The Minnesota Vikings love to run the ball. They have a defensive head coach in Mike Zimmer, who prides himself in controlling the clock, minimizing turnovers, and playing good defense. It’s a viable approach if this were the 1980s or if the Vikings’ offense scored more points than they do.
The Vikings have a workhorse at running back in Dalvin Cook. In the last two seasons, Cook played 14 games apiece and had 659 total touches. For reference, that is second to Derrick Henry, who has 718 touches in the last two seasons. Henry, however, has played 31 total games in the last two seasons.
Cook has gotten injured every single year he has been in the NFL, some being freak injuries like his ACL tear in 2017. Nevertheless, it’s reasonable to wonder if the heavy workload is the reason for his health woes.
“My first couple of years I got banged up, and it was, ‘What can I do a little different to not get put in that situation again?’ Focusing on those little muscles, you know, focusing on the things that you think don’t matter,” Cook explained. “I knew I had to get stronger.”
But is it really worth giving Dalvin Cook the workload he gets? Some may argue that he is the best player on the Vikings’ offense. But running the ball is not as efficient as passing, and the Vikings have two stud receivers in Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, plus a quarterback who can sling it when given the chance to do so.
Minnesota’s offense would be more efficient if they limited Cook’s workload to increase his longevity.
Since 2003, offense has exploded in the NFL. While the number of total plays increased by just 2.4%, the total yards generated exploded by 9.08%. This discrepancy was magnified more so by the points scored. Touchdowns are up 9.23%.
The average passing attempt does more damage than the average rushing attempt. Net yards per attempt increased from 5.8 to 6.2 in the last decade. For example, one of the only games in this period where an offense produced a similar rushing Expected Points Added (EPA) to passing EPA was the infamous Christmas Day showdown between the Vikings and the New Orleans Saints.
Led by Alvin Kamara, the Saints posted a rushing EPA of 0.39 while their passing EPA was 0.40. The New Orleans had seven rushing touchdowns. Conversely, Drew Brees had no passing touchdowns and two interceptions. Still, their passing EPA was higher, a stellar example of the increasing effectiveness of passing in today’s game.
In the last three seasons, every NFL team, even those struggling with quarterback play, had a much higher EPA on dropbacks on rushing attempts.
Last year the top five teams in the NFL in EPA were the Green Bay Packers, Tennessee Titans, Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In correlation to pass attempts, these teams ranked 13th, 18th, fifth, sixth, and second, respectively. The same teams ranked first, fourth, sixth, second, and third in points scored. All of these teams made the playoffs, and four of the five played in their conference championships.
The Titans are the best direct comparison for the Vikings. Minnesota passed more frequently than Tennessee did last year, ranking 15th in the NFL, but a lot of that came in the second halves of games when they were down. The running game works for the Titans because Henry is arguably the most durable running back in the NFL. Even with fewer passing attempts, they have the second-best dropback EPA in the NFL at 0.283, plus a dropback success rate of 53.8%, ranking fourth in the league. In these same metrics, the Vikings rank ninth and sixth, respectively.
The Vikings threw the ball 37% of the time and ran it 63% of the time within the opponent’s 20-yard line to the end zone. They had seventeen passing touchdowns on 25 attempts. Meanwhile, the Titans threw the ball more — 40% of the time — and they had 24 passing touchdowns on 31 attempts.
The Titans are the lone exception to the most successful air-raid offenses in the NFL today, albeit at an unsustainable rate. The Vikings must increase their early-game passing frequency to systematically use all of their receiving weapons in Jefferson, Thielen, and Irv Smith Jr.
“I think it’s important that we monitor Dalvin’s workload as we go forward,” Mike Zimmer said in January. “But like I said before, at the end of the ballgame, we need our best players in the game. Dalvin is not only one of our best players, but one of the best players in the NFL.”
Minnesota ranked 11th in points last year and needs to take the next step to make their offense better. They can do that by maintaining their star running back’s workload to maximize all the players on that side of the ball.