He can still hear the sickening crack, followed by the dull thud of his quarterback hitting the ground, knocked senseless. In 2001 Doug Chapman was a young running back for the Vikings, playing in his first series in the NFL, at Chicago's Soldier Field. On the third play he spotted a Bears blitz and knew he had to help block a linebacker before rotating to an on-rushing cornerback. He chipped the linebacker, then hurried into his pass route, neglecting to take care of the blitzing corner. After two steps came the audible reminders of his blown assignment. "I'll never forget watching Daunte [ Culpepper] lying there," says Chapman, wincing. "If you want to play running back in this league, stuff like that can't happen."
Ironically, "stuff like that" led coach Mike Tice to choose Chapman to replace injured Pro Bowl running back Michael Bennett, who—after a brilliant 1,296-yard sophomore season—landed awkwardly on a treadmill last March and suffered a stress fracture of his left foot. The injury has been slow to heal, prompting Bennett to undergo an experimental procedure that the team hopes will speed the recovery and allow him to return later this season.
If he cannot, it'll be quite a blow. Bennett helped soften defenses that regularly swarmed the Vikings' patchwork line and made Culpepper miserable. Though Minnesota finished with the NFC's top-ranked offense, the numbers were deceiving. Too often Culpepper was forced to freelance, sometimes with disastrous results: He was sacked 47 times, threw 23 interceptions and lost nine fumbles. With no Bennett to keep defenses honest, it falls to Chapman to at least help keep Culpepper in one piece.
"If Daunte has to run for his life, we're not going anywhere," says Tice. "When you see how many times Daunte never saw a hit coming, well...." Tice's voice trails off before he adds, "It was painful."
Chapman's competition for the role of Bennett's replacement was rookie Onterrio Smith, who looked like a steal as a fourth-round pick. A serviceable runner, Chapman proved in training camp that he was a superior blocker, earning him the nod over Smith, who will start the first couple of games while Chapman rehabs his sprained ankle. "I know Coach Tice had a tough decision, but I believe everything comes full circle," Chapman says. "I've been preparing for this my whole career. This is my time."
"Doug's a fun guy to block for," says Pro Bowl center Matt Birk. "He's quick, he's a bit of a slasher, and he's been around for a while. Now it's up to the O-line to get things started." That'll be easier than it was a year ago, when rookie left tackle Bryant McKinnie missed training camp and the first eight weeks of the season in a contract dispute. McKinnie's absence forced his linemates to play out of position, and when he finally reported, the team had to slog through practices in full pads so McKinnie could catch up. "Bryant's a different player this year," Tice says. "He's much quicker now."
Stopping things, meanwhile, falls to a defense that was overhauled after a dreadful season in which it surrendered 361 yards and 27.6 points per game and forced a paltry 41 turnovers, second worst in the NFC. The addition of free-agent linebacker Chris Claiborne, formerly of the Lions, should help, as will the signing of ex-Broncos cornerback Denard Walker, an upgrade for the NFL's fourth-worst pass defense.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign for Minnesota is that all-world wideout Randy Moss made nary a peep in the off-season and looked every bit his old, game-breaking self during the preseason. Though he caught a career-high 106 passes last year, Moss had only seven touchdown receptions. If the Vikings are to challenge Green Bay for the division title, Moss and Culpepper, who signed a 10-year, $100 million extension in May, must play like the franchise players they're paid to be.
For that to happen, Culpepper must remain steady...and upright long enough to find Moss. And that means Chapman can't cut any more corners. He'll just have to block them.
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