MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Vikings played host to the San Diego Chargers on November 4, 2007, in a game highly anticipated not because of the quarterbacks — the Vikings played Tarvaris Jackson and Brooks Bollinger, after all — but for its running backs, perennial Pro Bowler LaDainian Tomlinson of the Chargers and rookie phenom Adrian Peterson of the Vikings.
The game was ultimately heralded as a changing of the guard in the NFL as Peterson rushed 30 times for an NFL-record 296 yards and three touchdowns as Tomlinson could only stand and watch.
Peterson’s last season with Minnesota was 2016, and the following spring the Vikings drafted Dalvin Cook as his heir apparent.
Cook was on pace to be nearly as sensational as Peterson — he broke Peterson’s Minnesota rookie debut rushing record by going for 127 yards on 22 carries — only for injuries to derail him.
This season Cook is back, and apparently better than ever if Sunday is any indication.
Cook rushed 21 times for 111 yards and two touchdowns as the Vikings showed a resurgent rushing game in a 28-12 season-opening victory over the Atlanta Falcons before 66,714 at U.S. Bank Stadium, as his counterpart, Devonta Freeman, could only stand and watch.
Minnesotans consider Eden Prairie and Cretin-Derham Hall to be high school football powers, but in Florida, football talent grows like oranges. Cook and Freeman both played college at Florida State and went to the same high school, Miami Central. Cook didn’t even bother going out for varsity football until his sophomore year because he didn’t want to play second fiddle to a guy who would get 40 carries.
“And he did get 40 carries,” Cook said.
Cook certainly wasn’t overshadowed on Sunday, either, with the Vikings defense smothering Freeman, holding him to 19 yards on eight carries. When quarterback Matt Ryan (two carries, 24 yards) outrushes you, as Falcons fans know, chalk up the L. This one was over, and it wasn’t as close as the final score might indicate, except for some garbage yards and pride points tacked on at the end.
It’s hard to believe this is the same Falcons team that not even three years ago crushed the Packers in the NFC title game and should have beaten the Patriots in the Super Bowl (sorry for the reminder, Packers fans, but that’s payback for the fact that I had to watch that debacle with my Green Bay buddy).
This organization has crashed and burned faster than the Hindenburg. They still have Ryan, a four-time Pro Bowler, and they still have Freeman, a two-time Pro Bowler, but if you believe in trends, the line chart is going in the wrong direction after Atlanta finished 10-6 in 2017, 7-9 in 2018 and laying an ostrich egg on Sunday.
The Vikings, meanwhile, have to be feeling pretty good. Yes, the Falcons had the 25th-ranked run defense in 2018, but going for 172 rushing yards in the NFL — at 4.5 yards a carry — will always be considered good by any estimation. And while he doesn’t always show up in the stats, Sunday was also one of C.J. Ham’s best games as a pro. The Vikings fullback and Duluth native was all over the place, making key blocks, picking up blitzers, pursuing on special teams and even recovering an onside kick.
“I came from a fullback system in college, and I love when the fullback is in front of me,” Cook said. “I cherish what C.J. Ham does for me. He is my guy, and I love when he is on the field with me because he is the brains of this offense. He makes sure I got the plays right when I’m back there.”
Cook ‘n’ Ham. Kind of has a ring to it, doesn’t it?
The true test for new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, offensive advisor Gary Kubiak and this offense will be next week when the Vikings play Green Bay at Lambeau Field. Something will have to give as the Vikings’ new run-first offense clashes with the Packers’ revamped defense.
Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins finished Sunday 8-for-10 passing for only 98 yards — those numbers would have been unfathomable at the start of 2018, when receiver Adam Thielen alone had at least 100 receiving yards in an NFL-record eight games to start the season as the Vikings all but abandoned the run.
Ask Cousins, ask Thielen, ask Cook, and they say they don’t care about the stats, so long as the Vikings win, and with them, it actually sounds believable. Cook could have had a third touchdown had the Vikings challenged the ruling on the field that he was inches short, but again, he didn’t care because Cousins scored on the next play.
Cook was more than happy to spread the love and watch Cousins do a touchdown dance that will never be confused with "America’s Got Talent."
“I like seeing the celebrations. It’s goooood,” Cook said. “Kirk is kind of like the football dad on this team, and we love seeing him show his personality. It gets the whole team hyped up.
“If we would have 98 rushing yards and 400 passing yards, I would have been fine with that. We want to win, and that’s what we want around here. As long as we win football games, that’s all that matters. We have some guys in this locker room who enjoy each other’s success, and Kirk is one of those guys.”
Jon Nowacki covers sports for the News Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com or (218) 723-5305.