Reusse: Daunte Culpepper's story is woulda, coulda, shoulda

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 23, 2012 - 7:57 AM

Daunte Culpepper held such promise as Vikings quarterback ... but it was not to be.

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Daunte Culpepper got his roll on quite often during the 2004 season, his best with the Vikings. Culpepper passed for 4,717 yards and 39 touchdowns. He had only 20 TD passes the rest of his career.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune file

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Daunte Culpepper turned 35 in January. He should be in the latter stages of a career that would have him remembered as the greatest quarterback in Vikings history -- Francis Tarkenton included.

Instead, Culpepper's career slid downhill in 2005, he drifted through three teams after leaving the Vikings and threw his last NFL pass three years ago. Earlier this month, Daunte gave into the obvious and said in an interview that he was done playing.

"That part of my book is closed," he said. "The next chapter is I have kids and I will be coaching them. I will be part of athletics and part of sports, hopefully my whole life."

This hardly made a whimper in the national sports news. To have Daunte depart in such anonymity certainly was not forseeable in mid-October 2004, when Vikings safety Corey Chavous was moved to say:

"What we're seeing is a lot of history unfolding right before our eyes. After watching Daunte the past five games, I don't think anything is unrealistic. I think breaking all the records is possible with him."

The records to which Chavous referred were Dan Marino's 48 touchdowns and 5,084 yards in 1984.

By happenstance, Marino was at Winter Park at the same time. The then-record-holder was going to conduct an interview with Culpepper that would run on Sunday's CBS pregame show.

"I said at the start of the year that Daunte and Peyton Manning had a chance to throw 40 touchdowns apiece," Marino said. "But I look at what Daunte is doing and, wow, I think maybe he's got a chance to break the records."

Five games into that season, Culpepper had thrown for 18 touchdowns and 1,766 yards. That put him on pace for 58 TDs and 5,651 yards. He was carrying a completion percentage of 72.2 and a passer rating of 127.0, two more NFL records if they had been maintained.

And, he already had thrown for five touchdowns in more games -- three -- than had any previous NFL quarterback in a full season.

One year later, the five-game comparisons with Culpepper and the Vikings were astounding: They had gone from 30 points a game to 13.4, from 476 yards to 303, from 3.8 touchdowns per game to 1.0 and from 1.4 turnovers per game to 3.4.

And that woeful offensive falloff wasn't the cause of the most embarrassment for Culpepper and his teammates in October 2005. Between Weeks 3 and 4, numerous Vikings -- including Culpepper -- had gone on a moonlight cruise across Lake Minnetonka with some young ladies and turned it into the notorious Love Boat Scandal.

It was an astounding transformation. In October 2004, Culpepper was 27 and carrying a much-flawed Vikings roster with gaudy efficiency and production. In October 2005, Culpepper was having his image damaged at the start of the month, and his right knee at the end of it.

There are several theories for this precipitous tumble. The most popular with the Culpepper bashers -- a solid share of Vikings fans unwilling to give him credit even when he was at his best -- was this:

Any outstanding play by Culpepper should be traced to the presence of Randy Moss. Once Moss was gone, Culpepper was doomed to be a substandard quarterback.

Nice theory, although it does overlook that Daunte's big numbers in 2004 included playing a portion of the season without Moss.

I put a lot to stock in a conversation with Cris Carter at the 2006 Super Bowl. He was rooting for a Culpepper comeback, but also said:

"Daunte is the least- confident great athlete I've been around."

My theory is that Culpepper would have had a longer run as the Vikings quarterback if Zygi Wilf had bought the team a year earlier from Red McCombs. Once Red decided he couldn't get a stadium and would sell, he went into full cheap mode for the 2005 season.

His worst decision was not to pay the freight to retain Scott Linehan as the offensive coordinator.

Linehan had more to do with Culpepper's success in 2004 than anyone. He had convinced Daunte to spend long hours at Winter Park after the 2003 season. They were joined at the hip during Culpepper's fabulous 2004.

Then, Red wouldn't pay Linehan, and he went to Miami, and poor Steve Loney -- good guy but overmatched -- was named as offensive coordinator. And when things started badly in 2005, there was no mentor to keep Culpepper from a downward spiral.

As an admirer of Culpepper's skills, that's my theory as to what happened, and I'm sticking with it.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM. preusse@startribune.com

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