Showing The Way
Daunte Culpepper helped the Vikings get back to the business of
During the 30-second moment of silence honoring Korey Stringer
before the Vikings-Saints preseason game last Saturday night,
Stringer's reluctant successor looked toward the ceiling of the
Alamodome in San Antonio. "Look over me tonight, big guy," right
tackle Chris Liwienski said to himself. "I need you."
Five days after Stringer was buried (he died of complications
from heatstroke on Aug. 1) and two seconds after the tribute
ended, Liwienski buckled his helmet. The Rolling Stones' Start Me
Up blared over the P.A. system, and the announcer boomed, "Are
you ready for some football?"
The show must go on, and it did. The Vikings may be the most
resilient group in the NFL, and they may have the most gifted and
resolute young quarterback on the planet too. Although they have
lost four Pro Bowl offensive linemen in the past 18 months and
were without the NFC's leading rusher in 2000, the retired Robert
Smith, Minnesota shredded the Saints' defense.
First series: three plays, 80 yards, ending in a 60-yard
touchdown laser from Daunte Culpepper to Randy Moss. Second
series: 12 plays, 84 yards, capped by Culpepper's bulling 11
yards for a touchdown. Third series: three plays, six yards--but
on the third play, Moss, who was open in the end zone, juggled
and dropped a 37-yard Culpepper bullet. In 20 minutes against a
defense that ranked eighth in the league last year, the Vikings'
first-teamers got 170 yards and were stopped only by an
uncharacteristic drop. Culpepper threw for 75 yards and ran for
66. "His arm is great, and I think he'd be one of the 15 best
running backs in football if he played there," says New Orleans
defensive coordinator Ron Zook. "But his poise--dadgum it! What
he's done in one year boggles the mind."
Culpepper is only 24. However, in the wake of the Stringer
tragedy, he has emerged as a leader, on and off the field, a rare
role for a man who has made a mere 16 NFL starts. Culpepper is
the one who met with keystones Moss and Cris Carter and said,
"We're the ones who have to get this team through this."
One point became clear in the Vikings' cleansing 28-21 win over
the Saints: As long as the 6'4", 260-pound Culpepper stays
upright--and the deep (Moss) and intermediate (Carter) threats do
likewise--Minnesota has a chance to make up for a leaky line and
the loss of Smith. Liwienski isn't the only greenhorn. Replacing
Pro Bowl left tackle Todd Steussie, who signed with Carolina as a
free agent in March, is Brad Badger, who flunked his only
previous starting trial, with the Redskins in 1998. At running
back speedy first-round pick Michael Bennett showed he can get
around the corner, carrying nine times for 79 yards and two
Liwienski is 26, good in run-blocking, subpar in pass-protection
for a tackle. A 1998 seventh-round draft choice out of Indiana,
he was released by the Lions during that preseason and signed by
the Vikings. He spent his first two seasons mostly either
inactive or on the practice squad, then made one start last year.
After Saturday night's game, he stood outside in the evening heat
and looked back on the previous 11 days. "We're just trying to
hold together," he said. "For me, it's strange. I spend the
off-season getting reading to compete for the left guard job. Now
I play a game tonight for a good friend. It's tough."
In his hotel room on Saturday afternoon, offensive line coach
Mike Tice got a call from Titans line coach Mike Munchak,
expressing condolences. "I'm glad no one was in that room with me
because I cried like a baby," Tice said as he stood outside the
locker room after the game. "It's not fun for me now. I don't
know when it will be."
Inside, Tice could hear owner Red McCombs walking through,
shouting, "Purple pride! Purple pride! We're a juggernaut!" The
show goes on. And the team with the heavy hearts just might put
on a very good one in 2001.
A Star Is Reborn
Rice Suits Raiders Fine
There was a solitary Raider on the practice field at 7:55 one
morning last week, 50 minutes before practice was scheduled to
begin. As other players straggled in for the morning session,
Jerry Rice worked on patterns at the far end of the field.
Later that morning, sounding like Michael Buffer while calling
out the players he wanted for a drill, coach Jon Gruden barked,
"Regular offense! First unit! I want Tim Brrrrown and Jerry
Rrrrice!" (Later, Gruden said, "Do you have any idea how good it
feels to say that?") After practice, Rice, 38, stayed to work on
routes with rookie quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo. "I feel so
good, so reenergized," Rice said, walking off the field. "It's
been a great move for me, better than I imagined."
The impact of the league's alltime leader in receptions (1,281),
touchdowns (187) and receiving yards (19,247), in his 17th year
as a pro but his first in black and silver, is undeniable. "I was
very clear with him before he came," says Gruden. "I didn't want
him because of his work ethic or because he was some role model.
We've got a great work ethic. I wanted him because he can still
play. He's shown he can."
Early in camp Rice even won a contest to see which wideout could
throw an option pass if such a play were called. Says Gruden, "I
told the other receivers, 'The hell with you guys. Red Grange is
in the house!'"
Damione in the Rough
Rams Have Their Bull Up Front
Looking for an early favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year
honors? Try Rams tackle Damione Lewis, who not only has modeled
his game after the Bucs' Warren Sapp but also is built like him.
"He's one of the best rookies to come into the league in a
while," says the Rams' new director of player development, Ray
Agnew, who retired as a player last week after 11 years in the
league. "The great thing is he comes to practice every day to
Lewis, a 6'4" 292-pounder out of Miami, had a pair of sacks in
his pro debut, on Aug. 6 against the Dolphins. The first came on
a juke step followed by a burst through the guard-center gap, the
second on a power move. "The main thing in my game," says Lewis,
"is beating people off the ball. That's why I try to play like
Warren, because he's the best at it." Asked if he thought he
could have a double-digit-sack season as a rookie, Lewis said,
"All I know is, I'll play every play as hard as I can."
That will be vital in rehabbing a defense that was one of the
worst in the league last year.
Two days before the Ravens' devastating loss of running back
Jamal Lewis to a season-ending left knee injury, tackle Jonathan
Ogden praised the coaching staff for its laid-back camp. Then,
in a simple running drill, a defender fell on Lewis's leg....
Don't look for the Seahawks to deal Ricky Watters to Baltimore.
Seattle coach Mike Holmgren is getting tired of the mental
lapses of second-year back Shaun Alexander. "At times he still
thinks he's at a fraternity party at Alabama," says Holmgren....
Niners coach Steve Mariucci, on the effect of the recent
heat-related deaths in football: "We have to do something about
safety. A mom who sends her son out to play football has to know
he's not going to be in danger. I worry that the pool of players
will go way down and we'll lose even more young kids to sports
Raiders owner Al Davis groused about missing defensive tackle
Darrell Russell (suspended for the first four games last week
for violating the league's substance-abuse policy), but in truth
Russell is one of the NFL's most overrated players. Impact
penetrators get more than three sacks in 16 games....
Rams coach Mike Martz is serious about going with Joe Germaine,
the former Ohio State signal-caller, and Mark Bulger, a
first-year player out of West Virginia, as his second and third
quarterbacks, respectively. "I watched Bulger for two days early
in camp, and he never missed a receiver," says Martz. "Imagine
how good he'll be when he learns the offense."