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THE INSIDE TRACK

Vikings' Culpepper Already Appears Seasoned

October 08, 2000|DAN POMPEI | THE SPORTING NEWS

The expectation was that Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper would have to be gone over with coarse sandpaper and fine sandpaper, given a couple of coats of stain, another coat of varnish and then polished. Then, he might be ready for display.

But Culpepper appears to be just a little polish away from being one of the league's most effective quarterbacks. He is well beyond being a running back with a low number, or, as Lions linebacker Allen Aldridge called him, "a linebacker with an arm."

Denny Green, Sherm Lewis and Alex Wood obviously have gotten across their points to Culpepper, and Culpepper also clearly has a feel for the game. The most encouraging aspect of Culpepper's play has been his decision-making.

"One of his strengths is poise and his ability to make good decisions," Green said in a quiet corridor of the Vikings' locker room in the Silverdome last Sunday after his team beat the Lions, 31-24. Green has so much faith in his quarterback that he said he believes this undefeated Vikings team reminds him of the 1998 version that won 15 games.

Green had just witnessed Culpepper throw three TD passes to Randy Moss. That in itself was no big deal. What was a big deal: Every one of the passes was Culpepper's second read. So much for the kid being locked on to his primary receivers.

On the first TD, he noticed a busted coverage, ignored Cris Carter's crossing route and went for Moss over the top for a 61-yard play. On the second, Culpepper pumped once to his primary read, Matthew Hatchette over the middle, and threw a high one to Moss in the corner of the end zone for a 17-yard reception. On the third, he passed up a wide-open Carter, who was supposed to get the ball, to throw deep to a double-covered Moss. A great catch by Moss turned it into a 50-yard touchdown.

Having Moss on your side means you can get away with some questionable decisions. "Pep, he's very precise with where he throws the ball," Moss said. "But sometimes you've got to look past that to give me the ball."

Not every one of Culpepper's decisions has been perfect, but he hasn't hurt his team badly with any of them. Critics point to Culpepper's five interceptions this season -- none of which, by the way, came against the Lions. But interceptions aren't always an accurate gauge of good decisions.

Let's go through each of his.

Interception No. 1: A fine pass, well-timed to Carter in the season opener against Chicago. But Carter drops the ball and leaves it for Bears corner Jerry Azumah to catch. Give this interception to Carter.

Interception No. 2: In Week 2 vs. Miami, Culpepper throws late over the middle into the Dolphins' two-deep coverage for fullback Jimmy Kleinsasser. Predictably, the pass is intercepted by Dolphins safety Brock Marion. This one is Culpepper's all the way.

Interception No. 3: This pass hits since-demoted tight end Andrew Jordan in the chest. It bounces off and lands in the hands of Dolphins safety Brian Walker, who should be tied up with Moss if Moss runs his route. But Moss dogs it on the play. Give half of this interception to Jordan and half to Moss.

Interception No. 4: Here's a play that is supposed to be quick-hitting but is poorly timed. Kleinsasser can't cross the line to get to the flat quickly enough, so Culpepper tries to throw it to him when Kleinsasser is still behind the line. Dolphins defensive end Rich Owens tips the pass, and defensive tackle Tim Bowens intercepts. Give this interception to Culpepper, who should have thrown it away or taken the sack.

Interception No. 5: Under pressure from Patriots linebacker Chris Slade in a Week 3 game, Culpepper makes the right decision to try to throw the ball out of bounds but fails to get enough mustard on the pass and is intercepted by safety Lawyer Milloy. No blame assessed.

Conclusion: Culpepper is hiding his inexperience well. "He knew if we were in zone or man," Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt said. "When we were in man, he tucked it and ran. He knew when we blitzed, and he threw it up quickly."

Many young quarterbacks have the same reaction to blitzes as many young girls have to bugs. But Culpepper has recognized more than 90 percent of the blitzes being thrown at him, according to his position coach, Wood, and has responded coolly by audibling or going to his "hot" receiver. On a corner blitz against the Patriots, Culpepper went to his hot receiver, Carter, for a 50-yard gain.

Culpepper is not as singularly reliant on his arm as the other quarterbacks from the class of '99, so he is in a better position to succeed while he learns. On a play on which Tim Couch might lose eight yards on a sack, Culpepper might gain 15 yards on a scramble.

The Vikings, it seems, were smart to take Culpepper.

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