EAGAN, Minn. -- Minutes after wrapping up interviews following the introduction of Kirk Cousins as the Minnesota Vikings' quarterback of the future, general manager Rick Spielman was back in his office trying to close another deal.
The Vikings were up against the clock, aiming to work out a contract restructure with running back Latavius Murray ahead of a 4 p.m. ET deadline the following day (March 16). That's when $5.15 million of his 2018 salary would become guaranteed. The organization wouldn’t have the cap space to keep Murray at that price, but finding a way to extend his stay in Minnesota for at least another year was a top offseason priority.
Murray agreed to the terms of a new deal, taking less money to stick around and eliminating the final year of his contract. It was important for the Vikings to set up their backfield in a way that didn’t force Dalvin Cook, who was coming off an ACL tear that cut short a promising rookie season, to handle too big of a load too soon. Coach Mike Zimmer said of Cook at the NFL combine in March that the Vikings didn't want to "wear him out."
In Murray they had a proven backup plan back in the fold. After Cook went down four games into his rookie season in 2017, Murray assumed the lead-back role, rushing for 842 yards and eight touchdowns while averaging 4.8 yards per carry.
The hamstring injury Cook sustained in Week 2 of this season has so far derailed his hopes of a strong comeback, limiting him to just 36 rushes for 98 yards over 10 quarters. Multiple league sources have indicated a belief that Cook will miss the Vikings' next two games against the Saints and Lions and remain sidelined through Minnesota's bye week.
Murray once again finds himself as the Vikings’ No. 1 rusher, and the decision Minnesota made seven months ago is paying off for both parties.
The Vikings’ run game finally broke open against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 6 with Murray rushing for a career-high 155 yards and two touchdowns. Until that point, Minnesota was the last team in the league without a rushing touchdown.
The sixth-year running back followed up that performance with another two-touchdown day against the Jets in Week 7 when he rushed 15 times and averaged 4.6 yards per carry. After an inconsistent first half, the Vikings' persistence in sticking with Murray and the run paid off.
"He’s a guy that needs carries, and the physicality of things," Zimmer said of Murray. "I’ve said it a million times, I like Latavius and the way he approaches the game. Typically he’s not a one-carry-every-quarter guy. He’s a guy that needs to get the football some."
The Vikings weren’t looking to bring back Murray because of just his downhill rushing ability or his capability of handling a big workload. The approach Murray takes with his preparation is one offensive coordinator John DeFilippo initially noticed when he spent the 2013 season with Murray in Oakland and watched how the then-rookie handled being sidelined with a foot injury.
"The first sign that Latavius was going to be a really good pro, even though he wasn’t playing, he treated every day like he was a starter, even in Oakland back as a rookie," DeFilippo said. "You can tell, guys that usually have that mindset as a rookie have a tendency to find a way to find a niche in this league and carve a way out for themselves. Obviously here, much more mature player, just because he’s older and has played a lot of football."
Murray brings balance to the run game through his experience and skill set. Early on when the Vikings weren’t able to generate the run the way they have the past two games, Cousins was still able to set up play-action without it. But having Murray takes the load off the quarterback on early downs to set up the passing attack and provides support in pass protection.
"I have to do my job if I have the ball or not," Murray said. "If that means getting dirty and sticking your head in there to protect Kirk so he can throw the ball down the field to the playmakers we have, you have to be willing to do it."
Murray’s physicality sets him apart. Whereas Cook is the every-down back, Murray is the bruiser who gets better as the game wears on and he can wear defenses down.
"He’s very diligent about his work, practices hard, but he’s got good feet and acceleration," Zimmer said. "He stayed with the reads really well [against the Cardinals], I thought. He runs with his pads forward. When he gets a chance, very seldom is this guy going backwards when he gets hit. A lot of those things I really like."
Another reason the decision has paid off is Murray’s willingness to do whatever is asked of him. His career experience has afforded him the opportunity to be the lead rusher and part of a committee of backs. Whenever Cook comes back, Murray knows his role may shift. And that’s something he’s OK with.
"I can’t worry about how the carries are going to get split up or whether I’ll play if he’s [Cook] up or down," Murray said. "When they say ‘Latavius, go in the game,’ I go in the game and I do what I can do."