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Purple pride is back

Vikings may actually be better without Culpepper

Posted: Tuesday November 15, 2005 10:29AM; Updated: Tuesday November 15, 2005 11:19AM
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The Vikings' Mewelde Moore returns a punt 71 yards for a touchdown in a 24-21 win over the Giants last Sunday.
The Vikings' Mewelde Moore returns a punt 71 yards for a touchdown in a 24-21 win over the Giants last Sunday.

There's something strange happening in Minnesota these days. The type of developing feel-good story I never would've expected after watching trainers cart Pro Bowl quarterback Daunte Culpepper and his mangled right knee off the field in Carolina two weeks ago. At that time, the Vikings were glaringly feeble, so fractured that you could hear the pain in every depressed word head coach Mike Tice uttered during his postgame press conference. You name the problem, the Vikings had it: lousy defense, lame-duck coach, the love boat scandal and a losing record. Without Culpepper, the only positives awaiting Minnesota were a top-10 draft pick and the search for a new coach.

Things are little different now, if you couldn't tell by the Vikings' 24-21 win over the New York Giants last Sunday. There's a drastically different air about this team -- the sort of attitudinal change that usually results from a squad finally realizing that it's time to alter the way it does business. That's what I see in the Vikings today. Led by a journeyman quarterback in Brad Johnson, and with most of the sports world having written them off, the Vikings are suddenly playing good football. They're actually a better team with Culpepper on the sidelines.

I hate saying this because I like Culpepper, and his injury was gruesome. I cringe every time I see Panthers cornerback Chris Gamble barreling into Culpepper's right knee like a bowling ball crashing into pins. Yet here's the hard truth about Culpepper that anybody with an experienced eye could see before he went down: He was one of the Vikings' biggest problems. He'd lost his confidence. He couldn't hit receivers consistently. He simply looked like the disoriented quarterback he had become -- a player without the electrifying receiver (Randy Moss) and the innovative offensive coordinator (Scott Linehan) who had made his life much easier in the past.

Now that Culpepper is gone, the Vikings are realizing what they should've known since the season began: They all need to elevate their games instead of waiting for him to carry them. That's exactly what they're doing. They reignited their running game in a win over Detroit, with Michael Bennett -- who hadn't produced a 100-yard game in two years -- leading the way with 106 yards. Minnesota's win over the Giants revealed even more surprises. When a team scores a touchdown on an interception return, a punt return and a kickoff return, you know it has some kind of magic working.

For those who laugh off Minnesota's win against the Lions, it's hard to ignore the victory over New York. The Vikings beat one of the league's hottest teams, on the road, and with all sorts of backbreaking, big plays. It was the kind of victory that made me believe the Vikings can string together a few more wins. With Johnson running the offense, they have an underrated quarterback who won't make many mistakes, even if he won't provide the breath-taking plays that are Culpepper's trademark. The Vikings also have shown they can score points in other facets of the game. Their defense is improving, especially when you consider that they controlled the league's highest-scoring team on Sunday. If nothing else, with games against the Packers, Browns and Lions up next on their schedule, they have a reason to believe again.

The question is whether that will be enough in the second half. Minnesota (4-5)is currently tied with Detroit for second place in the NFC North, two games behind a Chicago Bears team that is winning with the same formula that propelled them to the postseason in 2001 -- tough defense, vanilla offense, plenty of good fortune. Weeks ago, I would've said it's impossible for the Vikings to wear the NFC crown. If they keep playing as they have been -- and benefit from a couple breaks along the way -- they could get back into the picture.

By the way, what the Vikings have done isn't so much a testament to their resilience as it is to their recognition skills. Their season was slipping away because of poor decisions and poor play on the field. Those things can always change if a team finds good enough reason to do so. The Vikings apparently discovered their motivation when Culpepper's season ended. And while there may not be enough time to turn their new attitude into a postseason berth, it's still a good thing to see from a team that had been so bad.