Players React to Culpepper Hit

Two questions faced Vikings players Monday after losing their starting quarterback. Was the hit on Daunte Culpepper a cheap shot, and where does the team go from here?

Players spent Monday reliving the hit that changed the Vikings' 2005 season for sure and may have in impact beyond that.

When Daunte Culpepper tucked the football and ran for a first down on the final play of the first quarter in the Vikings' 38-13 loss in Carolina, he had the choice to slide or grind out extra yardage. After being hit in the helmet during a slide the previous week against Green Bay, Culpepper leaned forward for extra yardage this time, a move that resulted in damage to his medial collateral, posterior cruciate and anterior cruciate ligaments – a move that ended at least his 2005 season.

"It was a designed play for him. He busted it up the middle," center Melvin Fowler said. "I was right behind him, trailing it, and I saw it all happen. It's unfortunate. He's a great player and will be missed for the time that he's out."

Culpepper was clearly shaken in the locker room following the game and elected not to talk to a TV crew waiting for his exit from a Twin Cities clinic Monday after receiving the diagnosis. The extent of the damage to each of his three injured ligaments isn't known yet because there was too much swelling, according to head coach Mike Tice.

Culpepper will have surgery in two or three weeks and the extent of the damage will be determined then. His rehabilitation is expected to last anywhere from nine months to a year or beyond.

When Culpepper lowered his shoulder at the end his 18-yard run, safety Mike Minter hit him high and cornerback Chris Gamble went low, striking the outside of the quarterback's right knee and, with his foot planted, inflicting damage to three ligaments.

That brought the question: Was Gamble's hit to Culpepper's knee a cheap shot?

"It's hard to say. I don't even know. There weren't any penalties thrown so I'm assuming it was a legal play," Fowler said.

Safety Darren Sharper, who has played against Culpepper since the quarterback became a starter in the 2000 season up until Sharper joined the Vikings this offseason, said Culpepper's big body means more defenders will go low to make a tackle on him.

"I know from me playing him in the past, not to many guys will try to hit Daunte up high. They will try to hit him low because he is a big guy," Sharper said.

The fact that Culpepper didn't slide made him a player eligible for contact.

"When he's leaning forward, you can hit him so I don't think (it was a cheap shot)," Sharper said.

"You never know how you're going to tackle the guy. Sometimes in the heat of the moment, when things are moving fast, you pretty much just try to throw your body at a guy. Sometimes you catch someone in an awkward position and I think that's what happened with Daunte. He got caught in a position one way and then his body got hit another way, kind of like a sandwich, and then his knee got caught underneath him."

Gamble was reportedly concerned for Culpepper's welfare following the game and it's unlikely the league will find much fault with Gamble's hit.

Now the Vikings are left to pick up the pieces of a 2-5 record and try to make up two games on the NFC North-leading Chicago Bears. Minnesota will attempt that with long-time veteran Brad Johnson as their starting quarterback from here on out.

They will rely on his experience, his two Pro Bowls, one Super Bowl ring and more than 24,000 yards of passing.

"He definitely has a lot of experience. … He knows our offense pretty well from seeing him in practice and how he runs our offense on the scout team or in training camp when he was running it. He knows the reads, and hopefully he's a guy who's going to give you a chance to win – hopefully he's not going to turn the football over and he's going to make the proper decisions," Sharper said. "One big difference is you're not going to have the running aspect – Brad is not as fleet afoot as Daunte was, so that's one thing we're going to have to change as far as our offensive scheme."

Culpepper's season ends with a career-worst 72.0 passer rating, completing 139 of 216 passes for 1,564 yards. Although he had gone more than two games without throwing an interception, he ended his season having thrown six touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

Up until Culpepper's injury, Johnson hadn't taken a snap during the 2005 regular season. In exactly three quarters of action in Carolina, he completed 13 of 29 passes for 162 yards, a touchdown on no interceptions for a 74.2 passer rating.

Fowler, who has made three consecutive starts at center since being acquired just before the start of the regular season in a trade with Cleveland, says he doesn't anticipate a difficult transition from Culpepper to Johnson.

"I don't think it will be that difficult because Brad is a professional," Fowler said. "He's won a tremendous amount of games in his career, has won a Super Bowl championship. We have the outmost confidence in Brad that he's going to do a good job."

Having spent his first four games with the Vikings as a backup, Fowler estimates he has spent about half of his time with the team snapping to Johnson and half snapping to Culpepper. It's just another transition for a center whose world has been changing since the trade.

"I haven't really gone through a transition like this before. Everyone has just got to rally around each other and pull together and just make it happen," he said. "There has been a lot of adversity for out team this year, but we've handled it like professionals and gone at it with a professional mindset."

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