The big fix

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

Two weeks ago, Miami Dolphins quarterback Daunte Culpepper looked at the man who nearly ended his career and thanked him.

It was an odd thing for Culpepper to say to Carolina cornerback Chris Gamble before the Dolphins played the Panthers in an exhibition game. Last season, Gamble put Culpepper on the shelf with a hit that severed three ligaments in Culpepper's right knee, a gruesome injury with iffy recovery rates.

Even as Culpepper couldn't move, his journey had begun. A journey not just to Miami, but apparently to a different state of mind if you believe the characterizations coming out of Minnesota, Culpepper's former team, and the Dolphins now.

Then again, it could be a matter of appreciation. In the span of a few harsh months, Culpepper went from Gamble's hit to his dream of playing in Miami.

In a year when there are the typical array of intriguing subplots for the NFL, Culpepper is one of five quarterbacks trying to come back from devastating injuries suffered last season or during the offseason.

In fact, if not for an appendix, the NFL season opener on Thursday between the Dolphins and Pittsburgh at Heinz Field would have been a battle of quick-healing quarterbacks. Steelers starter Ben Roethlisberger was all set to return from his near fatal motorcycle accident on June 12 before that useless 3-inch organ inflamed and had to be removed Sunday.

Pittsburgh will go with Charlie Batch in the interim, but the theme is strong this year. Aside from Culpepper and Roethlisberger, Cincinnati's Carson Palmer is returning from a double-ligament tear in his left knee and both Drew Brees and Chad Pennington are coming back from serious shoulder injuries. To a lesser extent, Donovan McNabb, Steve McNair and Byron Leftwich are trying to rebound from injury-plagued seasons.

In the cases of Culpepper, Roethlisberger, Palmer, Brees and Pennington, the injuries were (and still could be) career-threatening. And for Culpepper, the hurt runs deeper than pain of severed ligaments. He was hurt and embarrassed on the field and off. Perhaps that's why people who know him believe he's motivated more than ever.

"There was so much negative stuff from last year, that's why he's keeping the focus totally on the field right now," said Larry Tucker, a long-time friend and member of Culpepper's inner circle.

For his part, Culpepper hasn't said much more than the usual array of clichés. However, at one point during a charity event, Culpepper flashed a steely look of determination.

"Just watch and see what I'm about," Culpepper said.

Last season in Minnesota, Culpepper had a bleak year as his supporting cast disintegrated. Following the 2004 campaign, wide receiver Randy Moss got traded to Oakland and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan left to become the offensive coordinator (he's since taken the head coaching job) in St. Louis. Pro Bowl center Matt Birk had season-ending surgery in the preseason.

Subsequently, Culpepper went from having one of the greatest seasons in NFL history in 2004 (his rating of 110.9 is the fourth-best ever in a single season) to being a mess in 2005. He combined for eight interceptions and zero touchdowns in the first two games against Tampa Bay and Cincinnati.

His play leveled off over the next four games, but then came the injury. Off the field, he was part of the infamous Love Boat scandal and his reputation went from sterling to tarnished

Despite only being charged with receiving a lap dance (a charge that was later dismissed) and having never been arrested in his life before that, Culpepper was suddenly being talked about as if he was out of control. Rumors about his life off the field and his lack of dedication to the game floated around the NFL.

Culpepper fed the monster early in the offseason when he unexpectedly asked that his contract be renegotiated. Vikings officials were stunned by Culpepper's hubris.

"Daunte is all about the bling, that's it," one Vikings official said, alluding to Culpepper's focus on his contract. "You'll see what I'm saying. He doesn't do the work in the classroom. He doesn't like to practice. He just wants the glamour."

The Dolphins paint a completely different picture. What they have seen is someone with a single-minded approach that starts with his devotion to getting healthy. Most athletes who suffer three torn ligaments in a knee take a minimum of 10 months to get back on the field and the timetable is usually closer to a year.

Culpepper was back on the field, albeit limited, for the team's offseason program and played in the preseason opener Aug. 12 against Jacksonville. As for his contract, Culpepper hasn't said a word after the Dolphins went out on a limb.

"Daunte is all business," wide receiver Chris Chambers said.

Said one member of the Dolphins front office: "He has totally taken control. It's his team. Even with Chambers and (tight end Randy) McMichael, they completely pay attention. Those two guys were our two best players last year, but they both kind of cut up last year. You'd see them in practice kind of joking around, being silly.

"Now, they don't say boo because Daunte gets on them if they do. He's intense … I know what they say about him in Minnesota, but we haven't seen anything like that."

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