They met on the field late Monday night, the Vikings’ all-time leading rusher and the rookie who has insisted at every turn he is not here to replace Adrian Peterson.
Dalvin Cook, for all his potential, is one game and 127 rushing yards into an NFL career that began with him succeeding the man who has run for 6.91 miles in regular-season and playoff games. He is unlikely to be used the same way as Peterson was during a decade in Minnesota, and drawing an equivalency between the two, after just one night, would seem as silly as it is convenient.
Yet as the Vikings’ new running back and their old one greeted one another, after a game that turned out to be much more about Cook’s emergence than Peterson’s return, it was hard to miss the ceremony of the moment.
“He just told me to keep balling, and I told him that I’m just following in the GOAT’s footsteps,” Cook said on Monday night. “That’s what I’m doing. I’m learning, but there’s a lot to learn, and there’s a lot to learn from him. He did some great things with this organization that he put on tape that I like to watch. I’m going to learn a lot of stuff from him, and what he was thinking on a lot of runs. He just doesn’t know how he’s impacted the game.”
It’s unlikely Cook’s mark on the Vikings’ 2017 offense will be as profound as Peterson’s was in 2007. But for a team that has planned to replace Peterson with a trio of running backs, Cook looked awfully close to a featured back in his first game.
He was on the field for 51 of the Vikings’ 65 offensive snaps, carrying 22 times and being targeted with passes five more times. Not counting two kneel-downs by Sam Bradford, the Vikings had just six rushing attempts that didn’t involve Cook.
And after he opened the fourth quarter with a 32-yard run, Cook was still in the game to the end, breaking a 33-yarder on a third-and-7 to allow the Vikings to run out the clock at the Saints 12.
According to NFL Research, Cook recorded two of the three fastest speeds by a running back in Week 1, when he hit 20.45 and 19.98 miles per hour on his two long runs.
“You kind of go with the hot hand sometimes,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “He was rolling pretty good at that point.”
Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur reiterated his belief in the importance of more than one running back last month, and it will be clearer in several weeks whether the Vikings will delegate a decent share of the workload to Jerick McKinnon (who played 15 snaps Monday) and Latavius Murray (who played three).
The Vikings, though, have repeatedly professed their comfort with Cook in all phases of the game, and he’s given them few reasons at this point to think he can’t do it all.
“I think he went for 127 tonight, and I mean, for his first game as a rookie, I should be more surprised by that,” quarterback Sam Bradford said Monday night. “But I’m probably not just because of how talented I think he is and because what we’ve all seen from him since he got here. You can’t really say enough about him, to be able to come in and play as many snaps as he did to keep pounding and pounding and finally break a few at the end.”
Cook stayed in the game for nine of the Vikings’ 14 third downs, being asked to stay in on pass protection on three of them and running routes on four. That alone could make him more likely to receive a bigger workload than did Peterson in recent years. In 2015, Peterson’s final full year with the Vikings, he was on the field for only 65.2 percent of the Vikings’ offensive snaps, running for enough yards to win his third rushing title but often heading to the sideline on third downs.
When the Vikings finally parted ways with Peterson this spring, they set out to construct a backfield of players who could stay in the game on all three downs.
Though McKinnon and Murray have the traits the Vikings wanted, it was Cook who got the leading role on Monday night. Once he did, he stole the show from Peterson.
“He looked really good,” Peterson said Monday night. “He had great patience and good vision, he has great explosiveness — things that I knew. There were a couple of big runs there at the end that sealed it for them.
‘‘He’s pumped up and excited about that, being a young guy. I wish him nothing but the best.”