer as coach and Kubiak as his coordinator, the Vikings aren’t going to abandon the run, whether Cook shows up for the season. “We believe in running the football,” said Kubiak, whose scheme resulted in the Vikings’ run game going from 30th in the NFL (93.3 yards per game) in 2018 to sixth (133.3) in 2019.

Kubiak’s preference is that No. 33 will be the guy carrying the ball the majority of the time in 2020. But you can’t blame him for not sweating whether that will be the case.