Culpepper Still Maturing As QB

Whether it is good or bad analysis, few players generate the fan comments like quarterback Daunte Culpepper. See what offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Scott Linehan thinks of the progress Culpepper has made and what the QB needs to understand better.

Quarterback Daunte Culpepper couldn't even get drafted by the Vikings without controversy.

The Minnesota Vikings were just coming off their magical 15-1 season in 1998, a time in which they lost the NFC Championship in the Metrodome on the heels (or foot) of a missed fourth-quarter field goal and a controversial kneel-down.

Come April 1999, most fans thought all the Vikings needed was a great pass rusher to put the defense over the top, and the team had the chance to select Jevon Kearse but instead chose Culpepper. Immediate controversy.

Ever since, through good years and bad, Culpepper has been the subject of many debates and generate numerous questions in the minds of observers. Culpepper or backup of the year? Why doesn't he throw the bomb to Randy Moss more? Why does he force the ball to Moss? Are his hands too small? Why doesn't he run more? How come he fumbles so much?

This is the life of Culpepper, a starting quarterback and a Pro Bowl quarterback who is often second-guessed no matter the performance and through it all remains one of the most unassuming athletes on the team.

Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, who doubled as quarterbacks coach last year and will continue that role in 2004, has been with Culpepper calling the signals since 2002. He has experienced Culpepper's most recent progress firsthand.

"My first year (Culpepper) was going through his third coordinator (Ray Sherman, Sherman Lewis) in his four years, so he was making that transition. He handled it as best he could. We had a tough season," Linehan said. "Our offensive numbers were good, but our turnovers were too high and you take the brunt of that when you're the quarterback. We'll look back on it and it'll be the best learning experience of his pro career. Once you find out there is a chink in your armor a little bit, because people say you're turning the ball over a little too much, it hits home. He turned that into his best turnover year, and that's a one-season switch."

When Culpepper lost the Vikings' most productive receiver ever, Cris Carter, to eventual retirement, he may have taken matters into his own hands too much. Linehan thinks that was the case in 2002.

"He knows now that he has the personnel around him and that he doesn't have to do it all. The best plays he can make at times are the little things, like throwing the ball away when there's not an option and when you're feeling pressure knowing where to run to avoid the sack," Linehan said. "Those are the little things that he's making more of a priority."

That season, 2002, was also the year when Culpepper really started attracting the heat of Vikings fans. He led the NFL in interceptions and fumbles. Reducing the turnovers was something Linehan took seriously as a primary role when he took over as quarterbacks coach in 2003.

"I told him, ‘Daunte, that's my job to coach your fundamentals better so that's not something you have to think about.' I make him conscience of it when it gets a little sloppy so he's knows I'll hold him accountable, but I'm not holding it over his head either," Linehan said.

Linehan realizes that working too hard to avoid something might only increase a player's awareness too much — to a point where other abilities decline.

"I saw a stat that there was an NFL team that was first in the entire league in avoiding sacks, but they threw the most interceptions. I said, ‘We still convert third downs because you can use your legs. We still make plays and are explosive because you can use your legs. I'm not going to take your creativity away, but I've got to make you more fundamentally sound. … If you make that your strength, then what is your weakness?'" Linehan said. "Those are the kinds of things we've talk about in his development in the offseason, particularly this year."

"That's part of his magic, in my opinion, is being mobile."

Linehan said he probably isn't inclined to call as many quarterback draws now as he was in during his first year as coordinator, but he isn't discouraging Culpepper from running out of the pocket for first downs.

"He's a very instinctive runner, but he needs to know sometimes that they're containing you, they're not really rushing to sack you," he said. "You have to understand that because of that you'll have a little more time to stand in there."

So far, Linehan's tutelage has been impressive. Culpepper went from a player who raised many Vikings fans' ire in 2002 to a player who led the NFL's No. 1 offense in 2003 and raised his stock with a trip to the Pro Bowl.

His ability to overcome adversity has left a positive mark on teammates as well.

"He's a guy that I kind of want to make myself like. He's a leader, but he never cracks under pressure," running back Michael Bennett said. "He just does his job day in and day out to perfection. He's just one of those guys that you say, ‘You know what, I kind of want to have a swagger like that.' He's overcome so much adversity in football and life."

There are some very good indications that Culpepper and the offense will remain an explosive threat in 2004, but it may take some Vikings fans a few years of it to forget about his 2002 season … or even the 1999 draft.

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