It takes an entire village to help a team to win a division title, secure a postseason berth and earn a first-round bye.
The Vikings have relied on many facets to make that possible, riding an elite defense and steady quarterback play as they prepare to face New Orleans in the playoffs Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.
But Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon have certainly played their parts, as well. The duo picked up the slack and then ran with it after promising rookie Dalvin Cook went down in Week 4.
“We didn’t have a conversation, but we kind of looked at each other and knew it would be up to us,” Murray said of the mood after Cook’s season-ending ACL injury. “People were going to look at that position, and if we didn’t deliver, they were going to say, ‘Oh, this is the reason why (the team struggled).’
“We didn’t want to be that reason, and we wanted to do what we were able to do,” Murray added. “I think we’ve done a good job of that.”
Added McKinnon: “It was devastating. The start that Dalvin got off to, he was on pace to do some great things and potentially be Offensive Rookie of the Year, if not Rookie of the Year. He’s that type of player. When he went down, me and ‘Tay’ knew we had to hold it down for him now and keep things going.”
With Cook as the focal point of Minnesota’s offense the first month of the season, the rookie rushed for 354 yards and two scores in three-plus games.
Murray and McKinnon, meanwhile, had 24 carries for 64 yards and no touchdowns in limited roles.
Yet the teammates, who didn’t even know each other a year ago, bonded together and formed one of the most formidable duos across the league for the final three months of the season.
The Vikings rushed for 100 or more yards in 11 of the season’s final 12 games as Minnesota went 11-1 the rest of the way.
Murray, who was slow to go early on after having offseason ankle surgery, finished with 842 yards and eight scores.
The free agent acquisition said last week he was disappointed in himself early, but he never lost faith that he could turn things around.
“I didn’t have the great start that I wanted,” said Murray, whose moniker is the ‘Tay Train’. “Regardless of being the starter or not being the starter, the reps I was getting weren’t as effective or productive as I wanted them to be. You can sit here and talk about the injury I had … for me, as long as I’m out on that field, I want to be productive.
“As the season went on, I was able to get stronger and get better as a player,” Murray added. “That’s satisfying to me as long as I’m able to improve and contribute to the offense.”
Murray was buoyed by a support system that included Vikings running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu.
“I wanted him to be the best version of Latavius,” Polamalu said of Murray’s resurgence. “We watched film and watched his base and little things … he’s getting stronger and stronger. He hasn’t even played his best game yet.”
McKinnon immediately gave the Vikings a lift in Week 5, helping Minnesota to a rare road win at Soldier Field.
The former college quarterback/receiver/running back/cornerback rushed for 95 yards, the third-best mark of his career and highest total in 2017, which included a game-changing 58-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
McKinnon, who goes by ‘Jet,’ relied on his versatility all season, finishing with 570 rushing yards and 421 receiving yards, narrowly missing out on becoming the 13th Vikings running back to hit the 500/500 club.
Not bad for a player who at 5-foot-9 and 205 pounds is one of the smallest players on the roster.
“He can do everything,” Polamalu said. “He can run it inside, he can run it outside, he can catch, he can protect. I’ve been really impressed he’s been available in all the games, and that’s a credit to him and how he’s taken care of himself and become a pro in all areas.”
McKinnon said he had a moment this offseason when he looked around and realized he was the only running back left in the room from a 2016 in which the Vikings ran for just 1,205 yards, the team’s lowest total since 1983.
And he’s proud that it’s been all hands on deck — from Murray, Cook, himself, fullback C.J. Ham and a revamped offensive line — to help the Vikings rank seventh with 122.3 yards per game in 2017 with 1,957 total rushing yards.
McKinnon credited that success to a strong and trustful relationship with Murray. The two routinely razz each other in the locker room and are each other’s biggest supporters on the field.
“Our characteristics are kind of similar as far as personality and things like that. But the good thing about it is that we’ve both been competing,” McKinnon said. “It’s done nothing but raise both of us up a whole other level. When I’m not in and he’s running, I’m on the sideline cheering for him and try to give him extra energy.
“When he signed, we talked for a little bit. But we met, man, and it’s been a friendship and a brotherhood ever since he got here. A lot of people will say different things, but being at the same position and being with those guys every day, it’s like a family within a family,” McKinnon added. “Most of our time is together … this year has been about pushing myself to make everyone around me better.”
That bond includes Cook, who said Murray and McKinnon helped keep his spirits up when the Miami native was initially rehabbing from his injury in Florida.
“The way they responded was awesome, and it was what the team needed. I went down, and it was unfortunate, but the way they picked the running game up, it was good,” Cook said. “I had 100-percent confidence they were going to do it. I’d been with those guys every day, and I knew what they were capable of.
“When I had my surgery, those guys called me every day to motivate me and to make sure I was doing what I needed to be doing back in Pensacola,” Cook added. “That’s just the relationship we built in that room.”
Now, with the playoffs on the horizon, Minnesota will look to make a deep postseason run behind its running game.
The Vikings know the possibilities are endless if they get there by flying a Jet or taking the Train.
“Those guys kept coming back stronger and stronger, and when you feel that in a game and you’re able impose your will by running the ball like that, it generates that energy,” Polamalu said. “I enjoy coaching this room every day because they’re selfless. They complement each other, there’s a camaraderie and a brotherhood and all of that is real, even with Dalvin. We’ve got something special, and I hope we can keep doing it.”