WITH THE Minnesota Vikings trailing 3--0 and facing third-and-one at their 37yard line in the second quarter on Sunday, Daunte Culpepper showed how he has gone beyond his scary talent and developed into a polished quarterback. He scanned the Dallas Cowboys defense, saw that a blitz was coming and quickly called an audible: a pass to running back Onterrio Smith that went for a 63-yard touchdown. After Minnesota went on to win 35--17, one Vikings assistant coach said that Culpepper probably wouldn't have made that decision a season ago, that he predictably would have looked for Pro Bowl wide receiver Randy Moss. But this season Culpepper is committed to spreading the ball around. In throwing a career-high five touchdowns against the Cowboys, he hooked up with nine teammates while completing 17 of 23 passes for 242 yards. He helped the Vikings convert 63% of their third-down chances and amass 415 yards of total offense.
Credit part of that success to Culpepper's developing a stronger chemistry with receivers Nate Burleson (three catches for 34 yards), Kelly Campbell (one for 43) and Marcus Robinson (three for 54). The four players spent much of the off-season improving their timing at the team's practice facility and often gathered for cookouts at Culpepper's home in suburban Minneapolis.
Another reason Culpepper is playing with the confidence of a passer who expects to maintain Minnesota's status as the NFL's top offense is that, after having two offensive coordinators in his first three years with the team, he is in his third straight season with current coordinator Scott Linehan. That familiarity became a factor during Culpepper's big 2003 season, when he completed 65% of his passes and threw 25 touchdowns to earn his second trip to the Pro Bowl. Moreover, with defenses often assigning two and three defenders to shadow Moss, Linehan has challenged the other receivers to beat man and soft-zone coverages. On Sunday, Campbell used a go-route to burn Dallas cornerback Pete Hunter for a 43-yard touchdown in man coverage, and Robinson got past Hunter for a three-yard scoring catch.
Moss, of course, led the Vikings with four receptions and two touchdowns, but the Vikings still made their point. "We want to get all the guys in this offense going," Culpepper says. "Other teams think that if they can stop Randy, they can stop the Vikings, and that really isn't the case anymore."