Mike Zimmer had plenty of previous experience in press conferences pertaining serious knee injuries, but on October 2, 2017, the weight of the recent past was visible. That day, Zimmer looked down toward at podium and made it official: Dalvin Cook’s ACL was torn and he would miss the entire 2017 season.
Just over a year before his agonizing announcement, Zimmer gripped the same lectern and told the media that Teddy Bridgewater had suffered an injury so severe it required an ambulance at Winter Park. Cook had been a bright spot through the previous three weeks, which had included two losses and countless questions from all angles about Sam Bradford’s knee injury. Now the offense’s centerpiece was gone for the year.
“I talked to [Cook] after the game. I saw him this morning for a minute. He’s a great kid. Extremely impressed with everything he’s done to this point,” Zimmer said. “It’s obviously a terrible thing for him, and for us, but we’ll move forward.”
The Vikings went out on a limb trading up to select Florida State’s all-time leading rusher in the second round. Concerns about people from his past kept Cook out of the first round and put the Vikings under the microscope for their “high risk” move. He quickly justified their investment by winning the starting job in a landslide over two proven backs, and then rushing 74 times for 354 yards and catching 11 passes for 90 yards over the first three-and-three-quarters games.
At home against the Detroit Lions, Cook was carrying the Vikings’ offense with 66 yards on just 13 carries. With 10:35 remaining in the third quarter, he bolted through a hole into the second level. When Cook dug in for a sharp cut, his knee buckled and that was that.
Running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu was the first one to meet him when he got to the sideline.
“It was shocking, he was having such a good game, the excitement every time he touched the ball was electrifying,” Polamalu said, standing on the sun-drenched field at TCO Performance Center last Wednesday.
The injury hit Polamalu especially hard. From the day Cook arrived, he worked to gain the young running back’s trust. He knew Dalvin’s background — that he was raised by his grandmother in a place where success stories are few and far between. Polamalu understood that their relationship would be vital to Cook’s progress as a pro.
“I was just hoping and praying that it wasn’t too serious and just trying to encourage him that he’s still young and being that young, things heal,” Polamalu said. “He just has to have a mindset to trust the process. I kept telling him that he was going to have a long career if he keeps doing the right things.”
Cook connected quickly with Polamalu’s style of treating his running backs like family.
“When you have a coach that can relate to you at different levels on and off the field, he’s coached so many great backs, you always have your ears open to a lot of stuff,” Cook said during OTAs. “KP he sees something in a lot of us, man. He gets that itch out of all of us on the field. He knows what drives us. He know how to drive us.”
“I grew up in Samoa, didn’t speak the language, so I kind of put myself in [Cook’s situation] learning to trust people, learning to speak,” the Vikings’ running backs coach said.
Cook remained with the team to rehab and watched as they went 13-3 and earned a trip to the NFC Championship. He hobbled through the locker room every day, sitting down next to Bridgewater, Case Keenum and Terence Newman. At the top of the locker was a picture of him on crutches, smiling. After the season was over, Cook showed up at Winter Park day after day, dying to focus on football and instead spending time on getting his burst back.
“It’s tough early on,” Vikings trainer Eric Sugarman said. “I’m sure he will tell you. The first few weeks when he came back he probably was wondering if he would ever walk normal again. There were a few days when he was ready to kill me when I had to push on his knee to get his range of motion back because we struggled early on.”
Cook admitted as much.
“You got to stack the good days up but the bad days are going to come,” Cook said. “That’s when you have to push through those days and those are going to be the days that are going to make you or break you. Those are going to be the days that get you over the hump and set you apart from others.”
Logically speaking, everyone knew on October 2 that Cook would be back the following year. Zimmer referenced Adrian Peterson’s incredible comeback from an ACL tear in 2011 to a 2,000-yard season in 2012. They were confident he’d work hard on his rehab and return in 2018. But you don’t know for sure until you see it. Former first-round pick Sharrif Floyd was supposed to have a routine procedure on his meniscus, but a nerve issue following surgery has likely ended his career.
Last week, Cook was back taking first-team reps in OTAs — over a month earlier than he had been slated to return to practices.
“It’s a great feeling,” Polamalu said. “And for him too because he has been working his tail off and doing the right things. Good people, good things happen.”
Zimmer remained matter-of-fact, saying he was glad to get Cook taking reps with other players around him, but it was clear the weight was no longer on his shoulders.
“He’s attacked his rehab really, really hard,” Zimmer said. “Even when you joke around with him, I’ve heard him say he’s the same guy that he was. I say, ‘Well, that’s cause you’re young, if it was me it’d be a lot harder’. He’s got a great attitude about it. I think he feels like he still has something to prove, he’s got a little bit of a chip on his shoulder.”
On draft night, Jimbo Fisher was adamant that 31 teams made a mistake by passing on Dalvin Cook. The former Florida State head coach’s voice echoed through the conference phone sitting on a table inside Winter Park’s makeshift media area.
“I haven’t coached a back or coached against a back that was so dynamic that every time he touched the ball, he could score a touchdown,” Fisher declared on April 29, 2017.
You can imagine Fisher’s face when he saw the highlights of Cook’s first four games.
“You sit there and you smile,” Fisher said over the phone on Monday. “You just have a grin and you say, alright. And then I come back and I say, I told you so.”
In Cook’s final two years under Fisher, who is now the head coach at Texas A&M, he rushed for 3,456 yards and 38 touchdowns and averaged 14.8 yards per reception.
Of course, there are lots of players who have great college stats. Kevin Smith had almost as many yards as Barry Sanders in college. Fisher believed it wasn’t just Cook’s production that would be predictive of success at the next level, but his skill set and personality that would ultimately translate to the NFL.
“He’s the ultimate competitor, he wants to be a champion,” Fisher said, “I think he has the mentality to be in the Hall of Fame. Whether he ends up in the Hall of Fame, I don’t know that, but what I’m saying is, he has the ability to go play and win a championship.”
Fisher has coached hundreds of games, hundreds of players, dozens of star NFL’ers, but the 52-year-old ball coach still remembers clearly one moment where he realized Cook had special intelligence and instincts for the game.
Texas A&M’s new head coach, who went 83-23 at Florida State, still has some of Cook’s stat lines from memorized. There was his 222 yards against Miami as a freshmn. And then his 194 from scrimmage against Florida the follow year and 207 yards from scrimmage in the Orange Bowl in 2016.
“The bigger the moment, the bigger the game, the better he plays,” Fisher said proudly.
Fisher’s prediction factored in Cook’s circumstances. In Minnesota, he landed with veteran team with a head coach and management that had been in place long enough to create rare stability.
“You’re in an organization with great management, great head coach, got mature guys that’s having success,” Fisher said. “There’s examples of guys that he knows with Xavier [Rhodes] and Teddy — they grew up in that same area — putting himself in an environment and atmosphere and culture that you’re used to being around, I think it’s big time. It was a very smart move by them.”
When Cook went down, his former coach couldn’t help but be reminded of all the times Cook returned from injuries ahead of schedule. He wasn’t surprised to hear that he was doing the same thing in Minnesota.
“I figured he’d be back, but if there’s anybody mentally tough enough to deal with it, it’s him,” Fisher said.
“I know how much it means to him,” he added.
The Vikings realized early on some of the same things Fisher pointed out in late-April 2017. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur could use him in different schemes, creating big plays on zone or power runs, on screen passes or routes that take him downfield.
“His vision and his turn over, his feet, it’s kind of crazy if you watch his feet, they really turn over fast,” Polamalu said. “A lot of guys are kind of a strider or they power, but his feet go 100 miles per hour. His vision, too. He just sees things and knows how to accelerate at the right time. He has a natural gift, but the thing I’m excited about is that he keeps working at it.”
New offensive coordinator John DeFilippo has the task of maximizing Cook’s versatile skill set. Before Cook was even ready to take part in practices, the Vikings’ OC was geeking out over the different places he could line up his playmaker.
“The thing we tried to work with Dalvin, coming in here, is getting him outside the numbers a little bit,” DeFilippo said. “Getting him out wide and getting him comfortable out there. We want our best players and all of our best players to be able to line up anywhere. The more jobs you can do and the more places you can line up eliminates decision making for the quarterback before he gets the ball in his hand.”
When DeFilippo was the offensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns in 2015, he used his running backs successfully out of the backfield in the passing game. Duke Johnson caught 61 passes and Isaiah Crowell added 19 more catches.
“His offense he wants to get the best guys the ball in their hand every time,” Cook said. “He’s going to get the matchups he wants and that’s what we all want. We want to get the matchups and we want to make plays for our team to help us win football games. That’s just Coach Flip’s offense.”
Getting the ball in his hands and making plays is one thing, becoming a top-notch all-around back is another. There are only a handful in the league at any given time who can excel on the ground, through the air and in pass protection. The Vikings believe Cook has that potential.
“When he touches the ball or when he’s in the backfield protecting, it was fun to watch him pick up the blitz pattern, it’s fun watch him catch the ball and he keeps working on things and I just get really excited to be around that young man,” Polamalu said.
In order to meet that potential, Cook will first have to get out of the knee brace. He’ll have to get his explosiveness back, be sure he can trust the knee when he cuts like he did against Detroit last year and he’ll have to do so while mastering a new offense.
“Remarkable effort by him to date,” Sugarman said. “A lot of work still, the hardest part has yet to come.”