- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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The first book of "The Divine Comedy" is titled "Dante's Inferno." Written between 1308 and 1321 by Dante Alighieri, it is a first-person narrative of the author's descent into hell. The poem begins with Dante lost in a dark wood, searching for salvation.
This, roughly, is where Daunte Culpepper finds himself these days.
The Miami Dolphins focused their attention on two quarterbacks in the offseason, Drew Brees and Culpepper. Both were coming off serious surgery under the scalpel of Dr. James Andrews and Dolphins physicians came to the conclusion that Culpepper's knee was sounder -- and safer -- than Brees' shoulder.
Miami preferred Brees and didn't like the idea of sending a second-round pick to Minnesota, but the Dolphins just couldn't get past Brees' shoulder injury. So Brees wound up with the New Orleans Saints and Culpepper became a Dolphin. How's that working out?
Brees has fashioned one of the NFL's best passer ratings and the Saints' record is a NFC South-leading 4-1. The Dolphins have the opposite record, 1-4, and Culpepper is on the bench -- potentially for the rest of the season.
"We're going to get Joey ready to play," Dolphins head coach Nick Saban said Monday. "Does that make him the starter? I guess. That makes him the starter for this week. That could change anytime in the future."
And so, like the Dolphins -- who won six straight games to finish the 2005 season with a surge -- Culpepper exists in an odd sort of purgatory. He came in a trade from the Vikings last March and was given a $7 million signing bonus and a $1 million base salary for the 2006 season to upgrade the Dolphins' quarterback position that had featured Gus Frerotte and Sage Rosenfels a year ago.
Through four games, Culpepper completed 81 of 134 passes (60.4 percent) for 929 yards. Solid enough numbers. The downside: only two touchdowns and three interceptions and a staggering 21 sacks. This, from a quarterback whose body of work has been consistently good. In eight seasons, Culpepper has thrown for 48 more touchdowns than interceptions and his passer rating (see chart) is No. 7 on the all-time list -- ahead of Dolphins Hall of Famer Dan Marino and some guy named Brady.
At last Friday's practice, Culpepper -- unhappy to be watching Harrington take his reps with the first team -- got into a heated argument with Saban.
"Hear it, and hear it good: I would be disappointed in the guy if he didn't want to play," Saban said on Monday. "If my wife and I are arguing at home, and we sit down at the dinner table and we put our hands together to say grace, the argument is over. We've got to join hands and go on, whether we agree or disagree."
So what happened to this once-happy family in the less than seven months since Culpepper arrived? How did the Dolphins go from playoff contenders to a team that very likely has missed that narrow postseason window of opportunity?
Wind the clock back to Oct. 30, 2005, when a low-flying Carolina defender buckled Culpepper's right knee, ending a first-quarter run and, as it turned out, his season. It was a catastrophic injury that saw Culpepper's anterior cruciate, medial collateral and posterior cruciate ligaments torn. Andrews performed surgery in mid-November.
Typically, rehabilitation from this injury, which represents only 5 percent of knee injuries, is 12 months. But the 29-year-old Culpepper, driven to separate himself from his recent disappointment in Minnesota, insisted this summer that he was ahead of schedule. Saban, looking for an offensive savior, wanted desperately to believe him.
When he was in his prime, Culpepper was reasonably mobile for a quarterback who stood 6-foot-4 and weighed 260 pounds. He has rushed for nearly 2,500 yards and 30 touchdowns in eight seasons and averaged 33 sacks in seven seasons in Minnesota.
It was obvious in training camp that Culpepper's mobility had been compromised by the knee surgery. In retrospect, it is clear that Saban should have started Harrington to begin the season and allow Culpepper to complete the rehabilitation process. Instead, Culpepper played. In the four games he started, the Dolphins scored 17 points at Pittsburgh, 6 against the Bills, 13 in a win over Tennessee and 15 in a terrible, two-point loss at Houston.
Last week, citing a shoulder injury suffered back on Sept. 17 against the Bills, Saban said he noticed Culpepper struggling in Wednesday's practice. Harrington practiced with the first team on Thursday, but after the Patriots game Saban contradicted himself, saying, "It's not about that [shoulder] injury. You're missing the point. It's the mobility."
Translation: The knee and, perhaps, Culpepper's decision-making.
On Monday, Saban said the Dolphins had prescribed a program to strengthen the knee and increase Culpepper's mobility.
"This is a long-term relationship that we have," Saban explained. "We don't want to get the guy, physically, in a situation where we put anything in the future in jeopardy. We believe in him. We love him. We're just trying to do the right thing."
The Dolphins, like every other NFL team, are trying to win. The thinking in South Florida is that Harrington will start against the Jets and the following week against the Packers. The Dolphins' next game, followeing a bye week, is at Chicago on Nov. 5. Insiders say the job is Harrington's to lose, which means as long as he plays well Culpepper is likely to stay on the sideline.
After Sunday's game, defensive end Kevin Carter warned that a rift between quarterback and coach can ruin a team's chemistry.
"I think it can [poison a locker room] if it's not handled the right way," Carter told reporters after Sunday's game.
"That's what coaches and players do," Saban said. "It's not an issue. It's not an issue for me. It's not an issue for him. We talked about it.
"It's not an issue."
Hear it, and hear it good: It's not an issue. Check in, say, a month from now. It just might be an issue then.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Daunte Culpepper was a medical marvel, returning from major knee surgery. But now he's backing up Joey Harrington in Miami.