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4 MINNESOTA Vikings
Josh Elliott
August 28, 2000
Coach Dennis Green is putting all his eggs in the basket of young, strong-armed quarterback Daunte Culpepper
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August 28, 2000

4 Minnesota Vikings

Coach Dennis Green is putting all his eggs in the basket of young, strong-armed quarterback Daunte Culpepper

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PROJECTED LINEUP
WITH 1999 STATISTICS

Coach: Dennis Green
Ninth season with Vikings (81-47 in NFL)

Offensive Backs

QB

Daunte Culpepper?

45*

402 att.

296comp.

73.6%o

3,690 yds.

28 TDs

7 int.

170.2 rtg.

RB

Robert Smith

112*

221 att.

1,015 yds.

4.6 avg.

24 rec.

166 yds.

6.9 avg.

2 TDs

RB

Moe Williams

281*

24 att.

69 yds.

2.9 avg.

1 rec.

12 yds.

12.0 avg.

1 TD

FB

Jim Kleinsasser

323*

0 att.

0 yds.

no avg.

6 rec.

13 yds.

2.2 avg.

0 TDs

Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen

WR

Randy Moss

10*

80 rec.

1,413 yds.

11 TDs

WR

Oris Carter

15*

90 rec.

1,241 yds.

13 TDs

WR

Matthew Hatchette

203*

9 rec.

180 yds.

2 TDs

TE

Andrew Jordan

265*

5 rec.

40 yds.

1 TD

K

Gary Anderson

228*

46/46 XPs

19/30 FGs

103 pts.

PR

David Palmer

231*

12 ret.

7.8 avg.

0 TDs

KR

David Palmer

231*

27 ret.

23.0 avg.

0 TDs

LT

Todd Steussie

6'6"

308 lbs.

16 games

16 starts

LG

Corbin Lacina

6'4"

302 lbs.

14 games

0 starts

C

Matt Birk

6'4"

304 lbs.

15 games

0 starts

RG

David Dixon

6'5"

346 lbs.

16 games

16 starts

RT

Korey Stringer

6'4"

338 lbs.

16 games

16 starts

Defense

LE

John Burrough

14 tackles

1 sack

LT

Tony Williams

46 tackles

5 sacks

RT

John Randle

37 tackles

10 sacks

RE

Talance Sawyer

0 tackles

0 sacks

OLB

Dwayne Rudd

115 tackles

3 sacks

MLB

Kailee Wong

48 tackles

0 sacks

OLB

Ed McDaniel

120 tackles

2 sacks

CB

Kenny Wright

74 tackles

1 int.

SS

Robert Griffith

128 tackles

3 int.

FS

Orlando Thomas

70 tackles

2 int.

CB

Robert Tate

18 tackles

1 int.

P

Mitch Berger

61 punts

45.4 avg.

#New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*: Player Value Ranking (explanation on pago 139)
? 1998 college statistics

Daunte Culpepper had scarcely completed his drop-back before the pocket collapsed, forcing him to hurry a throw that a Chiefs cornerback picked off. Because the 23-year-old Culpepper has never thrown a regular-season pass, such mistakes are to be expected. What was unexpected was the next decision he made in the informal scrimmage. Surveying the defense and recognizing a formation he didn't like, Culpepper changed the call from a safe run to a quick slant. He threw a strike but didn't celebrate the completion. He was too busy being—however unbelievably—the Vikings' starting quarterback, and NFL starting quarterbacks don't exult at well-executed audibles in August.

"When Daunte made that call I thought, We've got something here," says wideout Matthew Hatchette. "He showed a lot of poise and understanding. Every day he looks more like a veteran." Several teammates echo Hatchette's view and attest to Culpepper's maturity or his athleticism or his moxie, while coach and general manager Dennis Green expresses his utter comfort with Culpepper at the controls. "I absolutely think he's ready for what we're asking of him," says Green.

But then Culpepper has to be ready, because Green failed to sign an alternative in the off-season. First he cut loose Randall Cunningham, runner-up in the 1998 NFL MVP voting, then he balked at keeping Jeff George, who won nine of 12 starts last season. Only after his flirtation with Dan Marino went nowhere did Green go after George, who instead signed with the Redskins. Even for Green, who's prone to making enigmatic personnel decisions, banking on Culpepper smacks of desperation. A team that two years ago went 15-1 and that still possesses a talented core of skill players is in the hands of an untested second-year man. "This is why we drafted him when we did [No. 11 in 1999]," says Green. "He will succeed. Randall came here and flourished. Didn't Jeff have his best year as a starter last year? I have faith in our system."

Indeed, in Green's eight years as coach the Vikings have never finished with a losing record. In seven of those seasons they have gone to the playoffs—with six starting quarterbacks. With wideouts Cris Carter and Randy Moss, a blossoming third receiver in Hatchette and former Pro Bowl running back Robert Smith, Culpepper will have a supporting cast few first-year starters have enjoyed. "It's nice knowing those guys are there if I get in trouble," says Culpepper. "But I was surprised I didn't play last year, to be honest. I feel like I belong with these guys, talentwise. I know I do."

Based upon his career at Central Florida, where he threw for 11,412 yards, broke 30 school records and set the NCAA single-season completion-percentage mark (73.6), Culpepper's quiet confidence seems reasonable. Moreover, Culpepper is a physical marvel: At 6'4" and 265 pounds he is perhaps the biggest NFL quarterback ever. With his size, strong arm and mobility, he is often compared to the Titans' Steve McNair, who held a clipboard for two years, then ran an ultraconservative offense for two seasons before leading Tennessee to the Super Bowl last January. Minnesota, however, can't afford such a leisurely timetable. "I know we'll be expected to win," says Culpepper. "That's fine. That's not pressure."

In a way he's right: Pressure on Culpepper will come on the field, where defenses-looking to neutralize the Vikings' superb intermediate and deep passing routes—are certain to blitz him relentlessly. Their job was made easier after center Jeff Christy and guard Randall McDaniel signed with the Bucs. Perhaps sensing impending chaos, Culpepper spent 10 weeks in Boca Raton, Fla., during the off-season sharpening his timing with Carter, Moss and Hatchette. Carter came away cautiously optimistic. "I believe Daunte can do it," he says. "How fast he learns and how much he wants to work, those things are up to him. But I believe he's going to be a great quarterback."

Following an afternoon practice at the team's Mankato, Minn., training camp, as the players trudged through the hordes of autograph hounds that lined the path to the locker room, only Moss was more sought after than Culpepper. Each time the quarterback stopped, a screaming frenzy ensued, until finally he had to go: Meetings, a quick dinner and more meetings awaited.

As he was stepping into the locker room, two kids pleaded with him to return. After a long moment, Culpepper—wearing an apologetic half grin—did just that and signed the wide-eyed boys' hats, shook their hands and posed for pictures with them.

In doing so Culpepper looked every bit a gracious, civic-minded NFL star. Maybe Carter and Green and the rest are right. Maybe he will be great someday. Then again, defenses won't be as easily impressed as a couple of eight-year-olds.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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