A Wobbly Duck, Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Scott Linehan would point out after Sunday's game, was Daunte Culpepper's finest pass of the day. On third-and-10 with 8:14 remaining in the first quarter at Lambeau Field, Culpepper dropped back and looked for streaking wideout Randy Moss, who had drawn double coverage along the right sideline. But instead of whipping the ball to Moss, Culpepper fluttered it harmlessly out-of-bounds. In the coaches' booth, Linehan was elated.
"Last year he would have tried to force that pass to Randy, and bad things would have happened," Linehan said, following Minnesota's 30-25 win over the Green Bay Packers. "Instead, Daunte said, 'O.K., punter, O.K., defense, it's up to you now.' That's the biggest difference in Daunte. He's mature enough as a quarterback to know what he can't do."
If that's true, the potential for what the Vikings can do in the milquetoast NFC North is substantial. While Minnesota was going 6-10 last season, Culpepper felt hemmed in by rookie coach Mike Tice's Randy Ratio—an ill-advised stab at getting the moody All-Pro Moss more touches per game—and suffered behind a patchwork line that wilted under pressure. Culpepper threw 23 interceptions and fumbled 23 times (losing nine). That was the latest in a series of steps backward since his second season, in 2000, when he threw for 3,937 yards, 33 touchdowns and was the NFC's Pro Bowl starter. "I made too many mistakes last year, and I wasn't mature enough to let them go," Culpepper, 26, says. "Now, I'll make a more conscious effort to make smart plays that keep us in games. Bad things will happen, but I have to stay on an even keel."
Tice felt that Culpepper's regression was largely due to his being told too many things by too many coaches. To streamline the process, Tice gave Linehan sole responsibility for counseling Culpepper. "Last year was tough on him emotionally," Linehan says. "He needs the play-caller to be his coach. He needs to know why a play is being called. He needs to have one voice. It puts him at ease."
Culpepper was made to feel even more comfortable by a better offensive line that included free-agent signee Mike Rosenthal and a full training camp by second-year left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who missed the first eight games in 2002 in a contract dispute. In May, Culpepper also signed a 10-year, $102 million contract. "That told me I was their guy," he says of the deal. "Now I can let it all hang out."
On Sunday the 6'4", 264-pound Culpepper kept finding ways to move the chains, completing 15 of 30 passes for 195 yards and three touchdowns and, most important, no picks. Culpepper also ran nine times for 50 yards but fumbled the ball away on two of those runs. Working without the Randy Ratio, the Culpepper-to-Moss combination was virtually unstoppable. Moss had nine catches for 150 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown on Culpepper's laser pass over two defenders that put Minnesota up 27-3 in the middle of the third quarter.
As the final seconds ticked away, an observer on the Vikings' sideline flashed a pained smile when asked about Culpepper. "He's one of the league's best," said team owner Red McCombs. "I'm just sorry we have to pay him that much money." By season's end McCombs's $102 million man could be a bargain.