Lewis says Culpepper has proved to be adept at picking up "hots," meaning he has a knack for making the proper reads in the face of stunts by the defense. "Talk to anybody in the NFL," he says, "and he will tell you that for a first-year guy not to miss a single hot all season long, well, it just doesn't happen, but Daunte hasn't missed one since training camp. It's hard to believe."
At this point it's also hard to believe that Culpepper came to the starting job less by design than by default. In the off-season Green let Cunningham go, and although Green made a run at re-signing George, it was only after the Vikings had flirted with Marino, the former Miami Dolphins quarterback, who ultimately chose to retire. Green's search to fill the position was of particular concern to Carter, who'd hoped the team would keep George.
Last year George, now with the Washington Redskins, won nine of 12 starts, passed for 3,452 yards and was spectacular in the playoffs, throwing three touchdown passes in a win against Dallas and four in a loss to the St. Louis Rams. From what Carter had seen of Culpepper in practice, it seemed a stretch to imagine that the kid could equal George's output. "It was hard to get excited about Daunte," says Carter. "He was just another rookie."
Had the team signed Marino or anyone else to start, Culpepper says he would not have been upset by the prospect of spending another year on the bench. At the time the Vikings were talking to Marino, he says, "I tried not to worry about it. My attitude was, Great, if they bring him in, then I'll get to learn from a legend. My focus was always on getting ready to play."
Not wishing to alienate the young quarterback, Green made a point of checking in with Culpepper and informing him about any behind-the-scenes developments. "I'd bring him in, sit him down and talk," says Green. "The idea from our end was, Whoever comes in here, you can compete with him. We're not going to hand the job to anybody. Daunte was always consistent in his response, and he was always confident. 'Coach,' he'd say, 'I can do this job for you.' He was so insistent that there were times when I had to say, 'Hey, take your time. We'll work this out.' "
Green finally found a solution in Blister, a mature, affable and well-traveled veteran. Blister was smart, and he had enough arm strength to get the ball deep to Carter and Moss, but he was also at a point in his career where he understood that his greatest contribution might be in a secondary role. Culpepper could benefit from Brister's experience, and the 38-year-old Brister was eager for a new start after getting benched in Denver.
When Brister and Minnesota came to terms, Green took the extraordinary step of designating Culpepper as the starter. He did so in April, prompting protests from Vikings fans fixated on the image of the bumbling rookie. "I knew what they were saying," Culpepper says. "They were saying, 'What on earth is Denny Green doing?' I heard it all, but it was easy for me to stay positive because I knew something they didn't: I was ready." Culpepper was riding around in his Lincoln Navigator, listening to music, when Alex Wood, Minnesota's quarterbacks coach, reached him on his cell phone. "You're our guy, Daunte," Wood told him. "We're going to go with you."
"Daunte is always positive and upbeat, always respectful," says Wood. "He's the kind of guy, he tried to call me Alex, but you could tell it was tough for him. He'd say, 'Hi, Alex,' but he couldn't say it right. Now he just calls me Coach."
Green hired Wood on March 15, 1999, a month before the Vikings drafted Culpepper. The young coach had not yet signed his contract when Green gave him his first "assignment: Get to Florida and interview Culpepper. Less than 24 hours into the job, Wood, who'd last coached at James Madison in Harrisonburg, Va., was interviewing the quarterback in Orlando. "Like everybody else, I couldn't believe how big he was," says Wood.
While in Orlando, Wood also watched videotape of Culpepper's senior season. Wood marveled at his presence in the pocket. Even when pressed by the rush, Culpepper kept his eyes down-field and held his ground. He never looked jittery or scared, and he was a load to bring down. Opposing players slammed headlong into him, then fell to the ground while he completed the play. As a senior Culpepper set an NCAA record for single-season completion percentage with a .736 mark. Woods says that on tape Culpepper looked as if he could place the ball wherever he wanted, no matter how small the window. Finally, he had a big league arm, the kind that made an 80-yard passing strike look routine. "He was the player I was always looking to recruit [while at James Madison] but could never find," says Wood. "There's a reason for that: There's nobody out there like him."