Daunte Culpepper had scarcely completed his drop-back before the
pocket collapsed, forcing him to hurry a throw that a Chiefs
cornerback picked off. Because the 23-year-old Culpepper has
never thrown a regular-season pass, such mistakes are to be
expected. What was unexpected was the next decision he made in
the informal scrimmage. Surveying the defense and recognizing a
formation he didn't like, Culpepper changed the call from a safe
run to a quick slant. He threw a strike but didn't celebrate the
completion. He was too busy being--however unbelievably--the
Vikings' starting quarterback, and NFL starting quarterbacks
don't exult at well-executed audibles in August.
"When Daunte made that call I thought, We've got something here,"
says wideout Matthew Hatchette. "He showed a lot of poise and
understanding. Every day he looks more like a veteran." Several
teammates echo Hatchette's view and attest to Culpepper's
maturity or his athleticism or his moxie, while coach and general
manager Dennis Green expresses his utter comfort with Culpepper
at the controls. "I absolutely think he's ready for what we're
asking of him," says Green.
But then Culpepper has to be ready, because Green failed to sign
an alternative in the off-season. First he cut loose Randall
Cunningham, runner-up in the 1998 NFL MVP voting, then he balked
at keeping Jeff George, who won nine of 12 starts last season.
Only after his flirtation with Dan Marino went nowhere did Green
go after George, who instead signed with the Redskins. Even for
Green, who's prone to making enigmatic personnel decisions,
banking on Culpepper smacks of desperation. A team that two years
ago went 15-1 and that still possesses a talented core of skill
players is in the hands of an untested second-year man. "This is
why we drafted him when we did [No. 11 in 1999]," says Green. "He
will succeed. Randall came here and flourished. Didn't Jeff have
his best year as a starter last year? I have faith in our
Indeed, in Green's eight years as coach the Vikings have never
finished with a losing record. In seven of those seasons they
have gone to the playoffs--with six starting quarterbacks. With
wideouts Cris Carter and Randy Moss, a blossoming third receiver
in Hatchette and former Pro Bowl running back Robert Smith,
Culpepper will have a supporting cast few first-year starters
have enjoyed. "It's nice knowing those guys are there if I get in
trouble," says Culpepper. "But I was surprised I didn't play last
year, to be honest. I feel like I belong with these guys,
talentwise. I know I do."
Based upon his career at Central Florida, where he threw for
11,412 yards, broke 30 school records and set the NCAA
single-season completion-percentage mark (73.6), Culpepper's
quiet confidence seems reasonable. Moreover, Culpepper is a
physical marvel: At 6'4" and 265 pounds he is perhaps the biggest
NFL quarterback ever. With his size, strong arm and mobility, he
is often compared to the Titans' Steve McNair, who held a
clipboard for two years, then ran an ultraconservative offense
for two seasons before leading Tennessee to the Super Bowl last
January. Minnesota, however, can't afford such a leisurely
timetable. "I know we'll be expected to win," says Culpepper.
"That's fine. That's not pressure."
In a way he's right: Pressure on Culpepper will come on the
field, where defenses--looking to neutralize the Vikings' superb
intermediate and deep passing routes--are certain to blitz him
relentlessly. Their job was made easier after center Jeff Christy
and guard Randall McDaniel signed with the Bucs. Perhaps sensing
impending chaos, Culpepper spent 10 weeks in Boca Raton, Fla.,
during the off-season sharpening his timing with Carter, Moss and
Hatchette. Carter came away cautiously optimistic. "I believe
Daunte can do it," he says. "How fast he learns and how much he
wants to work, those things are up to him. But I believe he's
going to be a great quarterback."
Following an afternoon practice at the team's Mankato, Minn.,
training camp, as the players trudged through the hordes of
autograph hounds that lined the path to the locker room, only
Moss was more sought after than Culpepper. Each time the
quarterback stopped, a screaming frenzy ensued, until finally he
had to go: Meetings, a quick dinner and more meetings awaited.
As he was stepping into the locker room, two kids pleaded with
him to return. After a long moment, Culpepper--wearing an
apologetic half grin--did just that and signed the wide-eyed boys'
hats, shook their hands and posed for pictures with them.
In doing so Culpepper looked every bit a gracious, civic-minded
NFL star. Maybe Carter and Green and the rest are right. Maybe he
will be great someday. Then again, defenses won't be as easily
impressed as a couple of eight-year-olds.
COLOR PHOTO: VINCENT MUZIK UNTESTED The 265-pound Culpepper is the biggest starting signal-caller in the NFL, but he's also the most inexperienced one.
COLOR PHOTO: BRUCE KLUCKHOHN
SEPT. 3 CHICAGO
17 at New England
24 Open date
OCT. 1 at Detroit
9 TAMPA BAY (Mon.)
15 at Chicago
29 at Tampa Bay
NOV. 6 at Green Bay (Mon.)
23 at Dallas (Thurs.)
30 DETROIT (Thurs.)
DEC. 10 at St. Louis
17 GREEN BAY
24 at Indianapolis
1999 Record 10-6 (2nd in NFC Central)
NFL rank (rush/pass/total): offense 14/5/3; defense 14/30/27
2000 Schedule strength
NFL rank: 5
Opponents' 1999 winning percentage: .555
Games against playoff teams: 9
PLAYER TO WATCH
When Linda Wong asked her son to help her write The Mom's Pocket
Guide to Watching Football by providing descriptions of the
positions, Mom was going to an expert: Kailee Wong lined up at
strongside linebacker, both defensive ends and on special teams
in his first two years. "Mainly, I helped her with the language,"
he says. "I kept it in layman's terms." Last season Minnesota's
defense, in just such terms, stank. Wong, who moves to middle
linebacker this year, is expected to bolster a defense that
ranked 27th in 1999. "We're sick of being known as just an
offensive powerhouse," he says. "Things will be better this
PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1999 STATISTICS
Coach: Dennis Green
Ninth season with Vikings (81-47 in NFL)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Daunte Culpepper[*] 45 402 att. 296 comp. 73.6% 3,690 yds.
28 TDs 7 int. 170.2 rtg.
RB Robert Smith 112 221 att. 1,015 yds. 4.6 avg. 24 rec.
166 yds. 6.9 avg. 2 TDs
RB Moe Williams 281 24 att. 69 yds. 2.9 avg. 1 rec.
12 yds. 12.0 avg. 1 TD
FB Jim Kleinsasser 323 0 att. 0 yds. no avg. 6 rec.
13 yds. 2.2 avg. 0 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Randy Moss 10 80 rec. 1,413 yds. 11 TDs
WR Cris Carter 15 90 rec. 1,241 yds. 13 TDs
WR Matthew Hatchette 203 9 rec. 180 yds. 2 TDs
TE Andrew Jordan 265 5 rec. 40 yds. 1 TD
K Gary Anderson 228 46/46 XPs 19/30 FGs 103 pts.
PR David Palmer 231 12 ret. 7.8 avg. 0 TDs
KR David Palmer 231 27 ret. 23.0 avg. 0 TDs
LT Todd Steussie 6'6" 308 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Corbin Lacina 6'4" 302 lbs. 14 games 0 starts
C Matt Birk 6'4" 304 lbs. 15 games 0 starts
RG David Dixon 6'5" 346 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Korey Stringer 6'4" 338 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LE John Burrough 14 tackles 1 sack
LT Tony Williams 46 tackles 5 sacks
RT John Randle 37 tackles 10 sacks
RE Talance Sawyer 0 tackles 0 sacks
OLB Dwayne Rudd 115 tackles 3 sacks
MLB Kailee Wong 48 tackles 0 sacks
OLB Ed McDaniel 120 tackles 2 sacks
CB Kenny Wright 74 tackles 1 int.
SS Robert Griffith 128 tackles 3 int.
FS Orlando Thomas 70 tackles 2 int.
CB Robert Tate 18 tackles 1 int.
P Mitch Berger 61 punts 45.4 avg.
 New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 139)
[*]1998 college statistics
THE BOOK an opposing team's scout sizes up the Vikings
"I really like Daunte Culpepper. If they bring him along
carefully, I think he'll play adequately. He doesn't get
flustered. He can take a hit. And he's got a big arm that I
think can be accurate enough because Denny Green is going to put
him into situations where he can succeed. Plus, they've got the
bullets. Two great receivers, even with Cris Carter getting old,
a very good all-purpose back and two excellent tackles will help
him loads.... They'll miss Jeff Christy at center more than
they'll miss Randall McDaniel at guard--in part because Matt
Birk, the new center, is just another guy.... They're going to
have to score 30 points a game because their defense won't stop
anyone. Their draft confused me. Tony Williams is one of their
five best players on defense, a good bookend tackle for John
Randle. Then their top draft pick was Chris Hovan, who they
picked to move Williams out.... Dwayne Rudd was super two years
ago, but he got banged up last year and struggled because of the
double-team attention he got.... Randle's Randle. Too bad he has
to carry so much of the weight himself."