One of the down sides of the tight-lipped new world order at Winter Park has been that there's nobody to shoot down or confirm rumors as they present themselves. In no such case is that more true than in this week's saga of Daunte Culpepper.
With the team unwilling to discuss its "football business" with anyone that could spread the word out to Vikings fans and Culpepper turning himself into a football version of Howard Hughes, getting any concrete information is nearly impossible.
In a six-sentence e-mail statement released this week, Culpepper said that until Zygi Wilf tells him otherwise, he's planning on returning to the Vikings. But Culpepper has done just about everything he can to run himself out of town.
Culpepper's 10-year, $102 million contract was a joke at the time it was signed, which may be one of the reasons he fired long-time agent Mason Ashe. Why was it a joke? It included millions of dollars in incentives if Culpepper played more the 50 percent of special teams plays. That's right. Special teams. When is the last time you saw a quarterback covering kickoffs and punts? Much less one that has been to three Pro Bowls.
Culpepper's timing couldn't have been worse when he attempted on multiple occasions to get the Vikings power brokers together to discuss a new contract. Wilf recognized the disparities in Culpepper's contract with the other top QBs in the league and made a pre-emptive strike to try to quell any problems that might arise. He added millions in guaranteed money -- including a $6 million roster bonus due in less than a month. How did Culpepper respond? He wants $10 million more right off the top and paid out this year -- even though there is a strong chance that, if he plays at all in 2006, it wouldn't be until after the regular season begins and more likely not until midseason.
The media in Baltimore has been openly pumping a story fed to them by Ravens officials saying that the team would be willing to franchise Jamal Lewis and then trade him to the Vikings. The bigger question there should have been why would the Vikings have any interest in making that type of a deal? The Ravens find themselves in a difficult situation. If they franchise Lewis, he would get approximately $7 million for 2006. The only way to get cap relief from that sort of a deal would be to sign him to a long-term contract. But anyone who saw Lewis play last year knows that he's far from the same player that rushed for 2,000 yards just a couple of years ago. He's slower. He doesn't run with the authority he did prior to his latest injury and an off-season trip to prison earlier in 2005. And he's an unrestricted free agent if he isn't signed or franchised in a few weeks. If the Vikings are so interested in Lewis, why not just wait until free agency begins and make him an offer. Or better yet, go after a running back that doesn't look like he's lost all the tread on his tires like Shaun Alexander or Edgerrin James.
It's clear that the Vikings have opened the door to listen to trade offers, much in the same way they did with Randy Moss a year ago. The difference, however, is that good quarterbacks are hard to come by and if Pepp is traded, it would be an organizational setback for the Vikings. It's unlikely Brad Johnson will be able to play a full season at age 37. Teams know he can't throw the ball deep and will likely take one of two approaches -- pack the safeties in within 30 yards or blitz Johnson on every passing down. Johnson is a Band-Aid at quarterback, not the long-term solution. To replace Culpepper, the Vikings would either have to spend big money in free agency or use a high draft pick on a QB -- a pick that will likely take a couple of years to develop. Either way, it seems like a lost cause.
While the Vikings have done little to endear themselves to their fans with their closed-mouth bunker mentality, Culpepper has done just as little to prove he's a team leader. While Matt Birk missed most of the season with an injury, he was a constant figure on the sidelines and at Winter Park. From the time Culpepper left the field in October with his knee injury, he was spotted once -- when the Vikes played a road game in Detroit. He didn't join his teammates on the field. He took in the game from a suite at Ford Field.
To truly be a team leader, one must lead by example. Culpepper has proven to many players and fans that he's not the leader he's been promoted as and is more selfish that many would like. There have been rumblings that some at the top of the organization have their doubts as to how quickly he can adapt to the West Coast Offense being installed. That question gets even more pronounced when Pepp makes no effort to come to Winter Park and do some of the classroom study that he'll need to prepare for the new terminology and schemes of the WCO. You don't need two healthy knees to do film study and bone up on the changes he's going to see with the new offense. What you need for that is a level of commitment and, dare I say, leadership to stand up like a man and take on the new challenge. To date, Culpepper has shown neither.
In the end, common sense will likely dictate that the Vikings won't ship off Culpepper for a second-round draft pick. It simply doesn't make sense. When he's on his game, Culpepper can be as good as any QB this side of Peyton Manning. But, until he quits grousing about his contract -- which the last time I checked still has his signature on it -- and sets his sights on actually being a better quarterback, he will never be a leader of the Vikings. Just because you're a quarterback doesn't automatically make you a leader. Look at Chad Pennington or Joey Harrington. Their own teammates don't think they're up to snuff. Until Culpepper commits himself to improving as a quarterback, he'll be in that same boat -- lumped together with fragile dregs like Pennington and Harrington.
It's not too late to repair the damage that has been caused by the rift between Culpepper and the new coaching staff. But neither side seems to be doing anything to make it better. Perhaps they should all get a grown-up "time out," cool off and begin seeking a fresh start.
Commentary: What Is Daunte's Value?
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