THE GOOD fromDaunte Culpepper's Miami Dolphins debut last Thursday against Pittsburgh: 10months after surgery to repair three torn ligaments in his right knee, theformer Vikings quarterback ran and cut freely, and took three big hits withoutflinching. With the run game struggling, Culpepper spread the ball to sevenreceivers, just the way offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey hoped he would. For54 minutes Culpepper was evenly matched with Pittsburgh's Super Bowldefense.
The bad:Culpepper looked rusty. Three or four times he missed open receivers withground balls or overthrows, and on consecutive throws in the fourth quarter, hefloated a ball to wideout Chris Chambers that was picked off by safety TroyPolamalu, then failed to pick up linebacker Joey Porter dropping into coverageand hit him in the gut with a pass. Porter's 42-yard runback put the Steelersup 28--17 and iced the game. "I'm better than that," Culpepper saidwith disgust afterward. "We're better than that."
He'd better be ifthe Dolphins are going to live up to Super Bowl expectations--and he should be.In his next three games (Buffalo and Tennessee at home, then at Houston), hewon't face a pass-rush anything like Pittsburgh's. The loss to the Steelers wasthe fifth game in Culpepper's last eight in which he had thrown at least twopicks, but his combined '03--04 numbers (64 TDs, 22 INTs) suggest that's anaberration, especially since Culpepper has been reunited with the system thatmade his golden years possible.
When Vikingsassistant Scott Linehan took the Miami coordinator job in 2005 he brought withhim a pro-style offense combining secondary-stretching deep strikes withunderneath routes that favor the tight end. When Linehan took the St. LouisRams' coaching job last winter, Dolphins coach Nick Saban hired former Billscoach Mularkey and told him the Linehan system would stay intact. "It'sbeen a great transition," Culpepper said last week, "because I'm doingwhat I did in Minnesota. I've felt comfortable from Day One."
What Culpepperlacked last season (six touchdowns, 12 interceptions before getting hurt) was areliable downfield target. In Miami he's spent enough time throwing withChambers and tight end Randy McMichael--who combined for 142 catches with GusFrerotte, a lesser quarterback than Culpepper, in 2005--to know the weapons hehas now are better than any since he threw to Randy Moss and Cris Carter fourseasons ago. "Everything you need in an offense is here for a quarterbackto succeed," Culpepper said.
Saban knows hedoesn't have the same Culpepper who averaged 85.4 rushes a year from 2000through '04, and no one expects the 6'4", 264-pound quarterback to run for10 touchdowns again, as he did in 2002. At 29 Culpepper has to know hislimitations. But Saban also knows that his new QB is not afraid. "When wewent to Carolina in the preseason," Saban said last week, "I was alittle concerned that Daunte would be affected by returning to the same fieldhe got hurt on last year. So I told him the night before the game, 'You know,you don't have to play in this game if you don't want to.' He looked at me andsaid, 'Coach, I'm playing. It's another opportunity to compete.'"
"In some waysthe injury is the best thing that happened to me," says Culpepper, "Ifit hadn't, I wouldn't be here, and I know that here I've got the best chance towin."
DRIVER 8 Culpepper will be spreading the ball this year and targeting his deep threats.