Dalvin Cook has been an amazing weapon and asset for the Minnesota Vikings for as long as he has been in Minnesota -– and when healthy. So to suggest that his playing time needs to be reduced, especially suggesting such a reduction come playoff time, may seem ludicrous.
But Cook has not been the same running back in 2022 that he was earlier in his career. Whether due to nagging injuries or simply because of the physical wear and tear of playing running back in the NFL, he hasn’t shown the same burst, ball security, or down-to-down consistency that we have come to expect.
Vikings Should Consider Benching Popular Playmaker
On Sunday against the New York Giants, and going forward in the playoffs if the Vikings advance, Cook needs to play less and touch the ball less than he has all season. It’s a difficult situation because Alexander Mattison isn’t exactly a superstar in the waiting, but giving Cook fewer touches will have numerous advantages come playoff time.
Possessions Are Pivotal
Every possession matters in postseason football, and the amount of possessions that Cook has given away for the Vikings this season is simply unacceptable. Cook has fumbled four times this season, but more worryingly, he has fumbled three times in the Vikings last five games, losing all three.
Mattison, in contrast, has fumbled only twice in his entire NFL career. A running back’s first job when he gets the handoff is not to give the ball to the opposing team, and it seems likely that Mattison is significantly better at this job than Cook.
For a team entering the playoffs that needs to minimize mistakes and negative plays, putting the ball in a fumble prone running back’s hands less? Well, that just makes way too much sense.
Wear and Tear Matters
Cook has suffered injuries, both large and small, constantly throughout his career, affecting his body. It’s no wonder he looks less physical and bursty, given the laundry list of injuries he’s been forced to withstand and play through.
He is still battling a shoulder injury this season, and who knows what else he could be dealing with. Not to mention the general physical demands of the running back position in the NFL, where few players ever show success for more than a few years in the league.
Luckily for the Minnesota Vikings, they have a running back on their bench with enough experience that you don’t have to fear playing him, but at the same time, minimal wear and tear or injury concerns. Let’s get this straight — a fully healthy in-his-prime Dalvin Cook is the guy to ride with, no matter what. The burst he has shown in the past is incredible, and his ability to reach the edge makes him special.
But he isn’t the same guy this season, not in the run or pass game. In contrast, Mattison looks fresh and ferocious every time he gets in the game, running with authority and power through the hole, while Cook seems to shy away from contact all too often.
Giving your fresher running back more touches would allow the offense to test the defense in different ways, would provide coaches with a chance to see what they could do with Mattison, and could allow Cook to run harder and faster when he does enter the game since he is more rested. Mattison has looked fresh and fast every time the Vikings have given him a chance, and he needs to be given more chances in the playoffs.
Cook Has Struggled
Maybe it’s the wear and tear of his injuries and time in the league. Perhaps it’s just generally reduced athleticism, but Cook has not performed at a level one would expect from a franchise superstar.
In fact, he’s legitimately been bad in 2022. A surface-level glance seems to render this take absurd — Cook finished 6th in the regular season in rushing yards, averaging a very solid 4.4 YPC, and also scored 8 TDs on the year. But once you delve underneath the surface and look at the context, a picture of ineptitude begins to appear.
Cook faces a loaded box on just 18.94% of his carries due to the Vikings emphasis on playing with lighter personnel and passing more this season, but Cook has failed to take advantage of those light boxes.
Evidence of this is Cook’s abysmal showing in RYOE –- Rush Yards Over Expected -– a stat that takes into account scheme, player alignment, and blocking performance, and predicts how well a rush will do. In Cook’s case, he consistently does worse than projection based on those factors and is one of the worst running backs in the league when measured with this statistic.
But advanced statistics aren’t the only place we can find incriminating evidence regarding Cook’s performance.
Film review site Pro Football Focus also has him as one of the worst running backs, ranking 64th in the NFL in rush grade. The running backs directly above him are Travis Homer and Matt Breida, and the running backs directly below him are Joshua Kelley and Trey Sermon — not good company to be in.
Mattison, by the way? Oh, he ranks 16th in the NFL in rush grade. He’s also shown a lot more burst in and out of his cuts and seems to get more out of every touch than Cook does — as evidenced by the Vikings most recent game in which all of Cook’s carries came with the Vikings starting offensive line in the game, yet Mattison had 54 yards and a pair of rushing touchdowns on just 10 carries, while Cook managed just 37 yards on 11 carries.
Splice it any way you want, as soon as you look past the volume stats and analyze context, Cook is a running back past his prime who is not performing at a high level. Mattison should receive touches this postseason not just to spell Cook and keep him fresh, but because Mattison is legitimately a better running back at this point in their respective careers
And the Vikings need to play the best player at every position to win in the playoffs.