Dalvin Cook proudly displayed his 2020 hardware on a Zoom call Wednesday with Twin Cities reporters. Not typically one to boast about individual accolades, Cook was happy to show off this particular trophy, the Korey Stringer Award, given annually to a Vikings athlete for their exceptional cooperation with the media.
In a season where Cook arguably got snubbed for All-Pro honors and wasn’t able to chase postseason glory with the Vikings, the Stringer Award will have to do for now. But the 25-year-old Cook believes there is more hardware to attain in his future, another level to reach after his career-best season.
His 1,557 yards, 5.0 yards per carry, and 16 touchdowns set career highs across the board in 2020. However, Cook has yet to play a full 16-game schedule to amass the type of numbers that might put him on historical statistical levels. He’s also never had the type of playoff run a peer like Derrick Henry delivered in 2019 that put him in the best-back-in-football conversation.
All signs point toward a 17-game season in 2021, and for a workhorse like Cook — one of a decreasing number of feature backs left in the game — his eyes get wide thinking about what he might accomplish in a lengthened season.
“Coming out of that type of year, you build your body up extra hard, you hit the weight room a little harder, and you just do things a little harder,” Cook said about his offseason approach. “I think the injuries or whatever, that comes with the game. I’m going to turn it loose, and I’m going to have fun with it. Next year is going to be an opportunity for me to explode again, and I’m going to take full advantage of the opportunity by working my tail off this offseason so I can be ready for 16, 17 games – however many games I’ve gotta go. I’m going to be ready to go, and it should be a fun year for the Vikings.”
Cook’s improved health is encouraging. He played in a combined 15 games through his first two seasons, then 14 each in the following two years, missing one game late last season after his father’s unexpected death. While Cook has avoided the long-term absences that plagued him in 2017-18, the last two seasons have contained a handful of games where Cook had to depart early with an injury, and his second-half production dipped in both 2019 and 2020. Cook has averaged 5.6 yards per carry in the first half of seasons the last two years, only to fall to 3.9 in the second halves. That steep decline reemphasizes that a healthy Cook is a productive Cook, and while his toughness to play through injury is admirable, it doesn’t lead to the efficiency craved by a run-oriented team like the Vikings.
Cook has been emphatic that workload doesn’t affect him like other running backs, but the late-season numbers and injury history refute that. That raises concerns about whether the team values load management with Cook, who might have the capacity to take his play to another level if he could stay fresh and run efficiently for a full season. That might mean reducing the number of hits he absorbs early in the season.
“I think the sky’s still the limit for me,” Cook said. “Whatever I want to accomplish, I think I can go get it, upon all the hard work I’m going to put in this offseason. Going into last year, I kind of felt myself scratching the surface then, just how I ended the year. I came into the offseason working hard. I know what the work’s going to take, and it’s not all me. I’ve got to give those guys around me, in the offensive room, my team, credit too.”
Including pass receptions, Cook had more touches per game than Henry (25.4) as one of the busiest backs in football last season. For perspective, he was just the eighth running back in a decade to total 310 or more carries and 40-plus catches. None of the previous seven were able to sustain their health and production the following year. Maurice Jones-Drew (2012), Arian Foster (2013), and Doug Martin (2013) all played eight or fewer games the next year due to injury. Adrian Peterson (2013) saw his yards per carry drop from 6.0 to 4.5. LeSean McCoy (2014) went from 5.1 to 4.2, and DeMarco Murray (2015) went from 4.7 to 3.6. Le’Veon Bell (2018) skipped the next season due to a contract dispute.
Cook will be a trend-setter if he sustains his excellence in 2021. It may be incumbent on the Vikings’ next offensive coordinator — perhaps former quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak — to avoid the temptation of overworking the offense’s most dangerous weapon. Even Cook spoke Wednesday about the need for offensive balance.
“I think really, with our offense, it’s about finding balance, and we’ve got guys that can light the field up,” Cook said. “We’ve got the backs, we’ve got the receivers, the tight ends, we’ve got the playmakers. I just think he’s going to be that coach that comes in to find the balance early, to spread the ball around and get everybody involved, and that’s not easy on the offensive coordinator when you’ve got so many guys that can make plays. So it’s going to be us finding ourselves early and getting in that groove early.”
Cook said he has no injuries to rehab this offseason and that his goal is to build even more strength, which should lead to durability. There’s reason to believe his best season is still in the future, but it might require more calibration on the Vikings’ part to make sure he reaches the finish line intact.