On Monday night, while ESPN was wrapping up its broadcast of Dalvin Cook's second 30-carry game in three weeks, the Vikings running back appeared on NBC for a little counterprogramming.
A nonsensical phrase Cook had used in response to a question during his Nov. 4 news conference — three days after his four-touchdown game in Green Bay — was actually a setup courtesy of Jimmy Fallon. "The Tonight Show" premiered a compilation of NFL players who had agreed to slip confusing catchphrases into their media sessions for the show's "Drop It In" sketch.
Given a list of lines to pick from, Cook selected, "I run yards like Swiss chard," bewildering reporters as he said it twice without breaking into a laughter (as Fallon is famous for doing).
"I thought that was the best one coming off the game we had," he said Wednesday, able to let reporters in on the joke now that the clip had aired. "I had to come up with — how can I throw this in there without anybody catching it? And that was the hard part. I had to keep a straight face because I didn't even know what it meant, either. It was crazy."
Late-night jokes aside, no NFL back has run for more yards through the first 10 weeks of the season than Cook's 954, despite the fact he missed an Oct. 18 loss to the Falcons because of a groin injury. Since that game, the Vikings have staked their offense on Cook, who ranks third in the league in carries behind Tennessee's Derrick Henry and Las Vegas' Josh Jacobs and is in the midst of what figures to be the busiest month of his NFL career.
Cook carried 30 times on Nov. 1 in Green Bay, making him the first Vikings running back to post that many carries in a game under Mike Zimmer, and did it again Monday night in Chicago. In between those two games, he surpassed 200 rushing yards for the first time in his career with 22 carries against Detroit.
Cook is the first running back since Le'Veon Bell in 2017 to have multiple games in the same season with 30-plus carries. He has averaged 21.75 attempts in the eight full games he's played this season; should he carry the ball that much over the Vikings' final seven games, he would finish with 326 carries, the most by an NFL player since Adrian Peterson ran 327 times on the way to his final rushing title with the Vikings in 2015.
The question now figures to be, can Cook keep it up?
"I think a lot of that depends on Dalvin," Zimmer said. "We take pretty good care of him during the week. Each situation's a little bit different. Last week was a little bit more of a physicality game with the front that they had. We'll continue to look at all those things, look to get Alexander [Mattison] in there a little bit more. But when the game gets on the line in situations like that, he doesn't want to not be out there either, with his guys."
After Cook's rookie season cut was short by a torn anterior cruciate ligament, his second year was waylaid by a hamstring injury and his third one was affected by a pair of shoulder injuries. So he has only recently turned into a high-volume back. He had six games of 20-plus carries last year, after not logging more than 19 during a 2018 season when Zimmer and offensive coordinator John DeFilippo clashed over the role of the running game. But he has set his career high in carries three times already this season.
Unlike baseball, where limiting pitch counts has become an established practice for organizations that rely on analytics, there's limited research on the effect of a heavy workload for a running back, with a passing-heavy league meaning fewer data points. Available studies would suggest carries exact a larger toll over the course of a back's career, more than in an individual game or season.
Durability, for running backs in general and Cook specifically, factored into the Vikings' deliberations about whether they would give him a second contract before the season, as the team tried to determine whether a $63 million investment over five years was a prudent move. The Vikings worked to keep Cook's 2021 base salary to just $1.5 million, because of a potential salary cap drop related to COVID-19. In exchange, they wouldn't realize cap savings by releasing Cook until 2022, and wouldn't reap a significant benefit until 2023, when he will be heading into his age-28 season.
Their deal with Cook, in effect, means he will be here when busier workdays could catch up to him. For now, in the days where he is celebrating victories on one major TV network while deadpanning jokes on another, things are coming easy for him.
"My body feels good after that one," he said Wednesday. "I'm ready to play another one. It's just that time of the year where you get into the flow of just going out there and playing. You stay in your routine, get your mind back ready to go and with me, it's about getting my body back in line to take those touches. Because I know mentally I'm there. I'm checked in and I'm ready to go and it's just about getting my body ready to go. I can take them; I'm ready."