The Real Deal
Untested quarterback Daunte Culpepper showed that he's more than big enough for the Vikings starting job with a stirring performance against the Bears
You meet 6'4", 257-pound Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper, and you think: This man has the tree-trunk legs of a tackle, the upper arms and shoulders of a tight end, the big hands of a wideout and the gluteus maximus of a power forward. You watch Culpepper play, and you think: He runs like Eddie George, throws like Warren Moon, and what poise! Especially for someone appearing in his first NFL game.
A perfect example of that unflappability came on the first pass of Culpepper's pro career. He had already run 24 and 21 yards on his first two scrambles against the Bears at the Metrodome. Then, from the Chicago 26, he dropped back and felt a blitz coming from his left. Bears cornerback Thomas Smith, steaming in unblocked from the outside, was two steps from a sack—"I had him; he was mine," Smith would say later—but Culpepper stepped to his left without a trace of panic. Smith launched himself but grasped nothing but air. With other defenders closing in and 315-pound defensive tackle Mike Wells already on Culpepper's back, the young signal-caller shoveled the ball to tight end John Davis, who chugged for a nine-yard gain.
It was a play expected of an All-Pro, not a guy making his NFL debut. Culpepper says he learned the shovel pass from Charlie Ward, the Heisman Trophy winner from Florida State who's now a point guard in the NBA When asked about the improvisation, Culpepper shrugged it off. "On a play like that, you have a feel," he said. "You play football for a long time, and you can feel where the pressure's coming from. I felt the pressure from my left, and I avoided it, and then I just did what I had to do."
What he did against the Bears was pretty impressive. This was to have been the day, many observers believed, that Culpepper would be cut down to size, the day that Minnesota coach and vice president of football operations Dennis Green would regret not re-signing veteran Jeff George to make one last Super Bowl push with a veteran team. Those doubts, Culpepper said on the eve of the game, "fueled me like you wouldn't believe. I don't know why there was such doubt in me. I had never played."
That's precisely why there was such uncertainty. But Culpepper rallied the Vikings from a 20-9 third-quarter deficit, becoming the first quarterback in franchise history to run for three touchdowns in a game. His numbers for the day: 13 completions in 23 attempts for 190 yards and 73 yards rushing in Minnesota's 30-27 win.
With opposing quarterback Cade McNown rushing for 87 yards on 10 carries (eight of them quarterback draws), it was hard not to think that this game was a glimpse of the NFL's future. In the second half, Chicago backup quarterback Jim Miller turned to third-stringer and fellow pocket passer Shane Matthews and said, "We may not be long for this game, if this is the way it's going." The 160 combined rushing yards by Culpepper and McNown exceeded the total of their starting running backs, Robert Smith and Curtis Enis, respectively, who picked up only 120. "Teams want mobile quarterbacks who can move the chains," said the Bears' Smith. " Culpepper kept the chains moving, mostly with his legs. He's a pretty big weapon."
"I missed him twice on arm tackles," said Chicago defensive end Phillip Daniels, "before I realized that you can't use arm tackles on this guy. I got in some good licks, but he wouldn't go down."
Chicago concentrated on containing Minnesota wideouts Randy Moss and Cris Carter, and succeeded in holding them to a combined six catches for 115 yards and no touchdowns. That left scrambling room for Culpepper, which will probably lead future opponents to try to close down the kid's rushing lanes. "All that means is more room for Carter and Moss," Green countered. He's right. If Culpepper can be an accurate quarterback-he completed 64% of his attempts during his four years at Central Florida—the combination of his size, speed and arm strength could carry the Vikings a long way. "Big isn't the key," the quarterback said. "Big and mobile is the key."
Culpepper was gracious in victory. "Thanks for coming," he told this reporter.