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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 defense.
The bad: 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.
When Vikings 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."
What Culpepper 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 win."