Why did Daunte Culpepper look so much better?
Actually, it wasn't that Culpepper failed in the first half, the offense just failed to score. Culpepper was 6 of 8 for 52 yards in the first two quarters, but he was held to no touchdowns and countered with no interceptions.
And then …
"The Daunte that I saw in the second half was the Daunte that I saw in minicamp and training camps all the way up to the first game – a guy that's playing with confidence, using his legs and being a dual threat, finding gaps and making plays," safety Darren Sharper said. "Everyone knows that we have weapons on offense, but Daunte is going to be our Michael Jordan, the guy that's going to carry us and lead us to the championship, make the plays when it counts – in that second half, we saw the MVP Daunte that we have in the past."
There were a number of factors that converged for the turnaround.
"I thought our offensive line played well together. They are starting to play better together. I think there were a number of good performances up front," head coach Mike Tice said when asked about the offensive rebound. "What I was proud of was the whole team and the staff was unable to be rattled. When something went wrong, they hung in there and didn't let it rattle them. That is something that we maybe haven't done very well this season and I didn't see that yesterday, let the bad things rattle us. Like I said, the body language was very good at halftime."
Overall, the offense made very few adjustments, but it did use the I-formation more often. Instead of having a single-back set or an empty backfield, the Vikings employed a lead back more often. That was used as much for the pass protection as it was for the running game. According to Tice, that formation allows the Vikings to get more double-teams on defensive linemen and get the offense moving vertically.
In its most simple terms, it appeared to help buy more time for Culpepper.
In the first half, the Vikings averaged 8.7 yards per catch on Culpepper's six completions. Only one of those went for more than 9 yards, a 21-yarder to Marcus Robinson.
In the second half, Culpepper completed passes of 16 yards to leading receiver Jermaine Wiggins, 29 yards to Mewelde Moore, 27 yards to Robinson, 16 yards to Nate Burleson, 13 yards to Troy Williamson and 19 yards to Travis Taylor.
Moore, Robinson, Burleson, Taylor and Williamson all averaged more than 10 yards per catch. And if the deep threats weren't always available, Culpepper found his most productive underneath receiver, Wiggins, six times.
"The coaches like Jermaine because he catches about everything thrown to him. There is a very good comfort level between the quarterback and the player," Tice said. "He likes to throw him the ball. Just like you can see the quarterback has a comfort level with Nate. You see the big throw during one of the last drives where he leaped up and made the catch. When a quarterback has confidence in a player, he will throw the ball into tighter holes. So why not? He likes throwing him the ball. They connect on a lot of things. He may not break a lot of 60 yarders, but I believe that the ratio of balls thrown to him and catches is very, very high."
Burleson echoed Sharper's analogy of Culpepper being the Michael Jordan of the Vikings.
"He is the Michael Jordan of the team — he's the leader," Burleson said. "He's one of the most athletic guys on our team, he touches the ball every play, he's the captain and we follow everything that he does. He's just one of those guys that when he looks into our eyes, we know he has the confidence to go out there and make a play, and we're going to do whatever we can to step up our game to his level."
All three of the aforementioned factors – the protection, the longer passing plays and the increased effectiveness of Culpepper's scrambles – contributed to his greater success in the second half, and ultimately the team's win.