D.C. Still Best Long-Term Option

Daunte Culpepper has struggled this season, without a doubt, but he still is being counted on as the quarterback of the future.

The most popular player on just about any team is the second-string quarterback, especially when that team is not winning.

Given the Vikings' situation this season, Todd Bouman has quickly emerged from being a virtual unknown among a lot of fans to the guy that gets waves of cheers when he enters the game.

On the other end of the scale, starter Daunte Culpepper has heard boos from that same fan base.

It's no secret that Culpepper has struggled this season. He's gotten sloppy with the ball, which has led to too many fumbles. He's pressed and tried to do too much at times, which has led to interceptions. But the long-term answer is still Culpepper.

That doesn't mean the coaches should never pull him from a game, or even sit him down for a start. But they can't give up on Culpepper as their franchise quarterback until they've at least done what they can to provide the appropriate supporting cast that truly puts him (or any quarterback, even Bouman, for that matter) in a position to be successful over an extended period of time.

To this point, head coach Mike Tice has handled this delicate situation quite well.

"I thought about it last night and this morning," Tice said Monday. "What if Roger Clemens had a bad outing? They send in a relief pitcher, but he's still a starter. Daunte is the same way. Todd came in and provided a spark. That's his job."

And that's the ideal way to handle this so-called "quarterback controversy." Stick to the long-term role for both players — Culpepper as the franchise quarterback at the end of this rebuilding process, and Bouman as the blue-chip relief pitcher who can come off the bench and spark your team when the starter has a bad outing.

Despite Culpepper's struggles, and Bouman's success (in limited duty), it's absolutely critical to define their roles. It's important to them, it's important to their teammates, and it's important from a public relations standpoint.

"I love the way Todd came in and sparked our team," offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. "But we know for us to win consistently, we need to get Daunte playing better, and that's my job.

"Daunte brings that much more to the table. I still believe he's our franchise. He's the guy we put all our stock into, as far as getting us to where we need to."

Culpepper has essentially been his own worst enemy. His intense competitive spirit and desire to win has had him trying to do too much at times this season.

"That's always going to be an ongoing process for any quarterback, just trying to do too much," Culpepper said. "A guy like myself wants to make a play and be the difference, but the thing is I have to keep saying to myself to just do what I can and to take what they give us."

So for Culpepper, trying to sort out when to hold the ball, when to tuck it in and take a sack, when to throw it away, when to break the pocket and when to run is the personal struggle for which he is responsible.

"I'm still the same person inside," Culpepper said. "I still have the same passion for the game and I still love it. I'm going to do what I can to turn this thing around and make us a better football team."

But the single biggest factor out of his control has been a lack of consistency when it comes to pass protection.

The 98-day Bryant McKinnie holdout, numerous injuries and perhaps a simple, outright lack of talent have all contributed to a lack of stability on the offensive line virtually all season.

While there is always room for improvement, many believe that Culpepper can pick apart and light up any defense in the league if he consistently has time to throw the ball. Not just time to get the ball off without getting hit, but time to throw all the passes in the playbook.

The other factor in Culpepper's case has been inconsistency from his receivers at times. Dropped passes are obvious. But poor pass routes are often more obscure to determine. Culpepper has been the victim of both.

Again, that's not to say there's not room for improvement by the quarterback, but when the interceptions Culpepper has thrown this season are placed under a microscope, most have come under duress, were tipped off his receiver's hands or it wasn't necessarily clear if the receiver had run the correct route. A small percentage of them have come when he had time to throw and simply forced the ball into coverage.

The arrival of McKinnie will certainly go a long way toward solving the inconsistency on pass protection. But it's also apparent that he would have benefited greatly from training camp. McKinnie's "lifetime without giving up a sack" streak ended in his first NFL game.

He'll get better and better each week, and eventually Culpepper will gain confidence in his backside protection.

"He's not only helping me, he's going to help our whole offense," Culpepper said of McKinnie. "I think giving us an extra big body that can move around, that's very athletic, he's going to help out tremendously. I'm very glad that he's here. We're just going to keep going forward with it. … Not that I wasn't comfortable before he was here, because the guys that were in there were doing a good job and will continue to do a good job. He's just going to help us out even more."

By season's end, Tice's "dream line" should at least be starting to develop the cohesiveness of working together.

Even with Culpepper at the helm, Linehan's offense has been extremely well-balanced and extremely productive. It's no great revelation; turnovers have been the X-factor that has ultimately sabotaged their efforts.

With McKinnie in, give them time to come together on the offensive line and watch Culpepper settle down in the pocket and eventually return to the form that earned him Pro Bowl honors in his first year as a starting quarterback in the NFL.



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