The Vikings had just fallen to 0-3 by blowing a 12-point lead against the Titans at U.S. Bank Stadium.
The question that came to this mind that afternoon wasn’t how many times Dalvin Cook touched the ball.
It was how many times he didn’t touch the ball when the game’s momentum was shifting decisively.
Coach Mike Zimmer answered the question, saying, “We have our substitutions and rotations with those guys [Cook and Alexander Mattison]. We’ve been doing it like that all year.”
Zimmer’s explanation wasn’t without some merit.
Cook was the focal point on 27 of the team’s 62 offensive snaps against Tennessee. That’s 43.5%. He played 48 of the snaps. That’s 74%. And, oh yeah, he had 199 yards from scrimmage, including a career-high 181 rushing.
But to this observer, it made no sense whatsoever that Cook was on the sideline during a critical three-and-out that was bookended by two Tennessee touchdown drives that turned a 24-12 Vikings lead into a 25-24 Titans lead heading into the fourth quarter.
If nothing else, Cook could have been a decoy, a distraction for the Tennessee defense. That role also was working well that day as rookie Justin Jefferson had his 175-yard breakout game.
A day later, Cook was asked for his thoughts about being on the sideline at a critical juncture of the game. He said he was cool with it and trusted the rotation set up by running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu.
No offense to Mattison, but he’s a good backup making $625,000. Cook, meanwhile, is the $63 million man and the pillar upon which Zimmer and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak stake their belief that the Vikings can ride a running back into the playoffs in a pass-happy, quarterback-driven league.
“I’ve been with coach KP for four years, and he’s got a great feel for when to get me in, when to get me out, when to get Deuce [Alexander Mattison] in the game and when to get him out,” Cook said the Monday after the Titans loss. “I just let him know when I’m ready. Even if I don’t go back in, he knows that I’m ready to go back out there.”
Thank goodness for the Vikings, something definitely changed with this organizational laissez-faire attitude about the best player on the team standing on the sideline during critical moments of games.
Primarily, what happened is a 1-5 start that probably made the seats of some coaching shorts a little hot over at TCO Performance Center. And if a coaching staff is going to go down, it might as well go down swinging its biggest and best bat, don’t ya think?
The Vikings were supposed to get smoked by the Packers at Lambeau Field. Yeah, Cook was returning from a groin injury. But the logical thinkers rationed that he’d be on the proverbial pitch count to protect against re-injury.
Beating Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in Green Bay — even without fans — while using seven rookies on defense was an old-school skin that Zimmer and his staff needed to pin to their wall to point at when it comes time to see who coaches this team in 2021.
And the ONLY way to get that skin was to treat Cook like the player he’s been paid to be (and for Kirk Cousins not to throw it all away). Tomorrow, next week, next year, be darned.
Cook played a season-high 88.5% of the team’s 52 offensive snaps. He had a career-high 30 carries and 32 touches for 226 yards and four touchdowns. Mattison played five snaps.
A day later, this mind had only one question for the head coach.
Basically, it was, “Uh, Mike, did you reach the point where you figured you might as well ride the best player you got?”
“He played an awful lot yesterday,” Zimmer said. “But he felt great. And it seemed like every time he was in there, we were moving the ball really well. So part of that is with him being in there the defense expecting some of the runs. So some of the other things opened up.
“But, yeah, we’re going to have to ride this guy.”
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.