The Vikings ended last season on an up note with three straight wins, and generally better play in the second half of the season than the dismal first half. Some of the turnaround can be credited to improved play by the defense and better play by quarterback Daunte Culpepper. However, while improved, both still showed serious flaws.
The defense needs better players in some spots and more experience in others. The Vikings have made some noise about building their defense back to respectability, and it has been many years since this team fielded a truly good defense – 1993 to be exact. The Vikings have made some good additions in the last year or so, with some promising young players in the secondary, Greg Biekert holding down the MLB spot, and Chris Hovan emerging as a great player on the defensive line. The Vikes seem to be targeting the areas of defensive tackle, cornerback and linebacker in this off-season, along with the offensive line. All are in need of an upgrade, and the Vikes have the picks and cap room to make improvements in these areas.
Culpepper may be another story. While suffering through a dispiriting first half of the season, he was finally benched late in the ninth game of the season against the Giants.
Even though backup QB Todd Bouman rallied the team to a brief lead in a game that was eventually lost, Culpepper reclaimed his staring job the following week. Over the last seven weeks of the season, his production improved. Unfortunately, his Achilles' heel, turnovers, were still overly abundant and helped the opposing teams beat the Vikings or they gave them more opportunities to win in other games.
I took Culpepper's stats from the last seven games of last season and projected them over a full season. The numbers are startling, both good and bad.
Projected numbers: Passing -- 4,521 passing yards, 26 TDs, 23 INTs; Rushing -- 879 rushing yards, 13 TDs, 33 fumbles.
While Culpepper's positive numbers jumped in the second half of last season, the negatives stayed roughly the same. The player that led the league in turnovers last year would repeat that performance if the stats from the last seven games bore out over a full season.
While his yardage and touchdowns passing and running would probably land him a Pro Bowl spot, the 23 INTs and 33 fumbles would get most players benched. And while the Vikings may be able to muddle along at 6-8 wins with this kind of performance, no team with a QB making this many mistakes is going anywhere in the playoffs, or will even make the playoffs.
If Culpepper continues turning the ball over, the Vikes will be up and down from week to week, losing games they should win and disappointing again. If Culpepper can somehow learn to protect the ball better, this team could easily make the playoffs. With a very good running game, and probably a better defense, they may be able to play a little more cautiously with him and win more games. But, will he play more cautiously? There is no evidence that he can. Even in the final two games of last season he had three interceptions and six fumbles. The Vikings won those games, but there is no way a team can win consistently with this sloppy play. Culpepper has proven to be an all-purpose turnover machine, fumbling in the pocket while looking downfield, fumbling when he runs downfield and blatantly throwing into coverage trying to force the ball to Randy Moss.
His problem is both mechanical and mental.
In some ways Culpepper reminds me of Warren Moon. When Moon was with the Vikings, I knew that in most games he was going to come up with at least one big negative play, either a fumble or interception that would often be returned for a score, or set one up.
If he could limit these, the Vikes could win. Culpepper has the same problem, only to a greater degree. Can he control his turnover tendency, and become a complete NFL quarterback? Tune in next September to find out whether we get another season of games handed away, or if we see the growth of an NFL quarterback.
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