Daunte Culpepper's Fall from Grace

Eric RhodyCorrespondent IMarch 17, 2009

At the conclusion of the 1999 season, Dennis Green and the Vikings had a problem.

They had gone 10-6 that year. By most standards, that wasn't too bad but they were coming off a 15-1 season where they missed the Super Bowl by a field goal.

So by all accounts, with the nucleus of that team still intact, they should have gone even further.

That wasn't exactly the case.

Randall Cunningham, their star quarterback the previous season, couldn't manage to stay productive. The once mighty Vikings found themselves trapped in a 2-4 start.

Fortunately, the troubled veteran Jeff George put together the greatest season of his career to raise the Vikings to an 8-2 record and a playoff berth. A win over the Dallas Cowboys in the Wildcard round was good, but a wild shootout loss to the St. Louis Rams in the Divisional round marked the end of a disappointing season.

And in came Green's problem. Cunningham ended up with Dallas, and Jeff George was allowed to be released. So only one option remained on the Vikings roster.

Daunte Culpepper.

The talented quarterback out of Central Florida was picked 11th overall in 1999 by the Vikings, and rode the bench as the third string quarterback all season. Despite being a first round pick, could he really be trusted to take control of the Vikings well oiled machine?

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2000 was seen as a make or break year for a Vikings Super Bowl title. Cris Carter, one half of the Vikings' star receiving duo, was showing signs of age, as was John Randle, the Vikings' defensive anchor. The Vikings also had many talented players with contracts expiring at the end of the season.

Still, the majority of the superior players were on the team, and Randy Moss was only getting better. All that remained was the hope that Culpepper could step up to the plate.

Culpepper was shaky at the start of the season, throwing four picks to one touchdown in his first two starts. However, the Vikings managed to win both games, so nothing was declared amiss.

As the Vikings cruised to an 11-2 record, Culpepper began to blossom, and was consistently having good games. The Vikings sputtered at the end of the season by dropping three games in a row, but they still had a first round bye with an 11-5 record.

Culpepper's stats that year were impressive for a first year starter. 33/16 TD/INT ratio, 3,937 passing yards, and a 98 QB rating. These numbers were good enough for him to earn a spot in the Pro Bowl.

The Vikings stomped the Saints in the Divisional round, 34-16, with Culpepper having another solid game. They went into the NFC Championship as the favorites. After the disappointments of 1998 and 1999, the Vikings found themselves in a strong position to win their first Super Bowl.

Things didn't quite turn out that way.

The New York Giants destroyed the Vikings in every possible way. The Giants posted a 14-0 lead before the Vikings offense had even come onto the field. Culpepper's performance that day didn't help matters. He threw three picks as the Giants ended up with a 41-0 victory over the Vikings.

The loss proved to a truly crushing blow to the Vikings. Robert Smith, their star running back at the peak of his career, retired prematurely. John Randle left to Seattle. The once great Vikings, were falling apart at the seams.

Culpepper's next two seasons proved this to be a fact. He struggled in 2001 and 2002, leading the Vikings to a 4-7 (in an injury shortened season) and 6-10 records respectively. Dennis Green was shown the door at the conclusion of the 2001 season, leading to the hiring of Mike Tice. Other big names such as Cris Carter also left the team.

Culpepper's 2003 campaign proved to be more successful. He returned to the Pro Bowl and led the Vikings to a 7-7 record before falling to injury. The Vikings won their last two games, but narrowly missed the playoffs.

Things were looking up as Culpepper entered the 2004 season. The Vikings posted a 5-1 start as Culpepper was already posting career numbers. He had three games where he had tossed for five touchdowns.

But in what was becoming a pattern with the Vikings, they fell apart midseason and dropped three straight before rebounding with another two wins while Culpepper continued to throw for career stats.

The Vikings went 1-5 over the last stretch and ended up 8-8. However, through a series of fortunate chances, the Vikings made the playoffs, and they were being matched up against NFC North rivals, the Green Bay Packers.

To say the Vikings and Culpepper made a mockery of the Packers at Lambeau that day would be an understatement. As Randy Moss best put it, "We whooped their ass."

Culpepper threw for four touchdowns in a 31-17 blowout, but more notoriously, Randy Moss "mooned" the Packer faithful after burning Al Harris for Moss's second touchdown catch of the day.

The Vikings weren't able to ride that hot game into the next week however, as they fell to Donovan McNabb and the Eagles in the Divisional round.

Still, Culpepper's 2004 numbers were MVP worthy. 39 touchdowns, 4,717 yards, and a 110.9 passer rating.

As the Vikings entered the 2005 season, they were faced with a number of changes. They had a new owner in Zygi Wilf, and Randy Moss was traded to the Raiders, with Troy Williamson tagged as his successor.

Still, many people believed that Culpepper could work around, and even thrive, through these changes.

But everything that could go wrong, did.

Troy Williamson had the speed of Randy, but couldn't catch the football. Wilf and Culpepper locked horns in a battle over Culpepper's role on the team, and contract negotiations.

Culpepper's play suffered as well. He threw SIX interceptions in the first two games of the 2005 season, with ZERO touchdowns. He managed to rebound with a three TD, 300 yard performance in week three, but by than, the damage had already been done.

The Vikings slid to a 2-4 record. That's when the unthinkable happened.

Culpepper was having another bad game against the Panthers in week 7, when a shot to the knee sent him writhing in pain on the turf of Bank of America stadium.

The diagnosis was not good.

Culpepper sustained damage to three of the four major ligaments in the knee: the ACL, PCL and MCL. Not only was this certainly season ending, but it may has well have been career ending.

Culpepper's involvement with the "Love Boat" scandal did nothing to help matters, neither did his disagreements with new head coach Brad Childress. Culpepper was dealt to the Miami Dolphins at the end of the season.

From there, he found no success.

As a starter for the Vikings, Culpepper went 37-40. He also went to three Pro Bowls, and still holds a Vikings team record with 39 touchdowns in a season.

His dramatic fall is one that fascinates me to this day, and I find it unfortunate that most Vikings fans look back with disgust at the career of Daunte Culpepper.

But in truth, I think it's safe to say we'd kill for a quarterback who could even come close to Culpepper in his prime. I'm one of those people who likes to think what if.

What if Moss had stuck around? What if Culpepper was never injured and found enough success to still be the Vikings starter to this day? What if he was still starting when Robert Smith was at long last succeeded by Adrian Peterson?

I suppose some questions were never supposed to be answered, and all of those "what if..." questions will probably never have an accurate answer.

But for now, I tip my hat to Daunte Culpepper. The last great Vikings quarterback.