QB has confidence in WRs, more patience

Vikings QB Daunte Culpepper is locked in, engineering an offense that's a threat to score on any play.

Originally Published: October 29, 2004
By Michael Smith | ESPN.com

Playing in the AFC South has made David Carr a keen observer of quarterbacks. Six times a season, Carr, now a pretty good quarterback in his own right, gets front-row seats for performances -- free admission with the education coming at the expense of the Texans' defense -- by last year's co-most valuable players, Peyton Manning and Steve McNair, and rising star Byron Leftwich.

Three weeks ago, he was treated to a top-notch performance by a signal caller outside of his division: Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper, an early front-runner for this year's MVP award.

Daunte Culpepper
On fire: Culpepper has 19 TDs and just three INTs in six games.
"I watched Daunte," Carr said this week. "I watched him warm up. I watched how he and Randy (Moss) interacted. I like watching good football players, and to me he's one of the best that's playing right now.

"You see the respect that his teammates have for him, and the fact that when he talks on the sideline or in the huddle, they pay attention and their eyes are locked right on him."

Culpepper is locked in. Baseball has the triple. Right now the most exciting play in football is a Minnesota Vikings pass play. Anytime Culpepper fires a pass it could be a touchdown. At the very least, it's likely to be a completion.

"He's playing with so much confidence," Carr said. "He has so much confidence in his offense, that he can throw the ball up to any of the receivers that they have and they know they're going to bring it down and make plays for him. It's going to be in a good spot, first of all."

Almost as exciting in this age of fantasy fanatics is tracking Culpepper's statistics, as he's on pace, even after a relatively modest statistical outing in his last game, to break NFL single-season passing records for completions, completion percentage, yards, touchdowns, and efficiency rating. However, Culpepper's biggest accomplishment might be overshadowing Manning, who also is on pace to break the rating record and toss 45 touchdowns to Culpepper's projected 51.

What might be more impressive than Culpepper's record three five-touchdown games in six contests or a 124.0 rating often not seen at the end of simulated Madden seasons, is his 73.3 percent completion rate. That's astounding even in an era in which most good quarterbacks are in the mid- to low-60s anyway, and for one who is a career 63-percent passer and already the NCAA single-season record holder. It isn't as though he's Rich Gannon-ing it with the short passes all day. He's doing this while still taking his shots down field.

Culpepper throws the deepest, tightest and most accurate long ball in the league. It might be the best deep ball since Jeff Blake was letting it fly back in the day with the Bengals, only without the air. Most quarterbacks put it out there between 45 and 50 yards, but because Culpepper can heave it another 10 yards or so, defensive backs have a tendency to misjudge it and break down too soon. That's why it always seems like Moss is running uncovered.

"The corners almost stop running because they don't think he's going to throw it that far," Carr said. "There comes a certain point, around 40 or 50 yards, when the corner has to just by instinct turn around and look for the ball, and when he does that, it gives guys like Moss an opportunity to run under the ball."

That's usually all Moss, Nate Burleson, Kelly Campbell and Marcus Robertson have to do: run to the ball or to the open area. Culpepper drops it right in, and the receivers do their part by not dropping it.

"He's really come up big in critical situations where he's had to make a big throw and place it only where the receiver he's throwing to can make the catch and away from a defensive back," Vikings offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Scott Linehan said. "He's made some unbelievable throws. He has that ability, he's extremely talented. That probably has the most to do with his completion percentage."

Culpepper clearly is comfortable in the Vikings' offensive system. He manages games better (see Sunday's efficient 24-for-30, 183-yard, one-touchdown outing with Moss available for only two plays). He also has more confidence in, besides Moss, the rest of his supporting cast of backs and receivers -- if he sees one-on-one coverage, he's throwing it up even if the receiver isn't "open." Culpepper is distributing the ball better than he had in years past, and, much to the satisfaction of Linehan, no longer has an aversion to check downs.

"He's making some throws that not too many people I know about can make, and he's also making great decisions," Linehan said. "When you have the combination of the talent to put a ball in a place that only the receiver can catch it on one down, and then the next down you have the patience to check a ball down to a running back or a tight end when they're basically playing soft zone, that's a pretty good combination and you're going to have a pretty good passing percentage."

He's playing with so much confidence. He has so much confidence in his offense, that he can throw the ball up to any of the receivers that they have and they know they're going to bring it down and make plays for him. It's going to be in a good spot, first of all.
Texans QB David Carr on Daunte Culpepper

Also contributing to Culpepper's improved accuracy is his improved footwork. He and Linehan devoted a lot of offseason time to it.

"Very rarely does he have his feet out of control when he's in the pocket, and it's enabled him to also have a quicker release by having his feet in great position all the time," Linehan said.

On the other hand, under the category of "can't be taught": Culpepper is as accurate on the move as some quarterbacks are from the pocket. Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz marveled before last week's game at his ability to throw running either way with so much velocity.

But the biggest difference between Culpepper then and now is the throws he doesn't make, a true sign of a quarterback's maturation. He's thrown just three picks, two against the Saints two weeks ago. Linehan said after that game that Culpepper had thrown "seven or eight balls (this season) when he's been out of the pocket and was buying time and didn't have anywhere to go -- threw the ball away and reloaded. Maybe four of those passes, the very next play we ended up scoring touchdowns on them."

Linehan's favorite play from the Titans game was Culpepper taking a sack on Minnesota's first possession rather than attempt a risky throw to Robertson over the middle.

"Two years ago," Linehan said, "he would have tried to do something with it. Nothing good is going to happen if he tries to make that play. He didn't compound a mistake. He's evaluating situations so much better. After that I said to him, 'Kid, you're growing up.' "

And lighting up the league in the process.

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Michael Smith

NFL Senior Writer
Michael Smith joined ESPN in July 2004 as a National Football League senior writer for ESPN.com, covering league news and major events such as the NFL Draft, NFL Playoffs and the Super Bowl, and continues to write breaking news stories. He is also a correspondent for E:60, ESPN's first multi-themed prime-time newsmagazine program, which debuted October 2007.