Editor's note: Michael Silver is taking a two-week vacation. His next column will appear on July 6.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Daunte Culpepper(notes) sat in the lobby restaurant of a hotel near the Arden Fair shopping center Thursday night, watching an NBA Finals game on the opposite coast and trying to make sense of the path that brought him to the professional football equivalent of an outlet mall.
Six years ago Culpepper, a three-time Pro Bowl quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings, enjoyed one of the best statistical seasons in NFL history. Five months ago he threw for 262 yards as the Detroit Lions' starting quarterback in their 2009 season finale.
Now Culpepper is the starting QB for the Sacramento Mountain Lions, a newly rechristened franchise in the two-year-old United Football League.
"It's crazy how this happened," Culpepper said, shaking his head for emphasis. "But I'm thankful for the opportunity. I'm a person who truly believes things happen for a reason. If I wasn't supposed to be here, I wouldn't be."
Culpepper seems sincerely excited about his move to the UFL as the fledgling league's highest-profile player, for several reasons: It reunites him with two of his former coaches, ex-Vikings boss (and Mountain Lions coach/GM) Dennis Green and ex-Central Florida coach (and Mountain Lions offensive coordinator) Mike Kruczek; he'll get to return to his former college stadium, the Citrus Bowl, for an October game against the UFL's Florida Tuskers; and, most of all, he won't have to hold a clipboard.
And while Culpepper insists he has no regrets and is "wholeheartedly content" with his current situation, there's another reason he's excited about being in Sacramento: He hopes to prove to a skeptical legion of football fans that reports of his demise are greatly exaggerated. As Culpepper said, "The crazy thing is, a lot of people think I'm 39 or 40, for some reason. Maybe it's because I did so much at such a young age, but that's the perception. Hey, I'm 33, and I'm healthy. And I feel like I can be the same player I was when I was healthy in Minnesota – in the right situation. I feel like this is the right situation."
So, while the Vikes hope to milk another year out of a quarterback (Brett Favre(notes)) who is 40, Culpepper – now four teams removed from his glory days in the Twin Cities – is attempting to move on from a league which no longer values his services.
It's a state of affairs that is somewhat startling given his auspicious beginning. After Green surprisingly took him with the 11th overall pick of the 1999 NFL draft, the 6-foot-4, 265-pounder became The Man in Minnesota in his second season, confounding opponents with his strong arm, feathery touch and uncanny mobility for such a large person.
By '04 Culpepper had taken his game to another level, ultimately breaking Dan Marino's single-season NFL record for combined passing and rushing yards with 5,123. He threw for 4,717 of those (one of four NFL players to pass for over 4,500 yards with a 68-percent completion rate or better) along with 39 touchdowns against 11 interceptions and had a passer rating of 110.9.
And then, in rapid-fire fashion, it all began to unravel. Following his second consecutive Pro Bowl appearance in early '05, Culpepper became dissatisfied with his contract, a 10-year, $102-million deal that didn't include much guaranteed cash. New owner Zygi Wilf gave Culpepper a modest pay raise, but the quarterback struggled at the start of the '05 season and, in the seventh game, tore his ACL and two other ligaments in his right knee. He was also cited for misdemeanor lewd conduct following the infamous "Love Boat" incident; the charge was dropped the following spring.
By then Culpepper had fired his longtime agent, Mason Ashe, and decided to represent himself, an unconventional move for an NFL player, let alone one of his stature. That likely helped perpetuate the growing tension between the quarterback and his bosses, who ultimately put him on the trade market and dealt him to the Miami Dolphins in March of '06 for a second-round pick in that year's draft.
Determined to prove that first-year Miami coach Nick Saban's decision to trade for him instead of signing free agent Drew Brees(notes) was a prudent one, Culpepper began the '07 season as the team's starter despite the fact that his knee wasn't fully healed. After struggling through four games in which reduced mobility limited his effectiveness, Culpepper was shut down for the year by the Dolphins. When Saban left for Alabama after the season, the team traded for veteran Trent Green(notes) and ultimately released Culpepper before '07 training camp.
"I should've waited," Culpepper said last week. "I should've never played those four games. My knee was good enough to drop back, but as far as making quick moves, I didn't have the strength or stability or the confidence in my knee. It was me being bullheaded. I was trying to be Superman."
Indeed, as any former teammate can tell you, "Pep" has never lacked for confidence. His immense faith in his own abilities might have cost him the following season when, during a reasonably successful run as the Oakland Raiders' starter, Culpepper hurt his quad after a post-practice race with teammate Stanford Routt(notes) and gave way to No. 1 overall draft pick JaMarcus Russell(notes).
After finding no suitors during the '08 offseason who viewed him as anything more than a veteran insurance policy, Culpepper became so frustrated that he announced his retirement that September. He changed his mind two months later, and the Detroit Lions signed him to replace injured starter Jon Kitna(notes). Six days after arriving in Motown, Culpepper was thrust into the starting lineup, and was unimpressive for a team in the midst of the first 0-16 season in league history.
The next April Detroit made Matthew Stafford(notes) the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. After a training-camp competition between him and Culpepper, the Lions went with the rookie as its opening-day starter. Culpepper's wry assessment: "In 2008 I retired and was brought in to play, but I hadn't prepared. In '09 I prepared but they wouldn't let me play. I was told I was 'the guy,' but things change. They said it was going to be a fair competition. … It is what it is."
Culpepper started five games for the Lions last season.
(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
The low point, for Culpepper, came in a Thanksgiving Day defeat to the Packers. Stafford had suffered a separated left shoulder the previous Sunday, and Culpepper was told he'd get the start. A few hours before kickoff, however, Stafford told coaches he felt healthy enough to give it a go. Culpepper, relegated to second-string status in the nationally televised game, was unable to conceal his disappointment on the sidelines.
"You know how it is," he said, recalling his frustration. "You prepare all week. They told me, 'You're up. Stafford's injured. 'Then the day of the game I'm told, 'Stafford's starting.' That's tough. It was a tough day."
Culpepper, still working as his own agent, searched again for an NFL opportunity after the '09 season. He hired attorney David Cornwell, who has had many clients within the league, as an advisor and arranged separate sit-downs with executives from six teams during the March owner meetings. Needless to say there wasn't a lot of genuine interest in his services.
"I could've waited till somebody got hurt, for an emergency situation, where I could go somewhere and hold a clipboard," Culpepper said. "But that's not where I am right now."
So now Culpepper finds himself in Sacramento, temporarily apart from his wife, Kim, and their five children, who attend school in Florida. Last Thursday evening he sat in the hotel lobby lounge and, while watching the Lakers battle the Celtics in Game 4, reminisced about having faced Boston forward Kevin Garnett in an AAU tournament during his high school years.
Former Vikings teammate Robert Griffith, a longtime NFL safety who now serves as the Mountain Lions' director of player personnel, stopped by to say hello. "He looks really good out there, like he hasn't missed a beat," Griffith said, gesturing toward Culpepper. "He's still got that pretty ball, too."
Then, turning to Culpepper, Griffith said, "You'll be on [an NFL] team in December, when our season ends. That's how fast this thing happens, Daunte."
Culpepper smiled, but he didn't look especially hopeful. "Whatever," he said. "This is a great opportunity to play in a new, exciting league and to get back with Coach Green and Coach Kruczek. I couldn't pass it up.
"Everybody understands I want to play. It's a good situation. I like it. It's not the NFL. It's the UFL. They've got their own thing. In the years to come, I think it will get bigger and bigger. Whatever the misconception about me is, I'm just delighted that this opportunity is here."
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
I'm not sure why you're trying to make it seem like (Tom) Brady and the Patriots organization are upset with each other. Brady always takes less money than he can get for the betterment of the team. I realize you need to write popular articles but why make stuff up? You know he'll be on the Patriots the rest of his career, unless of course he tries to play way past his prime.
I love the twisted logic that some people readily apply to 21st century journalism. Here's the deal: One of the reasons my articles are so popular is because I provide relevant, accurate information that I obtain by talking to people in the know. If I were the type of disgraceful reporter who would make up anything, ever, I would address the situation by smacking myself upside the head, "Fight Club"-style, until I bled profusely … over and over again. So yes, rest assured there is tension between Brady and the organization, and no, he's not as amenable to taking a below-market deal as you assume he is.
Where did you come up with this stuff? Are you Carnak the Magnificent? Maybe there is a plan in place, i.e. (Peyton) Manning gets his contract, then (Robert) Kraft pays Brady more. Just because he doesn't share his business with the media, doesn't mean he's not talking with Brady! (Agent Don) Yee works for Brady and is not going to dispute anything unless he gets the nod from Brady! In the end, Brady will be a Patriot until he retires. This isn't Drew Bledsoe redux. Brady is an icon in NE, hell even (Bill) Belichick is riding 50 miles on a bike for Tom's charity! Kraft has been proactive on contracts. (Vince) Wilfork, signing rookies early. "Never tell anyone outside the family what you're thinking again!" – Vito Corleone
Again, I love the logic: Now there's a plan in place for Brady to make more than Manning! Don't get me wrong, I applaud Brady and Kraft for not getting into specifics about the situation in a public forum. However, it should be telling to you and other skeptics that, given a chance to dispute any of the information presented in my column, neither party uttered a peep in protest. As I noted in the column, I believe they'll eventually resolve the issue, and Brady will remain with the Patriots. But it's not as hunky-dory as it should be on the contract front, and it hasn't been for a while.
Who are you to claim Brady's move to be closer to his oldest son is the "right" move? Liberty means choice, not judgment.
First of all, you're misquoting me. What I wrote was this: "To his credit, he is highly motivated by a desire to be close to his elder son … " I was, in fact, making the judgment that wanting to be a present father is an admirable quality. However, I wasn't suggesting that Brady's freedom of choice as to where to play should be exercised in one direction or the other. As for the larger question of who I am to make these claims, I'll give you a two-word answer: El Patron.
It is your gig to stir up talk … but this is negative. I like to watch this guy with this team. Can you put your articles on more of a positive angle? Peace.
Our Journalism 101 class continues: It is my gig to be enlightening, entertaining, thought-provoking and unfailingly fair and accurate while providing informed opinions in my role as a columnist. It is not my job to be positive for the sake of being positive, nor can I control whether Brady and the Patriots choose to remain business partners. But thanks for implying that I have that much power; it plays to my prodigious ego.
Michael, I'm a big fan of your work, and I normally laugh at the inane, often whiny, incomprehensible diatribes you receive in response to comments you've made in your columns. But I must take issue with your comments regarding Belichick and the re- signing of Derrick Burgess(notes). … Sure, Burgess' commitment was questioned, and sure, he was sent home from training. But he reacted the right way. Unlike Adalius Thomas(notes), he kept quiet, went back to work, and in the last four games of the season, he was the Pats' best defensive weapon. He showed that he can "take the coaching" and was rewarded by being re-signed. But then what would you know? You're a Reading fan! Enjoy the World Cup, I look forward to my nation beating yours on June 12.
I appreciate the fact that, from a continent away, you believe you have insight into how Burgess' commitment (or lack thereof) was perceived by Brady in the Patriots' locker room. However, I regret to inform you that your logic is as leaky as Robert Green's hands when fielding a routine shot from Clint Dempsey. Based on the relationships and access I've attained over more than two decades of NFL coverage, I'm able to be a bit better positioned on these matters than someone who merely forms opinions based on what he/she reads and watches on TV, and I mean no disrespect in pointing that out. As Donald Sutherland said in "Animal House": I'm not joking; this is my job. For the record, I stand by my assertion that some Patriots players were puzzled by the re-signing of Burgess.
"Foist upon him" … was going to call you on this, but couldn't since it is correct. Foist is not a word you see very often, well not for me anyway. Thanks for the story and the unintentional Grammar lesson.
You were going to call me on it, but couldn't since it is correct – don't you hate when that happens? I don't. (On a more serious note, thanks for putting so much care and effort into the reading experience.)
Aren't you the idiot who claims the tuck was never called before 2001? Until the NFL redid their site I had several from that season including the Patriots-Jets game where it was called against the Patriots. Hey, you may be right about Brady, but you have zero creditability. I'm disappointed that Yahoo! pays you.
New Bedford, Mass.
The reason I have zero "creditability" is that it is not, in fact, an actual word. I do, however, have plenty of credibility – and for the record, I never claimed that the Tuck Rule wasn't called before the Snow Bowl. I simply noted that I hadn't remembered a high-profile example of its implementation, which was precisely the point I was trying to make in the first place.
Mike, I am just curious about your piece regarding Beast Mode and Bills fans and when you may pen a follow-up piece? Every town has morons like the ones you cited in your Buffalo piece and I think their conduct is embarrassing, but that said, if Marshawn (Lynch) was truly looking to show a renewed commitment to the team and Buffalo fans, don't you think he should be at the OTAs now? As silly as I think the OTAs are, what a great first step towards showing a renewed interest in your team. The more I think about it, the more I think your piece came off as a shot at Buffalo and its fans at the expense of defending one of your Cal boys. Regards.
I can see how Bills fans are frustrated by the apparent discrepancy between what Lynch told me in late May and his subsequent behavior (showing up at the team's facility in early June but restricting his activity to working out in the weight room. And I have to admit that though Lynch and I have the same alma mater and I really like the guy, I'm a bit frustrated, too. I'm not sure why he told me he intended to participate in OTAs and apparently changed his mind, and there are people close to him who are equally perplexed. I do know that Lynch flew back to Buffalo on Monday, and I expect him to be on the practice field as early as Tuesday. Then again, you've heard that before.
Mike, what are your thoughts on the Pac-10 expansion and the potential benefits for our Bears? The six-team divisions would preserve rivalries, with the exception of AZ and AZ State, but the potential is pretty exciting. Not sure how it would work for the so-called non-revenue or Olympic sports.
I had plenty of misgivings about a potential Pac-16, most of them linked to the harsh reality that Cal has not been to the Rose Bowl in my lifetime and a desire not to decrease the odds of ever stating otherwise. But now that it appears the larger expansion scenario is dead, and we are likely looking at a Pac-12, I'm relatively upbeat about the state of affairs. Colorado is a terrific addition – Boulder's a tremendous college town, and the Buffs bring it in multiple sports. As for the non-revenue sports, in general, I am so excited about the state of affairs under athletic director Sandy Barbour's leadership that they might as well combine all the power conferences and form a Pac-60. Trust me, the Golden Bears fear no one.
Hi Michael, I'm curious what you think about the just announced move of Colorado into the Pac-10? As a Bears fan I'm sure that you have some sort of insight into what this means. I've been a Buffs fan all my life, and I'm honestly not sure what to think of it. I'll miss our rivalries, especially with the hated Cornhuskers, but if I'm honest we've essentially been a doormat the past few years in the Big 12 (in football, at least), and I don't really see how that will change with us going to the Pac-10. I and many others thought Dan Hawkins was going to make a much bigger impact, but instead he's just turned out to be the anti-Gary Barnett: a guy of great integrity (unlike Barnett) who consistently puts in losing seasons (unlike Barnett). Am I wrong to fear that going to the Pac-10 just means we'll be competing with Washington State instead of Iowa State for "not last place"? Love the column and am very hopeful that I didn't make too many spelling/grammatical errors to warrant being mercilessly mocked in such a revered public forum.
I have high hopes for the Buffs' embracing of some potential new rivalries. For starters, I think you'll find that you develop an instant and irrevocable hatred for USC. And if Ralphie could relieve himself on Traveler's hind legs, that would be a hell of an opening salvo.
I see you finally got off my Dolphins' ass about them doing due diligence with a potential $20 million employee … glad to see you finally moved on … Jackass!
Just a thank you for your Don Julio salute to Ronnie James Dio. He was a class act that always delivered the goods live – not unlike yourself.
Did you just compare me to a late heavy metal icon? I believe you did. Even someone with my prodigious ego realizes that's a bit silly, but it's not stopping me from giving you the devil's-horns sign as I finish typing.