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Right on Target

Nov. 01, 2004
Nov. 01, 2004

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Nov. 1, 2004

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  • With supreme confidence and accuracy,do-it-all Daunte Culpepper is threatening NFL passing records and putting the Vikings on a fast track to the playoffs

  • DAUNTE CULPEPPER isn't the only NFL quarterback on the brink of a career season. Here are three other passers who, although at very different stages in their development, are having notable starts in 2004.

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Right on Target

With supreme confidence and accuracy,do-it-all Daunte Culpepper is threatening NFL passing records and putting the Vikings on a fast track to the playoffs

Daunte Culpepper needed only five yards, but some of his Minnesota Vikings teammates were openly doubting their quarterback's ability to get them. "No way you can do it, Pep," one player yelled last Thursday in the locker room of the team's training facility in Eden Prairie, Minn. Culpepper, a 6'4", 264-pound marvel, insisted that he could indeed walk on his hands from one side of the room to the other. One skeptic, tight end Jermaine Wiggins, wagered $500. Culpepper assumed the handstand position, traversed the required 15 feet and collected the cash.

This is an article from the Nov. 1, 2004 issue Original Layout

Betting against Culpepper, in any endeavor, is not recommended. Though he is prone to professing his prowess in a wide array of activities, ranging from dancing to dominoes, the 27-year-old quarterback backs up his boasts more often than not. As Culpepper is fond of proclaiming, "What can I say? I am a man of many talents."

When it comes to his primary skill, throwing the football, Culpepper has good reason to brag: Seven weeks into the season the sixth-year veteran has been so prolific he is the leading candidate for league MVP, hands down. With 19 touchdown passes against three interceptions, an out-of-this-world 73.3 completion percentage and 1,949 passing yards, Culpepper is riding a hot streak that has evoked comparisons with Dan Marino's record-setting season for the Miami Dolphins in 1984 (chart, page 65). Daunte's inferno continued in a 20--3 home win over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, when he completed 24 of 30 passes for 183 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, only to have his NFL-leading passer rating drop three points, to 124.0.

"When we're rolling like this, it's a beautiful thing," Culpepper said after Minnesota, the NFC North leaders, improved to 5--1. With All-Pro wideout Randy Moss relegated to a cameo appearance because of a strained right hamstring, Culpepper proved to 64,108 fans that he is capable of carrying the Vikings--and, if necessary, one of the Titans as well. On third-and-16 from the Tennessee 43 late in the second quarter, Culpepper was flushed out of the pocket and caught from behind by blitzing cornerback Andre Woolfolk; he then seemingly channeled the improvisational brilliance of Fran Tarkenton. As Woolfolk spun him around, Culpepper, while falling, switched the ball to his left hand and lobbed it back over his head to Wiggins, who charged ahead for a 10yard gain.

On the ensuing fourth-and-six play, Culpepper raced to his right to elude Titans defensive end Carlos Hall and fired a 14-yard completion to wideout Nate Burleson. Then, 28 seconds before halftime, Culpepper threw a two-yard touchdown pass to wideout Marcus Robinson, giving the Vikings a 17--3 lead that effectively doomed the once-mighty Titans (2--5) to yet another frustrating afternoon.

"Daunte's in a zone," Keith Bulluck, Tennessee's Pro Bowl outside linebacker, said as he walked off the field. "He's comfortable in his offense and comfortable with his players, and they're playing really well. I just hope they don't choke late in the season, like they always do."

If Bulluck's words sting, it's because the Vikings well remember what happened at the same point in the season last year. Off to a 6--0 start Minnesota then gave up 450 yards of total offense in a 29--17 loss to the New York Giants at the Metrodome. In the locker room afterward, owner Red McCombs interrupted coach Mike Tice's comments to his players and angrily told them, "You embarrassed me and your fans out there today." According to players who were in the room, an enraged Tice followed his boss's remarks by yelling, in a thinly veiled reference to the San Antonio--based McCombs, "I'm sick of these f------ people who aren't with us every day coming in here and judging this team!" After slamming his fist against a metal laundry bin, Tice stormed off--only to be slapped on the back by an apparently oblivious McCombs, who drawled, "That's right, Coach Tice."

It's little wonder, then, that after the Vikings faded to 9--7 (finishing with a last-play loss to the hapless Arizona Cardinals that deprived Minnesota of a division title and a postseason berth), Tice, in a season-ending speech to his players, told them he wasn't sure he'd be asked to return for a third year. A team source says McCombs did spend several days considering a coaching change before deciding against it.

With a reported salary of $750,000, Tice is the league's lowest-paid coach by a wide margin and entered the 2004 season with little job security. (McCombs, who is contemplating a sale of the franchise, can exercise an option in January to retain Tice for a fourth year at $1 million.) "I don't really worry about that stuff," Tice, 45, said last Friday. "I think the only ones worried about it are my wife and daughter. They comment about it all the time, how embarrassing it is. They're mad it's not being addressed."

Before Sunday's game McCombs told SI that he has decided to exercise Tice's option for 2005, "and we'll sit down and discuss whether or not Mike wants to work out an extension. If he [loses the rest of his games], I'm still going to exercise the option. Mike is going to stay with me as long as he wants to."

Tice, a former NFL tight end who played 14 seasons (including three with the Vikings), is popular with his players, keeping them entertained with innovations such as F--- with You Fridays, weekly team meetings in which he pokes fun at players, coaches and himself by way of PowerPoint presentations. Last Friday players howled when Tice showed a photo of two obese, naked men--one of whom bore a resemblance to special teams coach Rusty Tillman--snuggling on a couch.

on sunday, after having spent a restless night grappling with the decision, Tice allowed the injured Moss to suit up and make a token appearance (two snaps) in the game; he did so because he believes his talented receiver, who has never missed a game in his seven-year career, values his streak. Deprived of his primary scoring threat, Tice made a call early in the second quarter that was truly out of character: a running play on first-and-goal from the one. Moe Williams's scoring run with 11:34 remaining was only the second rushing touchdown of the season for Minnesota and the first by a running back. In contrast, Culpepper has 11 touchdown passes of five yards or less.

"My friends back home in Pittsburgh are convinced that Tice is in a big-money fantasy league with Daunte as his quarterback, and that's why he calls pass plays in the red zone," says backup tight end Sean Berton. "Hey, he's the lowest-paid coach, so he's got to make up for it somehow."

On Sept. 21, nine days after tight end Jim Kleinsasser suffered a season-ending ACL injury in Minnesota's 35--17 season-opening win over the Dallas Cowboys, Berton, a second-year player who'd been cut by Minnesota three weeks earlier, was headed to a Hooters in the Mall of America when Tice called and asked, "How'd you like to start this Sunday?" Actually, he played primarily on special teams in his first three games back with the team. But in the opening quarter against the Titans, Berton caught his first NFL pass, a 14-yarder from Culpepper, who had rolled right, patiently waited for Berton to get open and delivered a strike.

In fact Culpepper connected on his first nine passes, finally throwing an incompletion midway through the second quarter. The man, after all, is not perfect--though you'd never know it from listening to him. "Pep says he's the best at everything," says running back Michael Bennett, who had one carry on Sunday after missing the first five games with torn cartilage in his right knee. "Basketball, Madden [NFL Football], pool, bowling, dressing, fishing--it goes on and on. It's like, I'm Daunte Culpepper, and I have the best cellphone ring. Muscle & Fitness magazine has rated his body as one of the best on the team three years straight, but we hear rumors that Pep went to school with the editor."

culpepper has always been hypercompetitive, according to his best friend, Larry Tucker, with whom he has been waging battles since the two were toddlers sharing a babysitter in Ocala, Fla. "If you say he can't do something, he's going to do it just to prove you wrong," says Tucker, a teammate of Culpepper's at Central Florida who regularly attends Vikings games. "A couple of years ago in Orlando we were out in a parking lot outside a club with a bunch of his cousins, and someone told him he couldn't do a flip anymore because he's too big. Right there, with all his jewelry on, after drinks, he did a back handspring from a standing position."

"The thing is," says Vikings safety Brian Russell, "Daunte is good at everything. He's always talking about how much he can lift, and this year at training camp he was bragging about how he could power-clean 350 pounds, which is a hell of a lot. He showed us his form, and it was so terrible that everyone started betting him he couldn't. There was about $5,000 on the line. The strength coach wouldn't let him in the weight room--there's no way they were going to take that chance--so Daunte snuck in and lifted 350 easily. He didn't even collect the money; he just wanted to prove he could do it."

With stories like that, it's tough to discount even Culpepper's most outlandish claims. For instance, when it comes to the ball-carrying abilities of rookie running back Mewelde Moore, a onetime fourth-stringer who slipped and ducked his way through the Titans for 138 yards on 20 carries, Culpepper is effusive, complimenting the patience, intelligence and poise of the fourth-round draft pick out of Tulane. Yet when asked after Sunday's game whether he or Moore, a fourth-round draft choice of the San Diego Padres in 2000 who spent three summers as an outfielder in the minors, was the better baseball player, Culpepper shook his head vigorously. "I'd have to say I'm better," said Culpepper, an outfielder in high school who was taken in the 26th round of the 1995 draft by the New York Yankees. "I can hit that ball a country mile."

"In Pep's dreams," Moore retorted, laughing. "I'm sure he can do a lot of things, but as far as hitting a baseball better than I can, I don't think so."

Perhaps, at some later date, that argument, too, will be settled. In the meantime, as Moore and his teammates are well aware, the Vikings' fate is in Culpepper's uniquely talented hands.

Passing Greatness

IN THE VIKINGS' 5--1 start Daunte Culpepper has averaged 324.8 yards and 3.17 touchdown passes per game. If he continues at that pace over the last 10 games, Culpepper would set the NFL record for passing yards, with 5,197, and touchdown passes, with 51. After six games here's how Culpepper stacks up against the quarterbacks who have had the most passing yards and touchdowns in a season.

View this article in the original magazine

Quarterback, Team

Year

Yards After Six Games

Season Total

DAUNTE CULPEPPER, VIKINGS

2004

1,949

?

DAN MARINO, DOLPHINS

1984

1,753

5,084

KURT WARNER, RAMS

2001

1,779

4,830

DAN FOUTS, CHARGERS

1981

1,835

4,802

DAN MARINO, DOLPHINS

1986

1,797

4,746

DAN FOUTS, CHARGERS

1980

1,630

4,715

Quarterback, Team

Year

TD Passes After Six Games

Season Total

DAUNTE CULPEPPER, VIKINGS

2004

19

?

DAN MARINO, DOLPHINS

1984

17

48

DAN MARINO, DOLPHINS

1986

13

44

KURT WARNER, RAMS

1999

18

41

BRETT FAVRE, PACKERS

1996

20

39

BRETT FAVRE, PACKERS

1995

12

38

Though prone to professing his prowess in a wide array of activities, Culpepper BACKS UP HIS BOASTS more often than not: "What can I say? I'm a man of many talents."

COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by John BieverA PERFECT START Culpepper, who has a 73.3% completion rate this year, connected on his first nine attempts against the Titans.COLOR PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOBRUISE BROTHERS At 6'4" and 264 pounds, Culpepper (11) blends in well among the linemen who give him time to throw.COLOR PHOTOTOM DAHLINSMASHING Marino's records for yards and TD passes have stood for two decades, but Culpepper is on pace to surpass both.COLOR PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO (TICE)LIKE MIKE Tice is popular with his players, but the league's lowest-paid coach isn't sure he'll be on the Minnesota sideline in 2005.