We all thought it was a quarterback the Vikings were missing.
That was the diagnosis within and without the organization in the aftermath of a 38-7 loss to Philadelphia that ended the 2017 season in the NFC Championship Game, so the Vikings went out and spent $84 million on the best available quarterback, Kirk Cousins.
It was the smart if inordinately expensive move. When he’s on, Cousins is a great passer, which is exactly what the Vikings wanted. But in retrospect, the X factor the Vikings were looking for — the guy they hoped would be the difference between the NFC title game and the Super Bowl — was already on the roster, a rookie running back named Dalvin Cook.
It was appropriate that Adrian Peterson was on the other sideline Thursday at U.S Bank Stadium because in their 19-9 victory, the Vikings finally replaced their all-time leading rusher, three years after they let him walk in free agency and with the guy they drafted to do it.
It just took a while.
After eight games, Cook leads the NFL in rushing yards with 823 and rushing touchdowns with nine. His ability to break long any time he touches the ball makes the passing game go; and when the passing game — or offensive line — isn’t working, he’s talented and reliable enough to carry the offense for meaningful stretches.
The Vikings went 8-8 last season not because Cousins was terrible; he passed for 4,298 yards and 30 touchdowns. The Vikings flopped after the NFC title game because they still didn’t have a real running game. Coming off season-ending knee surgery, Cook also battled a hamstring injury and was limited to six games — and never at his best.
“Yeah, I was coming of an ACL,” he said Thursday.
The difference is stark. Minnesota’s offense wasn’t at its best on Thursday, but Cook was, which is why the Vikings won relatively easily despite scoring only one touchdown, a Dalvin Cook production. His 31-yard run on a screen pass set up his own four-yard run that gave the Vikings a 13-6 lead at the half.
The play went for 31 yards but he ran 50 before stepping out of bounds on the far sideline.
“I was looking for a touchdown,” he said. “I ran out of gas.”
When Minnesota wanted to ice its sixth victory, up by 10 with 8:26 left on the clock, they asked Cook to put the finishing touches on Washington’s defense. He ran seven times for 35 yards before giving way to backup Alexander Mattison on a drive that ate up all but 26 seconds of the clock.
He finished with 98 yards on 23 carries, and 73 receiving yards on five catches.
Minnesota hasn’t had a really good running back since 2015, Peterson’s penultimate season with the team that drafted him — post-switch and pre-knee injury. That was Teddy Bridgewater’s first NFL season, but Peterson made that team go, leading the NFL in rushing for the third and likely final time with 1,485 yards and taking pressure off the rookie quarterback.
Peterson blew out his knee early the next season, starting a long three years without, for all intents and purposes, much of a running game.
The fabulously competent Latavius Murray ran for 842 yards in 2017, combining with the admirably game Jerick McKinnon for 1,412 yards, which was good enough to help Case Keenum and the NFL’s best defense go 13-3 in the regular season and advance to the conference championship.
It just wasn’t good enough to win it. Murray was a professional running back with a knack for not losing yards, but he ran like the Statue of Liberty on three wheels. He was never going to break a game open.
Now the Vikings have someone who can. The baton, almost three years late, has been passed from Peterson — having a bit of a renaissance in his second season with Washington — to Cook. But Washington’s NFL team fell to 1-7 on Thursday; Minnesota improved to 6-2 and is back in the race to win the NFC North.
Finally healthy, Cook has been the X factor.
“I feel like me,” he said Thursday. “I feel like the guy that came into this thing.”