The Green Bay Packers employ one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. They have signaled a willingness to replace him.
The Vikings employ an outstanding running back who has played in 29 games over three seasons. They built their team and offensive coaching staff around him, and on Saturday came to an agreement on a five-year contract extension worth $63 million.
Minnesota’s defining rivalry resumes on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium under strange circumstances. There will be no fans allowed in the stands, and artificial crowd noise will be broadcast inside the stadium during the game.
What is stranger still is that both franchises seem to be adopting risky strategies with their most important offensive players.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is 36. He has expressed a desire to play into his 40s.
Last year, he led the Packers to a 13-3 record, a division title, a playoff victory and a berth in the NFC title game.
While his statistics weren’t as gaudy as a few of his most spectacular seasons, he threw for 4,002 yards, 26 touchdowns and four interceptions despite having only one superior pass catcher — Davante Adams — available to him. He was the most valuable player in the NFC North.
Cook played a career-best 14 games, rushed for 1,135 yards and 13 touchdowns and caught 53 passes for 519 yards in the first season in which the Vikings admitted to building their game plans around him.
He was the Vikings’ most valuable player, and when he couldn’t play against Green Bay in the teams’ last meeting at U.S. Bank Stadium, his absence contributed heavily to a 23-10 loss that crushed the Vikings’ division title hopes.
When their seasons ended last January, common sense dictated that the Packers would continue to build around Rodgers, and indications from the Vikings were that they would offer Cook a long-term contract.
Then April arrived, and the Packers used the 26th pick in the draft on Utah State quarterback Jordan Love. Rodgers later said: “I’m not going to say I was thrilled by the pick.’’
By taking Love, Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst and coach Matt LaFleur seem to be planning for Rodgers’ departure rather than bolstering their chances of winning this season.
Their second pick in the draft was running back A.J. Dillon, who will serve as a backup to starter Aaron Jones, and their third pick was tight end Josiah Deguara.
A generous analysis would note that any of those players could develop into a star and justify this drafting strategy, but these picks may do nothing to help the Packers win this year.
Saturday, Cook agreed to a deal that, if nothing else, proves that NFL teams can always find a way to sign valued players. Consider that the Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl, rewarded Patrick Mahomes with a contract worth a potential half-billion dollars, and didn’t have to jettison any key players.
Cook’s contract should play well in the locker room. He’s popular and considered a leader, and the deal indicates that the Vikings will pay the players they most value. But the long, lucrative deal arrives at a strange juncture in terms of the NFL’s approach to his position.
In recent years the Rams, Cardinals and Jets have signed running backs to massive contracts to almost immediately regret it. Todd Gurley is now with Atlanta, David Johnson was traded to Houston, and Le’Veon Bell has been a disappointment in New York.
Also, the Dallas Cowboys signed Ezekiel Elliott to a six-year, $90 million contract before the start of last season. He played in 16 games and was about as productive as Cook, but did post the lowest rushing-yards-per-game total of his career.
In the last Super Bowl, the Chiefs won with backup Damien Williams as their primary back, and the 49ers dominated the Vikings and Packers in the playoffs with journeyman and backup Raheem Mostert as their starter.
Despite those developments, Carolina, Dallas, New Orleans, Tennessee and Cincinnati have invested heavily in their star running backs.
As the strangest game in their rivalry looms, the Packers seem far too eager to move on from their offensive star, and the Vikings seem far too eager to depend on theirs.