Defenders Talk of Daunte's Return

The Raiders admitted that part of the reason to re-insert Daunte Culpepper as their starter was to reap the rewards of a revenge factor, but Vikings defenders say they know where Culpepper is strong and weak, and will look to exploit their advantages.

Two years ago at this time, there were a lot of questions about Daunte Culpepper. After suffering a serious knee injury that ended his 2005 season and was expected to affect the first half of his 2006 season, there were a lot of questions surrounding his future.

But few could have imagined the odyssey that Culpepper has gone through in such a short period of time. As many players know, the calendar runs a lot faster in the NFL than it does in "normal time." As Culpepper prepares to make his first trip back to the Metrodome as a member of someone other than the Vikings, it doesn't seem like that long ago that Pepp was "getting his roll on" after throwing a TD pass in purple. But in the NFL, two years is an awfully long time.

"Two years is a lifetime in the NFL," said center Matt Birk, who lined up in front of Culpepper for his entire Vikings career. "Look around this locker room. A lot of these guys weren't even here when Daunte was with us. That's more something for (the media) to talk about than us."

Culpepper's bogus journey the last two years has been nothing short of a wild ride. In January 2006, he butted heads with new Vikings coach Brad Childress, not immediately returning calls and giving the coach reason to believe his starting QB was a prima donna. That was followed up by a refusal to come back to Minnesota to work out on his rehab program. Then came a demand to discuss a new contract, in which he called a meeting with all of the Vikings top executives and just one showed up – Rob Brzezinski – and he simply said "no."

It became clear that the relationship between Culpepper and the Vikings was going south in a hurry, and the Vikings wasted little time in shipping him out of town – trading him to Miami for a second-round pick the team used to take starting right tackle Ryan Cook. Culpepper, who had wanted to return to his home state of Florida, got his wish and a fresh start with new coach Nick Saban.

Within a year, both Saban and Culpepper would be gone. Saban opted to sell his soul to the University of Alabama and bail on the Dolphins after just two seasons. Culpepper found himself again on the outs when new coach Cam Cameron opted to pick up Trent Green to be his starter. With nowhere else to go, Pepp did what so many players with a career they're looking to reclaim do – go to Oakland and play for Al Davis and the Raiders.

While Culpepper hasn't set the world on fire, coach Lane Kiffin said he has been a valuable veteran addition to a Raiders team looking to rebuild and create a foundation behind first overall draft pick JaMarcus Russell – their quarterback of the future. But, for the present, Culpepper brings some veteran leadership to a team in dire need of that.

"Daunte did some things for us well while he was playing, in his first game playing," Kiffin said. "He led us to a big win for us down in Miami at the time, and then he's struggled with some turnovers since then and we went back to Josh (McCown). Daunte came in really late. He came in probably through training camp, and for a quarterback that is something extremely hard to do. All of the offseason work that you get with your receivers and the timing and the playbook, he missed all of that, so he's played catch-up ever since. He's been a great competitor for us and has really helped some of the younger guys on the team in how to prepare and how to work and how to practice, and he's been very helpful for us."

While Culpepper hasn't been consistently good, the Vikings aren't the first game this year that he has started with revenge on his mind. The first came in Miami, where he had been shown the door after coming back in what some felt was too soon from his knee injury. In that game, he accounted for five touchdowns (three rushing, two passing), which happens to be as many TDs as the three Vikings QBs have accounted for all season.

The Vikings know that Culpepper was out to prove a point in Miami and intends to the same this time around.

"He's got something to prove – there's no doubt about that," linebacker Ben Leber said. "You could tell against Miami that he was fired up to make big plays and he did. It's safe to imagine that he'll want to do the same here in front of our home fans."

Kiffin announced Wednesday that Culpepper would start after being non-committal earlier in the week. He said the decision to go with Culpepper wasn't motivated by a return to the Metrodome, but the Vikings aren't as positive about that. While players claim they wouldn't have prepared any differently if Josh McCown had played, there are some of Pepp's tricks that they will be aware of.

"You here a lot of talk about changing what you do defensively, but unless it's somebody like Michael Vick that is so dangerous on his feet and can take off for 50 yards, you really don't change your game plan too much for one quarterback," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "The one thing you need to be concerned about with Daunte is his ability to throw the deep ball. He throws it very well and, if given time, can make big plays deep downfield. Those are the kinds of things you need to concern yourself with him."

On the flip side, there are downsides to Culpepper that have become focal points of defensive attention. Primary among those is the legendary concern that he has small hands. Known around the league as a fumbler and a player who will drop the ball and fumble when hit, the Vikings are aware that they need to bring pressure on Culpepper consistently to make him turn the ball over. His fumbling has been prevalent enough that teams go after the ball and make an already bad situation worse.

"There are players who get the reputation as being a fumbler," Leber said. "Sometimes it's a quarterback. Sometimes it's a running back. We know those guys with that reputation. Every defensive player does. What happens to those guys is when a player comes in to make a tackle, they will take a swipe at the ball because he has that reputation. Daunte is known as one of those guys, so we'll go after him when we get our shots."

For the Vikings, a home loss to the 2-7 Raiders would be a nail in the coffin of the 2007 season. To have it come at the hands of the player whom many regarded as the team's franchise player for the rest of this decade before his quick falling out with management would be an even bigger blow.

While Culpepper may be jacked up for this game to prove his point, it may serve as a wake-up call for the Vikings, who have to take the "Not In Our House" approach to preventing Daunte from doing The Roll.

"As we get closer to the game, I'm sure we're going to talk about some of Daunte's weaknesses," Greenway said. "He's a great quarterback, but every quarterback has things he does well and things he struggles with. We need to force him to do some of the things he's struggles with. We don't want him to have a happy homecoming."

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