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Reconstructing Culpepper

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

Miami Dolphins coach Nick Saban is faced with the delicate task of getting Daunte Culpepper back to the quarterback he was while simultaneously changing him to what he must eventually become.

All while having Culpepper stand on the sideline.

All while having the media and fans second-guess Saban’s most important move in his plan to rebuild the Dolphins.

Culpepper is out as the starter for the Dolphins and this is not a short-term plan. It’s not about Culpepper simply getting his head straight after some bad outings. It’s about strengthening Culpepper’s knee so that Culpepper can regain the explosive running ability he had before suffering a catastrophic knee injury in 2005. Culpepper began the rebuilding process this week by spending much of practice working on resistance training, running through rope ladders and other moves designed to quicken his first few steps.

Anyone who has watched Culpepper for more than a series or two can tell he’s not back to normal. Good enough to go on the field? Yes. Good enough to be what he was? Not even close.

“I think that's a touchy subject,” Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor said. “But I think it's obvious that Daunte is still recovering from his knee injury. It doesn't take a doctor to see that … But can he get back to that? I'm positive that he can because of the way he works and the attitude he has toward it. Daunte wants to play. He wants to do well. He takes too much responsibility for some of the losses we've had this year. That's the kind of guy he is. That's why people admire him.”

Through the first four games of this season, Culpepper ran 10 times for 20 yards. That’s about 2.5 carries a game and 2 yards per carry. By most quarterback standards, that’s average.

Culpepper is not a standard quarterback. Through the first 84 games of his career as a starter, Culpepper averaged 5.4 carries per game and 5.5 yards per carry. Those numbers made Culpepper the best running quarterback in the game this side of Michael Vick.

More importantly, Culpepper’s ability to run made him a better passer by forcing the defense to account for his running ability and opening up the defense. Unlike Vick, who fights himself to become a better passer, Culpepper was a quarterback who combined uncanny size (6-foot-4, 260 pounds) and speed with a big arm.

Unfortunately, when you take one of those three things away, the result is like trying to use a tripod that has only two good legs.

Such a process can be painfully slow. Culpepper could be back to normal in a week or two. Or he might not be ready until 2007. Right now, it’s impossible to really know.

“Based on watching him play, he continued to make some improvement but as he was hit more, I think it affected his ability to continue to make that improvement,” said Saban, who said opposing teams began blitzing Culpepper increasingly as they noticed his lack of mobility. “At that time, we decided that this wasn’t going to help him get where he needs to be. Obviously, it didn’t work the way we wanted it to, so for him and for us, we all need to take where we are right now and try to move forward and get it where it needs to be. Maybe we did everything correctly and it’s still not where it needs to be. Maybe, we just need more time.”

The most painful part of the process is mental. Culpepper, who was hell-bent on returning to the field and proving all the doubters (especially the ones in Minnesota) wrong, took issue with Saban’s decision to sit him. The two screamed at each other last Friday, including the exchange of compound words including “M” and “F.”

That hasn’t dimmed Saban’s admiration for Culpepper, but it did create some bad headlines.

“I’ve used the pit bull analogy with him a lot and I really believe that,” Saban said. “If you were to measure the competitiveness of all the players on our roster, he would be in the top five of all our guys.”

Still, it has taken Culpepper some time to come to grips with what the coach is telling him.

“Sometimes, the best thing for you doesn’t always feel the best at the present time,” Culpepper said. “Right now, for me individually, my focus has to be getting myself to the point where I can play and move around and do what it takes to play like Daunte Culpepper. I understand that.”

At the same time, Saban is trying to put into Culpepper’s head that some things about Culpepper’s game have to change. Primarily, Culpepper must make the transformation from being an elite runner to more of a pocket passer.

“We’ve talked to him about that a lot,” Saban said. “The thing about players you’re talking about (such as Baltimore’s Steve McNair) is that they did it over time. They were able to change gradually.

“You can’t just do it overnight. We’ve talked to him about reading the defense and getting rid of the ball on time. That’s eventually got to happen. The example I’ve given to him is about (New York Yankees pitcher) Randy Johnson. Randy Johnson used to throw it 99 mph and he could just do that all the time. Nowadays, Johnson throws it 94, which is still plenty hard, but he had to change the way he pitched. He was able to do that and still win 15, 16, 17 ballgames this year and be an effective pitcher.”

The problem is that as this goes on, Saban has to endure the second-guessing of people who say he should have gotten Drew Brees instead. The second-guessing of people who conveniently forget that when Brees showed up for a free agent visit with the Dolphins, he already had a six-year, $60 million offer from New Orleans in the bag and his right arm in a sling.

Yes, the Dolphins preferred Brees back then. That was because they didn’t want to give up a draft pick. Culpepper cost them a second-round pick. But when the price on Brees got out of control ($25 million of that contract is due in the first two years) and Brees’ MRI showed significant damage, Culpepper was the choice.

Of course, the easiest thing for a sports critic is looking backward. Saban and Culpepper have to look forward. What that means is that Culpepper, who worked diligently to get back for the start of the season, has to take a step back and work on his knee again.

It also means that all the people who had the Dolphins pegged as a playoff and/or Super Bowl contender this year have to take a step back.

HUARD TO THE RESCUE
In an interesting bit of trivia, the winner of Sunday’s Kansas City Chiefs-Pittsburgh Steelers game will produce the quarterback with the best winning percentage with at least 10 starts in his professional career.

Kansas City’s Damon Huard, a 10-year veteran backup entering the game with a 7-2 record as a starter, goes against Ben Roethlisberger and his 27-7 mark in only his third year.

The winner will tip the scales at an impressive 80 percent. Of course, it’s not completely a reflection of their talent as even Huard admitted this week.

“What does it mean? It means I’ve been surrounded by a lot of great playmakers like I am now,” Huard said.

But Huard has also been surrounded by a bunch of great quarterbacks over the years. If playing behind Dan Marino, Drew Bledsoe, Tom Brady and Trent Green has helped at all, the Chiefs are in good hands right now as they wait for Green to recover from a concussion in the opener.

“Yeah, I’ve been pretty fortunate to watch guys who were either Hall of Famers or Pro Bowlers everywhere I’ve been,” said Huard, who has had stops in Miami and New England before joining the Chiefs in 2004 as a third-stringer.

Who was the best?

“Oh man, you had to ask me that. I’m still going to say Dan Marino. He’s the greatest pure passer of all-time and when I was coming up, that’s the guy I really tried to emulate,” Huard said.

OK, what’s the trait you tried to take from each of them?

“From Dan, it was the total confidence he had in what he was doing, that sixth sense of knowing what was going on all the time, when to step up. I used to watch him and ask, ‘Hey, what were you thinking in this situation? They had a Cover 3 with a zone dog and man under.’ He’d say, ‘Dude, pick a guy and let it fly.’ … He always had a belief that he was the best player on the field and he was going to do whatever it took to win.

“Brady is probably the best competitor I’ve ever been around. You could be playing backgammon with him in the locker room and if he loses, he’ll throw the board across the room. If you’re playing pickup basketball with him, he’s not going to lose. He’ll yell at you to pick it up if you don’t get it done. His leadership and his ability to bring everybody up a level is unbelievable. He has crazy enthusiasm for the game.”

“With Bledsoe, I always think, ‘One tough soldier’ and a guy who can make any throw. An absolute specimen when it comes to throwing the ball. He can make any throw in the book. He’s also a guy with absolute class. Whether it’s in the Super Bowl or not, he has total class. He’ll weather any situation, whether it’s a good game or no matter what the criticism. I mean really tough. When he got hit by Mo Lewis and almost died (in 2001), he kept playing for a couple of series after that. Tough soldier with class.”

“And Trent, just a pure passer with amazing attention to detail and fundamentals. He has the ability to throw the ball deep down field with amazing accuracy and when you see him carry out his handoffs, he always carries out his fakes. Every time. He’s also the kind of guy who can get up in front of the whole team and say whatever needs to be said. He’s the consummate team leader and I can’t believe how humble he is.”

HAYNESWORTH REVISITED
Since the majority of people who read my take on Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth from last week seemed a bit outraged at my seemingly forgiving posture, I revisit it quickly.

What Haynesworth did is not justified and it deserves to be punished. As I said last week, if Cowboys center Andre Gurode or any agency wanted to press charges, that would be fine by me. His five-game suspension seems reasonable to me and if Tennessee wants him to return some of the signing bonus he received, it has the right to do that.

What I don’t understand is the hysterical outcry by people who think that what Haynesworth did was so subhuman that he should be suspended indefinitely. It’s as if some people want to brand Haynesworth with a scarlet letter “A” for “Assaulter” on his forehead. As former player and 15-year veteran Kevin Gogan tried to explain, what Haynesworth did is not that far out of the realm of what happens on the field.

But people didn’t seem to trust Gogan’s view. With that in mind, I called Joe Greene for his take. You might know Greene from his 13-year Pro Football Hall of Fame career, which included four Super Bowl rings, 10 Pro Bowls and twice being named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He is considered by some the greatest defensive tackle in the history of the game.

Cole: What was your take on what Haynesworth did?

Greene: “(Haynesworth) went over the edge. But you have to understand that when you’re out there, you’re on the edge all the time and there’s so much that goes into what happens in the trenches. If you’re not playing like you’re on the edge (of losing control) then you’re not out on the field very long. What he did was wrong, but going over the edge in that position is always possible. Your mindset out there is to do whatever it takes.”

Cole: When you say “on the edge,” can you describe it?

Greene: “It’s really a situation where you’re taking every bit of your energy, your competitiveness and your fight and applying it on every play and he went over it. I’m sure that in the moment that it happened, he knew he had done something wrong. But if you can’t play on the edge, you’re not playing very well and you’re probably getting your butt kicked.

Cole: You’ve heard a lot of people criticize Haynesworth and say that he should be suspended for the rest of the season or even thrown in jail. What’s your reaction to that?

Greene: “That’s just the culture of political correctness that we live in. All those people, they’re just sucking (butt), kissing (butt). Everybody just wants to be more contrite than the next guy, be more politically correct. Whoever can be the most politically correct wins. Anybody who makes the comment that he should be suspended for the rest of the year doesn’t understand. He fell over the edge. He was wrong. It’s unfortunate and he deserves to be punished. But this is what you ask him to do and then when he loses control you want to [kick him out of the game and put him in jail] … Everybody wants to say the right thing and we don’t want to be on the side of the guy who committed the crime.”

Cole: You went over the edge a few times, right? Like that brawl in Cleveland where you kicked a Browns player in the testicles? Or the time you threw the ball in the stands?

Greene: “Yeah, that [the brawl in Cleveland] was one of them. I threw the ball in the stands in Philadelphia. Now, going over the edge (is not something I’m proud of), but that’s the way I had to play. People don’t understand that when you’re playing in the front seven on defense – maybe not so much at linebacker, but certainly at tackle – you’re colliding with bodies all the time. Often times, you do whatever it takes because the guy you’re going against is going to do whatever it takes to win; to keep his job; to survive. It comes down to that. Whether you’re doing the right or wrong thing, you can’t always think about that at the time. If you’re at the second end of the stick, you ain’t going to be there. To kick a man anytime is wrong, but those are the actions you have to deal with. Coaches will tell you: If you’re trying to get your payback, do it before the whistle. But that doesn’t always happen.”

Cole: Was the five-game suspension enough?

Greene: “That’s a hefty penalty. That’s a big fine. That will sit on him for a long time. People are going to talk about it the rest of his career, certainly. It’s unfortunate. I think he’s a better player than that. But that’s what he did and he has to deal with it now.”

ON THE FLY

  • New York Jets quarterback Kellen Clemens, the team’s second-round pick this year, got his first game action of the season during a 41-0 loss to Jacksonville. It was an inauspicious debut as he threw one incomplete pass, had another pass nullified by penalty, had to scramble from pressure once and was sacked on the final two plays of the game. “It was a chance to get him some game action,” coach Eric Mangini said.
  • Philadelphia Eagles running back Brian Westbrook denied last Sunday that he will need microfracture surgery on his bruised knee at the end of the season, but it’s clear that Westbrook is hurting. Correll Buckhalter is a decent backup, but no team is in more need of another running back than the Eagles now as the Tuesday trade deadline approaches.
  • Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens admitted to his frustration at the end of the loss to Philadelphia last week. However, coach Bill Parcells has told confidants that he wasn’t upset with Owens. “That’s what the kid is and that part is OK. They’ll deal with it,” said a source. The real problem that Dallas faces is what to do about quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who has been a sitting duck in losses at Jacksonville and Philadelphia. The book on how to stop Bledsoe is simple: Take away the short routes to the wide receivers and simply give the pass rush a little time. That means that the Cowboys will have problems against good defenses. Considering that, the Cowboys have had long talks about whether to use backup Tony Romo so that Romo will be ready sooner.