The Real Deal Untested quarterback Daunte Culpepper showed that he's more than big enough for the Vikings starting job with a stirring performance against the Bears

September 10, 2000

You meet 6'4", 257-pound Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper,
and you think: This man has the tree-trunk legs of a tackle, the
upper arms and shoulders of a tight end, the big hands of a
wideout and the gluteus maximus of a power forward. You watch
Culpepper play, and you think: He runs like Eddie George, throws
like Warren Moon, and what poise! Especially for someone
appearing in his first NFL game.

A perfect example of that unflappability came on the first pass
of Culpepper's pro career. He had already run 24 and 21 yards on
his first two scrambles against the Bears at the Metrodome. Then,
from the Chicago 26, he dropped back and felt a blitz coming from
his left. Bears cornerback Thomas Smith, steaming in unblocked
from the outside, was two steps from a sack--"I had him; he was
mine," Smith would say later--but Culpepper stepped to his left
without a trace of panic. Smith launched himself but grasped
nothing but air. With other defenders closing in and 315-pound
defensive tackle Mike Wells already on Culpepper's back, the
young signal-caller shoveled the ball to tight end John Davis,
who chugged for a nine-yard gain.

It was a play expected of an All-Pro, not a guy making his NFL
debut. Culpepper says he learned the shovel pass from Charlie
Ward, the Heisman Trophy winner from Florida State who's now a
point guard in the NBA. When asked about the improvisation,
Culpepper shrugged it off. "On a play like that, you have a
feel," he said. "You play football for a long time, and you can
feel where the pressure's coming from. I felt the pressure from
my left, and I avoided it, and then I just did what I had to do."

What he did against the Bears was pretty impressive. This was to
have been the day, many observers believed, that Culpepper would
be cut down to size, the day that Minnesota coach and vice
president of football operations Dennis Green would regret not
re-signing veteran Jeff George to make one last Super Bowl push
with a veteran team. Those doubts, Culpepper said on the eve of
the game, "fueled me like you wouldn't believe. I don't know why
there was such doubt in me. I had never played."

That's precisely why there was such uncertainty. But Culpepper
rallied the Vikings from a 20-9 third-quarter deficit, becoming
the first quarterback in franchise history to run for three
touchdowns in a game. His numbers for the day: 13 completions in
23 attempts for 190 yards and 73 yards rushing in Minnesota's
30-27 win.

With opposing quarterback Cade McNown rushing for 87 yards on 10
carries (eight of them quarterback draws), it was hard not to
think that this game was a glimpse of the NFL's future. In the
second half, Chicago backup quarterback Jim Miller turned to
third-stringer and fellow pocket passer Shane Matthews and said,
"We may not be long for this game, if this is the way it's
going." The 160 combined rushing yards by Culpepper and McNown
exceeded the total of their starting running backs, Robert Smith
and Curtis Enis, respectively, who picked up only 120. "Teams
want mobile quarterbacks who can move the chains," said the
Bears' Smith. "Culpepper kept the chains moving, mostly with his
legs. He's a pretty big weapon."

"I missed him twice on arm tackles," said Chicago defensive end
Phillip Daniels, "before I realized that you can't use arm
tackles on this guy. I got in some good licks, but he wouldn't go
down."

Chicago concentrated on containing Minnesota wideouts Randy Moss
and Cris Carter, and succeeded in holding them to a combined six
catches for 115 yards and no touchdowns. That left scrambling
room for Culpepper, which will probably lead future opponents to
try to close down the kid's rushing lanes. "All that means is
more room for Carter and Moss," Green countered. He's right. If
Culpepper can be an accurate quarterback--he completed 64% of his
attempts during his four years at Central Florida--the combination
of his size, speed and arm strength could carry the Vikings a
long way. "Big isn't the key," the quarterback said. "Big and
mobile is the key."

Culpepper was gracious in victory. "Thanks for coming," he told
this reporter.

No problem. Wouldn't have missed it. And we'll be back.

49ers' Salary Cap Probe
Clark On The Hot Seat

Dwight Clark, the Browns' vice president and director of football
operations, could be hit with a stiff fine as a result of the
league's investigation into salary-cap violations by Clark's
former team, the 49ers. Sources with knowledge of the probe say
Clark has admitted to league attorneys that he acted improperly
in the course of negotiations on a contract for quarterback Jim
Druckenmiller, San Francisco's first-round draft pick in 1997.

Clark told SI he can't comment on the case, but one source says
Clark, as a Niners executive in 1997, reached an oral agreement
after the contract was signed to redo the deal if Druckenmiller
became a full-time starter in the first three years.
Druckenmiller started one game in two seasons, was traded to
Miami last September and is out of the league.

According to one of the sources, the league's management council
also is set to nail the 49ers for failing to report income that
tight end Brent Jones, who retired after the 1997 season, was due
to receive for work in 1997 on the club's campaign to get a
stadium built.

Clark's admission isn't likely to take the heat off Browns
president Carmen Policy, who also was Clark's boss in San
Francisco when Policy was the 49ers' president and Clark was
their vice president and director of football operations. Each
could be fined $250,000 by NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who
is likely to hand the Niners a stiff penalty as well, perhaps
docking them a second-round draft choice and a lower pick. Policy
maintains that he did nothing wrong. "I can say with conviction
that I have not violated any provision of the collective
bargaining agreement," he told SI last Friday. "If I felt I
violated the cap, I'd have gone in [to Tagliabue] and tried to
finesse the best deal I could."

Policy appeared before a league committee in mid-August to tell
his side, but that apparently did little to help his case. One
team official who attended the meeting said Policy "was trying to
come up with ambiguities, not denials." Policy's retort: "I think
people had their minds made up before I went into that meeting."

Browns owner Al Lerner wants the ordeal to be over with, and
settlement discussions are under way.

Welcome Back, Carter
Ki-Jana's Road Back Is Bumpy

When the Bengals made Ki-Jana Carter the first pick in the 1995
draft, they weren't alone in rating the former Penn State running
back so highly. Packers executive vice president and general
manager Ron Wolf also had Carter ranked as the top choice on his
draft board. Imagine, then, Wolf's disappointment when Carter,
released by the Bengals last spring after a succession of
injuries, huffed and puffed through a tryout in Green Bay on Aug.
22. "It's obvious he's not in football shape," says Wolf.

Carter begs to differ. "I'm ready to work out for teams and ready
to play," he said last week from Boca Raton, Fla., where he's
been rehabbing following his latest procedure, arthroscopic
surgery on his right kneecap in April. He says that his surgeon
gave him a clean bill of health last month and that his knee is
"stronger than ever."

He'll have to prove it. That's what two knee injuries, a torn
rotator cuff, a broken wrist and 747 rushing yards in five
seasons will do to a reputation. "The desire's there," says
Carter. "I don't like to hear I'm washed up, I'm a bust. I will
prove people wrong."

The End Zone
He Deserves a Super Bowl Ring

The Winns of Amarillo, Texas, visited Cowboys training camp in
August with their four-year-old son, born not long after the
team's Super Bowl win in January 1996. The child's full name:
Dallas Will Winn.

Send your pro football questions for Peter King's mailbag and
read more from Paul Zimmerman at cnnsi.com/football.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Culpepper was as effective with his legs as he was with his arm in knocking off Chicago.

Dispatches

How good a job has Indianapolis president Bill Polian done? The
Colts have their cornerstones--quarterback Peyton Manning,
wideout Marvin Harrison, running back Edgerrin James, tight end
Ken Dilger and defensive end Chad Bratzke--all signed, for all
practical purposes, through at least 2003. Yet the club opened
the season $3.21 million under the salary cap, the third-biggest
cushion in the league....

Rams defensive end Kevin Carter, the 1999 NFL sack champion,
rejected a $7 million-a-year offer, including a signing bonus
($12 million) that was bigger than the ones quarterback Kurt
Warner and wideout Isaac Bruce got from the club this summer.
Carter, scheduled to be a free agent after this season, will
have to have another big year to get big money. "No one here has
any sympathy for him," says coach Mike Martz....

Want to know why the Patriots are so thin? Of the six draft
picks (all fourth-round selections or better) awarded as
compensation from the Jets for signing away Bill Parcells and
running back Curtis Martin in 1997 and '98, only two (linebacker
Andy Katzenmoyer and wideout Tony Simmons) are starters, and
three (Damon Denson, Robert Edwards and Sedrick Shaw) are out of
football....

"We've got to play smarter football," Chiefs coach Gunther
Cunningham said after a 27-14 loss to the Colts. No kidding. On
its first punt, K.C. lined up with 10 men. How can Larry Parker
forget he's on the punt team? On Indy's first snap, defensive
tackle Chester McGlockton jumped offside. Then the Chiefs had to
burn a timeout in the first half because the defense had only 10
men on the field; on the next play, end Dan Williams jumped
offside.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)