With each passing NFL season, an increasing number of teams are adopting a “running back by committee” approach to the ground game. While the trend is frustrating for fantasy owners, it has illuminated a more efficient way to utilize running backs in a modern offense.
The concept of a running back committee has become especially popular in the past decade. Some of the best offenses in the NFL have featured multiple running backs.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings seem to be allergic to this philosophy, especially when they have a running back earning top dollar on the roster. For nearly a decade, Adrian Peterson was the king of the Vikings backfield. More recently, it’s been Dalvin Cook.
Using your best running back as much as possible seems like the right idea on the surface. After all, offensive coordinators are always trying to get the football into the hands of their best players. Cook would undoubtedly qualify as one of those guys on the current Vikings.
And he’s being paid like it. Cook signed a five-year, $63 million contract extension before last season began, making him one of the highest-paid running backs in the NFL beginning in the 2022 season. Additionally, Cook earned $28 million guaranteed in the contract.
That’s a significant investment for a franchise to make, especially at the running back position where injuries are more frequent. However, the Vikings do not seem too concerned about overusing their star back, even with his troubling injury history.
Cook is one of the few true workhorse running backs in the NFL. The Vikings tend to feed him the ball early and often. In the first two weeks of the season, Cook registered a combined 50 touches en route to two Vikings losses. In the second half of the Week 2 matchup against the Arizona Cardinals, Cook sustained a sprained ankle that kept him out of the Vikings’ Week 3 win against the Seattle Seahawks.
It was clear Cook was not fully healthy when Week 4 rolled around. That didn’t stop the Vikings from starting him against one of the best defenses in the NFL. Before the week, head coach Mike Zimmer’s remarks indicated that Minnesota was desperate for wins, and they needed Cook on the field even if he isn’t fully healthy.
Unfortunately for Minnesota, the offense didn’t muster any rhythm following the game’s first drive and scored only seven points in a loss to the Cleveland Browns.
Fast-forward one week, and Cook’s ankle injury is still nagging him, and he is admitted that he is not his usual self.
Cook has a point. Playing through pain is part of life in the NFL. These are the best athletes in the world crashing into each other for three hours per week, so of course, there will be injuries.
However, this is a sprained ankle sustained by one of the best running backs in the NFL. Few running backs are more agile or change directions faster than Cook. A sprained ankle has to take away some of that effectiveness. With the reeling Detroit Lions on the docket this week, would it be so bad to rest Cook and allow his ankle to heal a bit more? Or maybe the Vikings could get Alexander Mattison, who has proven to be a capable back, more involved?
Running back is the most fragile position in the NFL. When backs carry the ball, 11 of the world’s strongest and fastest athletes are actively trying to crash into them. Their careers can quickly dissipate if they are put in harm’s way too often.
Remember Todd Gurley? He was an MVP candidate only three seasons ago. From 2016 to 2018, Gurley recorded 813 carries and 166 receptions for a total of 979 touches. That’s just shy of 22 touches a game. It doesn’t seem like an extreme workload. And yet, Gurley had been dealing with a knee injury for most of that time. The Los Angeles Rams finally eased his workload in 2019, after they had signed him to a massive contract extension, but it was too late. A contract dispute ensued, and the Rams released him. Last year, Gurley played for the Atlanta Falcons as a shell of his former self. He’s currently out of the league.
Dalvin Cook does not need to become the next Todd Gurley.
The Vikings have signed Cook to a contract worth at least $28 million. The Vikings should be protecting Cook when needed to ensure he can be effective for the life of his contract. At this rate, Minnesota is making the same mistake the Rams did with Gurley.