As if losing another one-possession game wasn’t had enough for the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, they received news Monday that star running back Dalvin Cook tore his labrum and dislocated his shoulder. While the playoff race is tightening up, Minnesota would be wise to play the long game with Cook’s injury for multiple reasons.
As Ian Rapoport of NFL Network noted, if there is some good news to take from the Cook injury, it’s that he should be back at some point this season for the stretch run. The injury draws comparisons to the one Cook suffered in 2019 when he missed a couple of games but returned for the postseason. However, this team is currently under .500 at 5-6, something they didn’t experience once during their 2019 run. Thankfully for Minnesota, the schedule lightens up a bit.
Minnesota will hit the road to take on the Detroit Lions in Week 13. Dan Campbell‘s band of misfits hasn’t won a single game this year. They’ve come close, but the Vikings already received the wake-up call the first time around. If the Vikings can’t beat this Detroit team without Cook, the playoffs weren’t meant to be in the first place.
The Vikings are coming off a stretch of playing five consecutive teams who could go to the playoffs, with three of them all but assured to punch a ticket at some point. They can’t breeze past prepping for Detroit, and there’s never a good time for an injury to a star player. But the Lions are the perfect filler spot on the schedule if this had to happen now.
After that, the Vikings will host the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night, then hit the road to take on the Chicago Bears. Neither of those teams is over .500, but both present their challenges for Minnesota. At worst, the Vikings should be in those games right up until the end, even without Cook. At best, they beat two teams that lack direction. If they can get by those three without Cook before taking on the Los Angeles Rams and the Green Bay Packers, the door could open up for a return to the playoffs.
Even if the schedule didn’t stack up the way it does, rushing Cook back would be foolish. He has proven to be an elite running back, and Minnesota signed him to a 5-year, $63 million extension in Sept. 2020. It’s nearly impossible to preach patience to any fanbase in the thick of a wild card playoff hunt, but the Vikings aren’t silly. Rushing back your bell-cow back and risking long-term damage to his shoulder is not the way to go.
Yes, Minnesota wants to make the playoffs this year and has a good shot despite being 5-6. But it’s not worth acting on wishful thinking if it means putting Cook at further risk of injury. Suppose he can come back in the final couple of weeks and is fully healed; great. If he’s not, Minnesota has other weapons on offense.
This isn’t a team that relies solely on Cook. He’s a significant piece, but having Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen doesn’t hurt. The situation for Minnesota pales in comparison to that of the Lions, who Campbell said will likely be without their star back in D’Andre Swift this week. Unlike the Vikings, the Lions don’t have a whole lot more to work with outside of T.J. Hockenson on that side of the ball. Klint Kubiak is in a spot that most offensive coordinators would sign up for, even without Cook for the short term. This isn’t the end for the Vikings, just like it wasn’t in 2019 when Cook went down.
Minnesota was 10-4 in 2019 when Cook missed the final two games of the regular season. They lost those last two games against the Packers and Bears and still made the playoffs.
The Vikings don’t have the cushion in the standings this time around, but they have three-straight games coming up in which they should be favored, even without Cook. If they can’t win two out of the following three against the Lions, Steelers, and Bears, how would they succeed against a top-heavy NFC in the playoffs even with Cook back?
This is the time for Minnesota to pile up a couple of wins while their star running back gets right. They don’t have to sacrifice short-term success by playing the long game with Dalvin Cook.