As the season moved along and Culpepper watched from the sideline, newspapers ran stories about the class of '99 quarterbacks, considered by many to be the best since 1983 when likely Hall of Famers John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino turned pro. Five of Culpepper's contemporaries—the Cleveland Browns' Tim Couch, the Philadelphia Eagles' Donovan McNabb, the Cincinnati Bengals' Akili Smith, the Chicago Bears' Cade McNown and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Shaun King—earned starting jobs, while the big man from Central Florida, selected with the 11th pick of the first round (he was taken after Couch, McNabb and Smith), looked good only when he was stepping off the team bus.
Even Johnson noted that the light he saw emanating from Culpepper had weakened since that day in April when he was drafted. "I never doubted myself last year because I understood what my role was," says Culpepper. "If Coach Green said my role was to run scout squad every day and try to make our defense better, then that was what I was going to do. Don't get me wrong. It was definitely tough at times, but I always knew my day was coming."
"As a quarterback you're not ready to play as a rookie," says Green. "When we drafted Daunte, we told him, 'This is the perfect situation for you. You are the only quarterback in this draft who's going to be given a chance to watch. They all think they're ready to play, but they're not.' "
No one seems less surprised by Culpepper's performance this season than Culpepper, who with so few starts to his credit already has given thought to his legacy. Asked to describe the future he envisions for himself in the NFL, he doesn't hesitate. "I want to be the best ever," he says. "I don't want to be just somebody who played the game. I hang out with [wideout] Randy [Moss] more than anybody else on the team. We sit around and talk, and it's like, 'When we walk away from football, we don't want people ever to forget.' When they mention this game, I want them to say ' Culpepper and Moss,' just like they now say ' Montana and Rice.' "
Culpepper pauses and seems to be considering how his words will appear in print. "I know that's saying a lot," he continues, "but I'm saying it anyway. You've got to set your goals that high. If you don't, why are you playing? The best ever—that's what I'm after."
For now, however, Culpepper's only place in the history books concerns his weight. Recent reports have put him at 269 pounds, but in fact, the most he's ever weighed is 265, and that was during the off-season. His playing weight, he says, fluctuates between 255 and 259, occasionally dipping to 250. "The guy is like a fullback," says Buffalo Bills linebacker Sam Rogers. "You have to make sure you get your head across his body when you try to tackle him. You can't come from the back side and expect to blow him up, because you'll bounce right off."
In football big has always been good, and big and fast is even better. Running the 40-yard dash for NFL scouts one day last year before the draft, Culpepper put up a 4.42, faster than a lot of skill-position players—players he outweighs by as much as 70 pounds. He has bench-pressed 405 pounds and squatted more than 500, numbers that would make most offensive linemen proud. In the off-season the Vikings measured players for body fat. Culpepper's result was somewhere between 7% and 8%. In high school he competed on the weightlifting team. He was also a highly touted high school basketball player, recruited by some of the best programs in the country, Kentucky's among them. To complete the picture, Culpepper was drafted by the New York Yankees in 1995, when he was 18 years old.
Over the past 10 years the Vikings have started nine players at quarterback, most of them capable passers. Green has had six quarterbacks lead Minnesota to the playoffs seven times since he took over in 1992. The impact of the quarterback on the success of the offense has not been especially crucial in large part because Green's system is so quarterback-friendly. The playbook and terminology are easy to master, and simple adjustments can be made for any defense. All this helps a young quarterback, as does being surrounded by superior talent.
This season the offensive line and tight ends have been pounding opponents, and wide receivers Moss and Cris Carter, the NFL's seventh-leading career-yardage receiver, seem infinitely more dangerous now that the Vikings have established a strong running game with Robert Smith, who is averaging 5.4 yards a carry and is the league's second-leading rusher. Culpepper, heretofore the unknown in the equation, has shown such confidence that Minnesota seems able to dig itself out of any hole, as it did on Oct. 22, when Culpepper erased an 11-point deficit with two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to beat the Bills 31-27.
"We could be good for a long time," says Sherm Lewis, the offensive coordinator, who joined the Vikings this year after eight seasons in the same capacity with Green Bay. "And Daunte, given time, is going to develop into a great leader. His head is probably swimming a little bit right now from all that's been thrown at him, but he picks up things, and he's very coachable. He sees the field, and he knows when to get rid of the ball."