THE GOOD from
Daunte Culpepper's Miami Dolphins debut last Thursday against Pittsburgh: 10
months after surgery to repair three torn ligaments in his right knee, the
former Vikings quarterback ran and cut freely, and took three big hits without
flinching. With the run game struggling, Culpepper spread the ball to seven
receivers, just the way offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey hoped he would. For
54 minutes Culpepper was evenly matched with Pittsburgh's Super Bowl
Culpepper looked rusty. Three or four times he missed open receivers with
ground balls or overthrows, and on consecutive throws in the fourth quarter, he
floated a ball to wideout Chris Chambers that was picked off by safety Troy
Polamalu, then failed to pick up linebacker Joey Porter dropping into coverage
and hit him in the gut with a pass. Porter's 42-yard runback put the Steelers
up 28--17 and iced the game. "I'm better than that," Culpepper said
with disgust afterward. "We're better than that."
He'd better be if
the Dolphins are going to live up to Super Bowl expectations--and he should be.
In his next three games (Buffalo and Tennessee at home, then at Houston), he
won't face a pass-rush anything like Pittsburgh's. The loss to the Steelers was
the fifth game in Culpepper's last eight in which he had thrown at least two
picks, but his combined '03--04 numbers (64 TDs, 22 INTs) suggest that's an
aberration, especially since Culpepper has been reunited with the system that
made his golden years possible.
assistant Scott Linehan took the Miami coordinator job in 2005 he brought with
him a pro-style offense combining secondary-stretching deep strikes with
underneath routes that favor the tight end. When Linehan took the St. Louis
Rams' coaching job last winter, Dolphins coach Nick Saban hired former Bills
coach Mularkey and told him the Linehan system would stay intact. "It's
been a great transition," Culpepper said last week, "because I'm doing
what I did in Minnesota. I've felt comfortable from Day One."
lacked last season (six touchdowns, 12 interceptions before getting hurt) was a
reliable downfield target. In Miami he's spent enough time throwing with
Chambers and tight end Randy McMichael--who combined for 142 catches with Gus
Frerotte, a lesser quarterback than Culpepper, in 2005--to know the weapons he
has now are better than any since he threw to Randy Moss and Cris Carter four
seasons ago. "Everything you need in an offense is here for a quarterback
to succeed," Culpepper said.
Saban knows he
doesn't have the same Culpepper who averaged 85.4 rushes a year from 2000
through '04, and no one expects the 6'4", 264-pound quarterback to run for
10 touchdowns again, as he did in 2002. At 29 Culpepper has to know his
limitations. But Saban also knows that his new QB is not afraid. "When we
went to Carolina in the preseason," Saban said last week, "I was a
little concerned that Daunte would be affected by returning to the same field
he got hurt on last year. So I told him the night before the game, 'You know,
you don't have to play in this game if you don't want to.' He looked at me and
said, 'Coach, I'm playing. It's another opportunity to compete.'"
"In some ways
the injury is the best thing that happened to me," says Culpepper, "If
it hadn't, I wouldn't be here, and I know that here I've got the best chance to