1st Down: From 2019-2021, it would not have been at all unreasonable to call Dalvin Cook the best running back in the NFL. He was a tough runner between the tackles and possessed a burst to the outside on toss/pitch plays that may be unrivaled in franchise history. If former MN Head Coach Mike Zimmer had to name a favorite player, it would almost certainly have been Cook for the way the conservative, run-first coach put his trust in then-#33 to milk the clock and secure victories. In '19 Dalvin practically put the team on his back in a push for the playoffs, and I'll never forget his empty-stadium dominance at Lambeau in the pandemic '20 season. Truth be told, that "prime" could have been even longer if not for his early-2017 ACL tear that also limited him some in '18. Not many ball carriers get even that sort of a run, though, so it was special for Vikings fans to behold.
2nd Down: Unfortunately, such heavy usage (to quote Indiana Jones: "it's not the years, honey--it's the mileage") began to show in 2022. Though still topping 1,000 yards on the ground, such a feat happened through health and attrition rather than efficiency. Every once in awhile that home-run speed was present, but more often than not it seemed like #4 was being brought to the ground on first contact and/or stopped up behind the line of scrimmage for a loss. By the end of the campaign it was clear that some sort of running-back-by-committee system was needed, but the rookie coaching staff had their bandwidths full with other matters (unleashing Cousins, Donatell's defensive disaster, etc.) and so Cook continued to grind it out. Unfortunately, Dalvin never developed--whether through poor coaching or just not part of his skill set--as much of a pass-catching or screen back, so opportunities for protection out in space were few and far between.
3rd Down: Due to be the third-highest paid RB in football this upcoming 2023 season, it was clear that Cook wasn't suiting up in Purple for that kind of money--and he also wasn't too keen on a pay cut/restructure. This past offseason, the Vikings presumably did everything possible to ameliorate the situation: trying to trade him (supposedly a deal to Miami was scuttled at the last minute) and then hanging on to him for as long as possibly to try and work something out. But if you were an opposing GM, why would you trade anything for Cook when he could be had as a free agent in due time? That's exactly how things played out, with Dalvin now released and free for the taking.
4th Down: Losing a talent like Cook is never fun. His scamper directly towards my end zone seat at the "Indy miracle comeback game" was something I'll never forget, and the next week I was also in the house when his career rushing total ticked past that of Chuck Foreman for third all-time in Vikings history (behind only Adrian Peterson & Robert Smith). But bell-cow rock-toters--especially those who aren't particularly skilled in the passing game--continue to go the way of the dodo bird in today's NFL offenses. In that sense, having the spectre/legacy of Cook off the squad may actually help the team establish a crop of backs to help support O'Connell's explosive passing game. That being said, it will almost certainly take a number of years before the Minnesota Vikings find a pure running talent like Dalvin Cook again.