Daunte Culpepper's competitiveness reached a new high Sunday when he challenged me to a foot race for suggesting the "Daunte of old would have been long gone" on a key third-down scramble that came up short late in the fourth quarter of the Raiders' 29-22 loss to the Vikings.
"You feel you can beat me in a foot race?" said Culpepper, looking serious before flashing the familiar smile.
"I'm not the one chasing you," the 42-year-old sportswriter replied.
"Just kidding, man," Culpepper said before turning serious about how far he has come since Oct. 30, 2005, his last play as a Viking, when his right knee was blown up at Carolina.
"You got to remember," Culpepper said. "For a year and a half, I was laid up just trying to walk good again."
Culpepper, 30, keeps the date of his surgery at the tip of his tongue. It comes in handy against those who question whether he can ever return to the Pro Bowl run-pass form he showed in 2000, '03 and '04.
"Nov. 15 was two years, to the date," Culpepper said. "[Doctors] told me it was going to take two years before I even started to run again. And I was running after about eight months. So I feel like I'm ahead of schedule."
Watching Culpepper's return to the Metrodome on Sunday, it's obvious he can't move like he did before the injury. But he also is well past being the statue that took 21 sacks in four games with Miami last season. And, by the way, for those who celebrated Culpepper's ugly divorce in Minnesota, Daunte also was the best quarterback on the field -- although runner-up Sidney Rice sort of reminds me of a young Randall Cunningham.
Culpepper threw for 344 yards, his most since he passed for 404 in the Vikings' 28-27 victory at Detroit on Dec. 19, 2004. He also had one touchdown pass and an interception that bounced off running back Justin Fargas' hands.
And, of course, it wouldn't have been right if Culpepper returned to the Metrodome and didn't give the small-hands theorists something to chew on. So Culpepper, who fumbled 81 times as a Viking, had two fumbles and lost one of them Sunday.
The lost fumble, which was caused on a sack by Brian Robison, was the game's most pivotal play. The Raiders had the ball at the Vikings 19-yard line, trailing only 22-19 late in the third quarter. The Vikings took possession and drove 74 yards the other way for the clinching touchdown.
In Culpepper's defense, his right tackle at that point, Paul McQuistan, whiffed on Robison. McQuistan, normally a backup guard, played the second half at right tackle in place of injured starter Cornell Green.
Culpepper was sacked three other times, but he also sidestepped many more.
"I thought Daunte was a warrior today," Raiders coach Lane Kiffin said. "He made a bunch of plays. I thought he played plenty well enough for us to win today."
It appears Culpepper will get at least one more start next week at Kansas City. But he knows his future isn't in Oakland, since the Raiders eventually will turn the job over to No. 1 overall draft pick JaMarcus Russell. So Culpepper essentially is auditioning for a job somewhere else in 2008.
If he isn't injured again, there's no doubt he'll be physically stronger next season. "I'm getting stronger every week," said Culpepper, "and every day. I'll keep that mindset."
Who knows. Maybe there will be another day when it's third-and-7 at the Vikings 38. Culpepper will step up in the pocket, see an opening and be long gone.
That's what the Daunte of old would have done with 4 minutes left in Sunday's game. Instead, cornerback Charles Gordon tripped him up after a 4-yard gain. The Raiders settled for their fifth field goal and could get no closer than 29-22.