The "Culpepper Rattled" Company

The recent bargain-basement trade of Minnesota Viking quarterback Daunte Culpepper for a second round draft choice has excited three different types of responses- those Minnesota football fans who are happy to see him leave, those who support him no matter what, and other average citizens who have been turned off by his behavior over the past few months.

The (Minneapolis) StarTribune’s best sports columnist, Patrick Reusse, has been praising Culpepper to the heavens for several years, his constant theme being that any criticism of his Daunte was a sign of racist attitudes on the parts of fans. In other words, those who had embraced Randall Cunningham during the almost-magic year of 1998 had suddenly developed the racialist mentality. Maybe some- but mostly nonsense.

Now, Mr. Reusse is an old line Hubert Humphrey Democrat, who rather instinctively, for understandable reasons, might be drawn to that explanation for why Culpepper’s departure is not being mourned in the same way Reusse is grieving:

It is still to be determined if he treated himself to a lap dance on a boat…… by Vikings standards established over the past 20 years, Culpepper was almost beatific in his public conduct. Thus, the source of this strange parting between Culpepper and the Vikings remains mysterious.We know that Culpepper’s long streak of being a stand-up guy came to an end on Oct. 12, when the reports of Sex Cruise had surfaced and he refused to comment in his weekly press conference. If he was that rattled by boat party questions from the media, one can only imagine how rattled he might have been by questions from Mrs. Culpepper……Then, in mid-December, he was among four Vikings charged with misdemeanors stemming from Sex Cruise.On Jan. 12, owner Zygi Wilf stiffed Culpepper at a scheduled meeting, and Culpepper responded by stiffing new coach Brad Childress for their scheduled meeting. Somehow in those three months, from his no comment to the media to his no comment to Childress, Culpepper’s relationship with the Vikings changed from franchise quarterback to persona non grata……Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is a team that apparently plans to enter the season with a 38-year-old and a couple of nobodies at quarterback,…..the Vikings are headed into the great unknown with Childress. He’s a first-time head coach tying his wagon to Johnson, who graded out at C+ in nine starts for the Vikings last season, after flunking his way to the bench in four 2004 starts for Tampa Bay.

This is a not unreasonable take on the circumstances, but I think it is wrong in several significant ways.

First: I suspect that many out there shared my own own view of the infamous boat ride and subsequent allegations and charges- a bunch of undisciplined, overpaid fools went out without their chaperones, and we got the same result as we did from the snowmobile-hot tub Viking scandal of 2003 (http://www.stevesilver.net/mt/archives/003655.html )- this is something of a habit for Vikings players. Apparently the long winters make them unable to think of anything except sex. (come to think of it, we all tend to…. if you lived here, you would….. oh, never mind)

But outside of the camera-hungry publicity games of local prosecutors, who cares about the boat ride other than their wives and local TV news? It was easy to see how the easy-going Daunte could have been a relatively innocent victim of that event. Not an issue.

Second: The thing that bothered many of us was Culpepper’s behavior after he was injured. As soon as he was hurt, the Vikings started to win- and he began to pout. Instead of coming to the sidelines and cheering on his teammates and being happy for them, he holed up in Florida, and seemed almost to be upset that his replacement was winning with the same cast of characters that lost with him at the helm. That is not how you establish the old team spirit and leadership credentials.

Finally: In contrast to Pat Reusse’s cheerfully snarky comments about the immobile 38-year-old Brad Johnson playing quarterback at a “C-plus” level, that was far better than Culpepper’s “D-minus” performance, and I think there is a very good reason for the difference. Culpepper is a prodigious athlete, an excellent physical talent. Those racists out there (I do agree that there are a few) who, whenever Culpepper made a series fo mistakes, immediately began to suggest that the big guy was too dumb to play QB in the NFL. I think that the ease with which this meme is embraced by some does reflect an attitude that I deplore. Daunte Culpepper is as smart as most successful NFL quarterbacks, and he has shown that for at least 5 years in the league.

But he has an Achilles’ heel, and it is one shared by the majority of NFL signal callers: he is not cool under fire, making sound decisions. When the going gets tough, he gets nervous- and this has nothing to do with brains or courage. Staying cool in the last 2 minutes trying to drive downfield with the game on the line is a rare characteristic, and highly prized when found. There are only a few QBs who exhibit that trait- Brady, Favre, Hasselbeck, Rothlisberger, DelHomme, (yes) Johnson, and the damaged Carson Palmer come to mind, with honorable mention to McNabb and Pennington, and the jury still out on Grossman and Chris Simms. Most of the rest have composure flaws- both Mannings get nervous, Plummer gets trigger-happy, Joey Harrington throws it up for grabs, go down the list.

If you look at the record, it is hard to find games where Culpepper took the team down the field in the last possession to pull it out. The bigger the stakes- such as the first major test, being shut out in the NFC championship game in 2000- the worse Culpepper played, and the easier it was to see his happy feet and sprayed throws. He is a talented player with a fatal flaw- he is afraid to have the ball when it all depends on him. Incidentally, that trait is shared by Minnesota’s best basketball player, who averages less than 5 points in the 4th quarter of games, and would rather pass the ball than shoot with the game on the line.

Brad Johnson played behind the same leaky O-line, with far less running ability, the same lack of a running game, the same receivers, and with the same marginal defense- all he did different was not give the game away, and stepped it up a notch at crunch time. That is a solid pro, and can play for my team any day. I wish he was 28.

Here is the prediction: Culpepper will rehab from his knee injuries, and play well for Miami, because Saban is no fool- he will design the ultimate low-risk, non-QB-dependent offense. But when the division championship is on the line up in New England, Brady will throw the winning pass, and Culpepper will have an “uncharacteristically” bad game. He’ll fumble at least twice, and throw it up for grabs for all the marbles. Too bad- he has all the other tools.

You saw it here first.

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