If Culpepper can solve the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the next chapter of Monday Night Football, the NFL will have to take the 4-0 Vikings seriously as a Super Bowl threat.
The biggest of the nation's big quarterbacks, the Viking passer threw three touchdown passes last Sunday to another big man, 6-foot-4 Randy Moss, as Minnesota edged Detroit, 31-24.
The defining thing about Culpepper is that despite his talent for running the ball, he'd rather throw it--unlike most young passers, who tend to scramble at the first hint of trouble because the field ahead of them is a baffling sea of strange shapes.
For an emerging new quarterback with multiple talents, Culpepper's edge is vision and maturity.
Buccaneers Rein In Passer
The Minnesota game will be highly-rated and fast-falling Tampa Bay's third in a row on national television, which so far has been a disaster for the Buccaneer team.
One of several preseason Super Bowl favorites, the 3-2 Buccaneers were last seen blowing early-game leads in losing to the New York Jets (21-17 on Sunday night TV) and to the Washington Redskins (20-17 in this week's doubleheader game).
Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, the scores suggest that Coach Tony Dungy has been reining in his young quarterback, Shaun King. When allowed to be a real quarterback, King plays better than his conservative coaches will usually let him play. He proved that again in Washington, where he brought Tampa Bay back from 17-7 to 17-17 and overtime.
But once again, Dungy had allowed an opponent to hang around too long.
After a late fumble beat Tampa Bay a week earlier in the Jet game, a punt return by Deion Sanders did it in the Redskin game.
Can King Catch Culpepper?
Athleticism is a talent that isn't associated with every NFL quarterback, but it's one of the things, along with leadership skills, that link King and Culpepper.
Against the Redskins, for example, King was in the passing pocket when he fumbled briefly ahead of Tampa Bay's two big plays.
The first time, he had the know-how and quickness to snatch the ball off the ground and the wit to throw it downfield to wide receiver Reidel Anthony on the 46-yard touchdown play that got the Buccaneers back in the game.
Next, after the ball was again knocked away, King picked it up again and threw a 19-yard pass to wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson to set up the tying field goal at 17-17.
First to last, his 50-yard field-goal drive showed King to be a worthy rival to Culpepper--with two differences: King is stockier, at 6-0 and 225, and Coach Green lets Culpepper play.
Are These the Real Jaguars?
In the only other big game of the NFL's sixth weekend, the Baltimore Ravens will be driving for a 2000 sweep Sunday against the host Jacksonville Jaguars. Against disorganized Pittsburgh this past weekend, the Jaguars looked as if they have quit on their martinet coach, Tom Coughlin.
A fervent disciplinarian of the old school who seems to be out of place in a more permissive new day, Coughlin doesn't inspire much love on the Jacksonville team, although insiders there say he inspires loyalty when--but only when--he wins.
In any case, something is out of joint if the 2-3 Jaguars can lose at home to Pittsburgh, the bunch that can't count straight.
An 0-3 team at the opening kickoff, the Steelers somehow surmounted their usual blunders to win easily, 24-13.
The Ravens, Jacksonville's next opponents, are 4-1 this fall under Coach Brian Billick after outscoring the Jaguars in Baltimore, 39-36, and shooting three blanks--over Pittsburgh, 16-0; Cincinnati, 37-0; and Cleveland, 12-0.
Although blanking any NFL team is an achievement, sweeping the Jaguars would be harder if, indeed, these are the real Jaguars.
On Hurting Your Own Team
Benching wide receiver Terrell Owens for disciplinary reasons didn't seem to harm the San Francisco 49ers in their surprise second successive win this week. Nor did the benching of defensive lineman Warren Sapp throughout the first quarter in Washington--also for disciplinary reasons--contribute to Tampa Bay's loss.
But those were both wrong moves.
They could have cost both games.
When any NFL coach keeps any important member of the team out of any game for any reason other than injury, he hurts the rest of the team.
And what's the sense of that?
A substantial fine is the way to discipline any pro.
The 49ers' and Buccaneers' coaches, Steve Mariucci and Tony Dungy, only proved that they haven't grown up yet.
Are the 49ers Getting Better?
Mariucci's team showed a lot of promise in winning again--even if the opponent was only Arizona--on a day when the new quarterback, Jeff Garcia, exhibited a trait of his predecessors, Joe Montana and Steve Young. That is, Garcia won (27-20) without authoring a big touchdown play--as even Montana sometimes did in his early years, not to mention Young.
And this is only Garcia's second year in the big time.
There's nothing wrong with scoring on one-yard runs and five-yard passes--if you can do it.
Some days, some teams can't.
The 49ers, with one of the youngest NFL teams, may be turning things around. True, they're assured of another defeat Sunday when Oakland comes in, but young turnaround teams never win them all.
Ball Control Is Overrated
Something brand new to football is happening these days when the St. Louis Rams line up offensively:
You see an NFL team trying to win by throwing the ball on every play.
Not most plays.
On every play.
So long as the game is on the line.
No other good, veteran football club ever decided to try that--even the run-'n'-shoot teams which, by design, always ran the ball when their opponents, early or late, lined up in 3-8 or 4-7 pass defenses.
By contrast, on the first play of nearly every game this year, the Rams have come out throwing in the formations used by other teams only in late-afternoon two-minute drills.
And regardless of the defensive alignments they see, the Rams stay in the two-minute drill. They stay there and throw the ball.
When they were leading San Diego 17-0 last Sunday, the Rams hadn't once run the ball. And they didn't let up, winning 57-31.
Martz's Way: Think Fast
As coached by Mike Martz, the Rams play the game so fast that their opponents seem to be playing in slow motion.
Although the Rams have the speed and quickness to perform that way--on a team that was handpicked for speed and quickness by Martz and last year's coach, Dick Vermeil--the NFL is a league in which the players don't have to be fast to play fast.
The essential is thinking fast.
For, among other things, speed is a state of mind--meaning that perhaps half the teams in pro football could be playing the game the Ram way if they only thought fast.
The other passers might not have Ram quarterback Kurt Warner's quickness but they're quick enough.
The other receivers might not be as fast as the Rams' receivers but they're fast enough.
The difference in St. Louis is that Martz coaches his players to think fast, react fast, throw fast, and get where they're going--where they're supposed to be--as fast as they can.
Before the defensive people get there.
Among the clubs that could also play like that, if they were of a mind to, are Indianapolis, Buffalo, Tampa Bay and Tennessee.
They're All One-Dimensional
The 57-point St. Louis explosion against San Diego obscured the point that the Rams gave up 31 points to one of the NFL's weakest members--raising doubts, again, that their defense can perform at a Super Bowl level.
And that's a curious reminder that this season the league's elite clubs mostly divide into offensive teams that can't defend and defensive teams that can't play offense.
Wounds to their best players have taken Denver out of the race. But even when they were uninjured, the Broncos, resembling the Rams offensively, played defensive football with the Rams' lack of success.
In several other NFL cities, the shoe is on the other foot:
Though mighty defensively, the Buccaneers can't play offense, nor can the Tennessee Titans, nor the Buffalo Bills.
In Buffalo, for instance, the defensively-strong Bills would have knocked Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning into Niagara Falls, if their coaches just had a grasp of modern offense.
It was only when the Bills fell behind in the fourth quarter that they unleashed their good quarterback, Rob Johnson, whose passes put them ahead quickly, 16-15. Too quickly. Manning was left with just enough time to drive the Colts to a game-winning field goal, 18-16.
So, mark this down as an extraordinarily strange season.
Perhaps only in Baltimore is there an NFL offensive expert who understands both sides of football.
That's Billick, who has built a defensive giant there while waiting for Tony Banks or some other quarterback to come around.
As for defense-minded Tampa Bay and Tennessee, they're both as much like Buffalo offensively as they are defensively.
And the Rams, as wonderful as they are on offense, may yet blow the season with insufficient defense.