Culpepper's status for opener still uncertain

Originally Published: June 12, 2006
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

DAVIE, Fla. -- Tearing a knee ligament is debilitating. Blow apart three ligaments -- as Daunte Culpepper did in a game at Carolina on Oct. 30 when Panthers safety Mike Minter drove into the right knee of the scrambling quarterback as he sprinted into the secondary -- and the results can be downright dehumanizing.

Asked Saturday about some of the low points of his recovery, Culpepper cited the embarrassment of having had to be assisted off the field at Bank of America Stadium after the injury, the first time in his entire football career he couldn't make it to the sideline under his own power. He also noted, wincing slightly, those occasions on which he had to be helped out in performing some of the most necessary yet indelicate bodily functions during the earliest stages of his rehabilitation.

"For the most part, physically, I feel great. I'm coming along, moving along. It's a day-by-day process, and it's a lot of work. But I'm just glad to be able to go out, go through the practice and not have any setbacks so far. I feel pretty good."
Daunte Culpepper

Not yet eight full months into his recovery from extensive surgery to mend the anterior cruciate, posterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments of his right knee, Culpepper is carrying himself remarkably well during the Miami Dolphins' offseason workouts and, blessedly, can get to the bathroom on his own now.

Whether the seven-year veteran can carry the retooled Miami offense, and get the Dolphins to the playoffs for the first time since 2001, remains to be seen. But for the Dolphins and Culpepper, acquired from the Minnesota Vikings in mid-March for a second-round choice in this year's draft, the early returns certainly are promising.

At least if the three-day minicamp that the Dolphins completed Sunday morning is any indication.

"I don't know how many people have come back from an injury like this," Culpepper said after the Saturday morning practice. "That's some of the question. For the most part, physically, I feel great. I'm coming along, moving along. It's a day-by-day process, and it's a lot of work. But I'm just glad to be able to go out, go through the practice and not have any setbacks so far. I feel pretty good."

Almost as important, Culpepper, 29, looks pretty good, too, on and off the field.

His weight is listed at 265 pounds, actually one pound more than in the Vikings' media guide of a year ago. But Culpepper, who is rumored to have played at 280 pounds in Minnesota at times, looks surprisingly trim for a guy whose movements were limited severely in the first couple of months after surgery. Despite rumors that Culpepper has exited the practice field limping at times, there was no hitch in his gait after the two Saturday sessions. No doubt the Miami trainers have employed enough ice -- to counter swelling in the knee joint -- after practices to restock the shrinking glaciers of Antarctica. And for now, and perhaps for the balance of his career, Culpepper straps a brace around the knee for additional stability.

But observing him on the field, there is no discernible wobble. And Culpepper hardly resembles a player whose career was in doubt before orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews cut into his knee in November and, in the words of the quarterback, "did some double-knotting and some double-tying" to repair ligaments that must have resembled overcooked spaghetti.

How close is Culpepper to being fully rehabilitated? Well, no one here, at least publicly, attaches any kind of percentage to his current status, but 80-90 percent would be a viable guesstimate. And the rhetoric about how he might not be fully functional for the Sept. 7 prime-time season opener at Pittsburgh, and how the "other" veteran quarterback acquired during the offseason, Joey Harrington, might have to start, seems to diminish every time Culpepper walks onto the field.

"That's the perfect world," Culpepper said of being able to start against the Steelers. "But I'm not making any predictions."

He is, however, making daily strides toward returning to being one of the league's premier playmakers. And the enthusiasm with which Culpepper has attacked his recovery has transferred to the field.

When the Dolphins culminated a simulated two-minute drill Saturday afternoon with kicker Olindo Mare knocking home a long field goal, Culpepper jumped around as if Miami had claimed a Super Bowl victory. He high-fives receivers who make good grabs, congratulates his blockers on their pass protection and, noted center Rex Hadnot, "keeps people excited" in the huddle. If it is not vintage Culpepper yet, he certainly seems to be moving back toward that level of performance.

During the Friday morning minicamp practice, it was reported that Culpepper, unable to locate an open receiver, pulled the ball down and, relying on second nature, took off on a scramble. On Saturday morning, he chased after an errant shotgun snap in a "team" segment and, bereft of caution, tossed himself headfirst onto the loose ball. In the afternoon practice, he again abandoned the pocket on a pass play that broke down and sprinted around left end, finally ducking out of bounds 17 yards up the field.

Those are the kind of improvised moments when one might suggest coach Nick Saban, and everyone else drawing a paycheck with owner Wayne Huizenga's autograph on it, doesn't dare exhale until Culpepper gets up intact. They are also the kind of ad-libbed reactions, Saban acknowledged, that best reflect why the Dolphins, after careful consideration and a flirtation with unrestricted free-agent quarterback Drew Brees, decided to acquire the former Vikings star.

Culpepper conceded that, on the field, he still has "to be smart" and comprehend the limitations forced on him by his recovery. But there didn't appear to be much he wasn't doing during the minicamp practices. Asked whether he had some sort of voice inside his head that advised him how often he should cast himself into harm's way, Culpepper laughed.

"Yeah, it's kind of like you have that good angel [on one shoulder] and a bad angel [on the other] … so I just have to use good decision making," he said.

So far, the bad angel, the one whispering exhortations like Run, Daunte, run into his ear, seems to be winning the battle for Culpepper's competitive soul. And, so far, the bad angel's counsel has been pretty good, with Culpepper showing none of the tentativeness normally inherent to a player still rehabilitating from such a catastrophic injury.

Which is an excellent augury for the Miami offense.

The Dolphins have gone through a laundry list of starting quarterbacks since Dan Marino retired after the 1999 season. But if Culpepper's knee is as sound as it appears, he finally will bring stability to the position.

In Saban's first season, the Dolphins won their final six games in 2005 and finished at 9-7. And the offense, charged by some with being stodgy and predictable at times, still ranked statistically in the top half of the league, No. 14 overall and 16th in passing. But there is room for improvement, and Culpepper provides new coordinator Mike Mularkey with more dimension than last year's starter, Gus Frerotte, would have.

Said Saban, who seems to be the person least surprised by Culpepper's speedy recovery but is still reluctant even to approach hyperbole: "He's a big-time passer. But the other thing is, and you saw this in the [Saturday morning] practice, he has the ability to make a play when everything breaks down. He's a guy whose natural instincts take over. Things don't have to be absolutely perfect for him all the time."

Doug Murray/WireImage.com Culpepper has made tremendous progress during his recovery.

Things were far from perfect for Culpepper in 2005. Only one season earlier, he had enjoyed one of the greatest passing years in NFL history, completing 379 of 548 passes for 4,717 yards, with 39 touchdown passes and only 11 interceptions. His 110.9 efficiency rating was the highest ever by a quarterback who did not win the league passing crown. Were it not for Peyton Manning's brilliant season -- he set a record for touchdown passes -- Culpepper might have been the NFL's most valuable player.

But then the Vikings traded away Randy Moss after the 2004 season, and there were suggestions early in '05 that Culpepper reacted to the departure of his favorite target like a kid who has misplaced his security blanket. The Vikings struggled from the outset of the season, as did Culpepper, who suffered way too many turnovers and tossed interceptions indiscriminately, a dozen in seven games, including five against Cincinnati on Sept. 18. There was the tawdry "love boat" incident, in which Culpepper was implicated and subsequently exonerated, as a distraction. Then, after only seven games, his season ended prematurely with the knee injury.

This spring, he was criticized openly by new Vikings coach Brad Childress for not rehabilitating his knee at the team facility. There were recriminations from both sides, some bilious rhetoric, then the trade that, Culpepper acknowledges, has ratcheted up his determination to come back whole again and to answer the skeptics who don't believe he can recover physically or emotionally.

In truth, only Culpepper knows how his knee feels, but there is at least visual documentation to confirm the progress he has made. As there is no arthroscopic device to examine what is going on between Culpepper's ears, one has to accept his assessment that, psychologically, he is mending nicely, as well.

Being able to get to the bathroom on his own a month or two into his recovery, after weeks of inactivity, was a turning point of sorts. Being able to get back onto a football field and do most of the things that come naturally to him, validates Culpepper's belief that his career isn't headed into the toilet.

"I have to give a lot of credit [to] the trade [for motivation], me getting down here," Culpepper said. "Me having a new start, getting back home [to his native Florida]. That solidifies a huge change for me, and I'm glad for it."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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