As the Minnesota Vikings prepare to do battle against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, their third-year running back from Florida State and most valuable player of 2019 is ready to play his best football.
Who knows what 100% is anymore when it comes to the NFL? Players’ muscles and bones get injured, their bodies get fatigued, their strength and speed ebb after three months of contact. What they picture in their mind, their hands and feet sometimes fall short of on the field.
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But that’s the game they play–and the one we watch. One part an athletic but punishing ballet, another part a war of attrition.
Cook And Casuality
Dalvin Cook, the Vikings’ starting tailback, is a player who has few delusions about injury and fatigue, having suffered an ACL tear that wiped out three-quarters of this rookie season in his rookie year, then a full rehab and a 2018 season that saw other infirmities affect his game.
In 2019, he revitalized the Vikings’ ground game, chasing the 2019 rushing title for more than half the season before again being limited with shoulder and chest injuries.
After extended time off since the Vikings beat the L.A. Chargers in Week 15, Cook is again ready to provide the Minnesota offense with his rare blend of speed, agility, and vision that made him one of the NFL’s most dangerous players in 2019 when they take on the Saints this Sunday.
The question is whether Cook can do the things he did earlier in the year before his shoulder and sternum were bruised. Can he press a hole and slide through like he’s running downhill? Follow a cross-hatching of blocks through a front seven hell-bent on stopping him? Take a screen pass and light up the field like a pulse of light?
Learning To Cook, Then Re-Heat
It took some time for the Vikings’ to show the balance they needed to win games this year. But after a 2-2 start to the season, they settled in with Cook and had an undefeated October. Cook averaged 4.9 yards a carry in Minnesota’s run-first attack that deftly opened a play-action parlay that had defenses rocking back and forth all game.
Once coaches like the Kansas City Chiefs DC Steve Spagnuolo started loading the run box against the Vikings’ ground game, WR Adam Thielen went out and Cook was slowed by a shoulder injury. The Vikings offense suffered while game design and precision took a hit. Still, Minnesota won four of their next five and secured the playoff berth that eluded them in 2018.
But a shoulder bruise in the Chiefs’ game limited reps for Cook and he began to show some tenderness on the field. In Week 15 game against the Chargers, he exited the game with a hard tackle affecting his sternum and has been on the sideline since December 15th.
Who’s The Cook On Sunday?
Even if Alex Mattison is ready to roll alongside Cook on Sunday afternoon, the state of play of the Minnesota Vikings in this WildCard Game is in the legs of number 33.
For all the accolades that offensive coaches Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak have been given this year, a great deal of their success is due to one special athlete. Since Dalvin Cook has been more of a role player and less of a game-breaker since his infirmities, the Vikings’ offense has shown a tendency to stall in numerous crucial situations.
This lack of success shows how much this offense has depended on Cook’s unique talents in 2019.
With other things being ideal (things like Adam Thielen having a prolific game and the defense not chasing Drew Brees and Michael Thomas) the Vikings may make a contest that of this playoff match, but it will take a truly auspicious turn of events to see them leave the Superdome with a victory unless Dalvin Cook resembles his old self out there.
This Vikings team has some very, very good players. But it’s time to realize how special–and important–Dalvin Cook is to winning this game and being part of this team’s future.
For his part, the man appears ready–at least in his own heart and mind.
“I knew what my goal was–to be ready for the playoffs, Cook said this week. I’ve been there before, I know. There was nothing that was going to hold me out from the playoffs. Just be strong, be healthy and get back on the field.”
Unfortunately, it just not that easy. Injuries have a way of short-circuiting passion and power on a football field. As Vince Lombardi used to say: “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”
But once again, who knows what 100% is anymore? Is it possible that Cook may have the body to mind to play at the superlative level we’ve seen so often this year? Or is possible that just enough of that talent fortifies a Vikings team–playing at their own highest level–to leave the Superdome with a WildCard Playoff win?
Yes and yes.