The Pressure Cooker Starts

As the players endure the first days of training camp's heat, Vikings owner Red McCombs is turning up the heat on two people in the organization -- head coach Mike Tice and quarterback Daunte Culpepper.

As Vikings training camp opened this week, there were two people feeling most of the pressure. One is coach Mike Tice, entering the second season of his first stint as an NFL head coach. The other is quarterback Daunte Culpepper, coming off an down-then-up season, who signed a massive 10-year, potentially as much as $102 million extension during the offseason.

Clearly, one's performance will affect the other.

First, Tice.

All you have to do is listen to Vikings owner Red McCombs, and you will soon learn that he expects more out of his coach this season.

Of course, Tice feels the same way. Tice knows he made some mistakes last year. But he is sure he learned from them. Mistakes? Try the Randy Ratio, last year's buzz-words that backfired. "It was a motivational tool," Tice says now. "Randy had the complaint that we didn't use him right in the past, and I wanted him to know, 'Hey, this new regime knows how to use you.' Well, it backfired."

Then there was Tice's penchant for praising players publicly, a habit that backfired with some young players. Or his problem keeping quite on some key issues.

The point here is that Tice feels he has learned from his recent past and is ready for a brighter future. Well, McCombs is ready, too.

"I told him all last year, 'Mike, I like you a lot. I'd really like to see you be a head coach in this league.' And I told him, 'There are only 32 (NFL head coaches) in the world. And you're one of them -- today.' "

All joking aside, McCombs watched Tice grow throughout last season. He says now that Tice wasn't completely ready for the job a year ago. McCombs also said Year 2 is the crucial year for a coach.

"If he can make it past two or three years, he has a good shot at a long career," McCombs said. "Because that's kind of the way major league sports work. But if you get knocked off in the first or second year, then you have a hard time getting back in the saddle. So I'm pulling for him."

And at the same time pushing him.

McCombs was very frank. He said back in 2001 that former coach Dennis Green told him Tice was not ready to become an NFL head coach. "I knew Mike was not ready, but how was he going to get ready (other than by being a head coach?).

"He's getting closer," McCombs continued. "Mike, like a lot of people in new leadership jobs, was very democratic last year, listening to everyone's opinions. I reminded Mike on a number of occasions that it's going to be all on his shoulders. He's got to make the decisions. I told him when we hired him, 'This is not an X's and O's job. This is a decision-making job.' I think Mike's come around. I think he's well on his way to being one of the better coaches in this league."

So, how many victories would qualify Tice as a second-year success? McCombs wasn't as blunt on this issue.

"I really don't know where to go with wins and losses," McCombs said. "I've got to watch and see how these guys come together and play off each other. (But) the pressure is on everybody. That's what everyone expects. And that's what they should expect."

Especially Culpepper.

The Vikings signed him to the extension during the off-season because they still feel he can be the quarterback to lead them to a championship. Culpepper, surrounded by loads of talent, made it to the Pro Bowl in his first season as a starter in 2000. But 2001 and 2002 were difficult years.

Last season he committed 32 turnovers. It was a season that began with loads of turnovers, then saw Culpepper go into a shell. At the end, he emerged playing well in the final month, when the Vikings won their final three games.

It is that Culpepper the Vikings expect to see more of.

"Without a doubt there is pressure on Daunte to lead us back to the playoffs," McCombs said. "Daunte knows I put pressure on him. Players should have pressure. We all have pressure. I put pressure on Daunte because I know he can handle it."

The loss of running back Michael Bennett for all or parts of the season was a blow. Still, Culpepper has his best supporting cast since 2000. The offensive line has been rebuild, starting at left tackle with Bryant McKinnie. He has Randy Moss, and an emerging cast of talented players vying for the No. 2 receiver spot. The Vikings proved last year that they were willing and able to run the ball. And on defense, a deeper unit should put less pressure on the offense to score loads of points.

Now it's up to Culpepper to prove he can do what he did last December for an entire season.

"Nobody can put more pressure on me than I do," he said. "Nobody. My expectations are very high. I definitely think this is going to be a big year for me. I'm healthy. I've worked very hard to prepare myself mentally and physically. There's nothing else to do but go out and have a great year."

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