Alexander Mattison’s performance was one of the biggest surprises last weekend. Filling in for the injured Dalvin Cook, Mattison turned 31 touches into 171 total yards and made a seamless transition to the starting running back in a win over the Seattle Seahawks. However, Mattison’s tenure as the Minnesota Vikings’ lead back may only last one game because Cook looks ready to return. But with a balky ankle and a 17-game schedule, it’s fair to ask why Mike Zimmer doesn’t deploy both running backs.
Cook has been the offense’s focal point since John DiFilippo was fired in 2018, but his role has increased after a 1-5 start to last season. Since last year’s Week 7 victory over the Green Bay Packers, Cook averages 28 touches per game. If this number were extrapolated to a 16-game schedule, he would have received the sixth-most touches in NFL history for a single season. Three of those five players ahead of Cook’s pace saw a decrease in their production the following season.
More recently, running backs have broken down around the 400-touch threshold. Rotoheat’s Rick Butts noted that 26 running backs had received 400 or more touches in the past 25 years, and only 16 of those players reached 300 touches the following season. Christian McCaffrey was the last player to do it with 403 touches in 2019, and he only had 76 touches last year as he battled a hamstring injury. McCaffrey is also sidelined with another hamstring injury this season.
Despite the risk, Zimmer prefers to operate with a one-back system. Zimmer responded in old-school fashion when asked about what he was looking for in Mattison’s performance last Sunday. “What we’re looking for with Alexander is another bell cow,” Zimmer said. “You know we have Dalvin, but you’re looking for a guy that can carry the load.”
But at what point should the Vikings let some of their other players, like Mattison, share the burden?
For a two-back model, look no further than Sunday’s opponent. When Kevin Stefanski was hired by the Cleveland Browns, they already had Nick Chubb. He received 334 touches in 2018, his first full season as a starter, but they wanted to find another running back to help shoulder the load. The answer was Kareem Hunt, a bell cow of his own with the Kansas City Chiefs.
While both players could command heavy usage on another roster, Stefanski used both to keep his running game fresh. So far this season, Chubb has commanded 62% of the workload, but Hunt still has a sizable role with two rushing touchdowns. The split paid dividends last season as the duo helped the Browns finish fourth in rushing attempts while setting career-highs in yards per carry.
If this sounds familiar, look no further than the 2019 Vikings. With Stefanski as offensive coordinator, he deployed a similar split between Cook and Mattison. The Vikings finished fourth in rushing attempts that season but gave Cook a 70% split of the workload.
Although Cook’s 4.5 yards per carry was below his career average of 4.8, he played in a then career-high 14 games. The Vikings were often playing with a lead, but it’s a better approach considering Cook’s analysis of what makes him successful.
“In this league, guys are flying around and doing all types of stuff, and my game is to go be explosive,” said Cook. “I can’t be out there if I’m not explosive or not able to help my team win a football game.”
Mixing in Mattison could help achieve both of those goals. By giving Cook fewer touches, the Vikings can rely on a back who can play the same role Hunt plays in Cleveland. That can also keep Cook fresh and available, making him more explosive and leading to bigger plays down the stretch.