NFL Nation: Daunte Culpepper

MINNEAPOLIS -- Since he was introduced as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings on Jan. 17, Mike Zimmer has preached open competition as one of his core beliefs, and he should. It's a way for the new coach to keep his players honing their games to a fine edge, at least in theory.

If the Vikings hadn't gone into their coaching search with an open mind, Zimmer might not have landed his first head-coaching job at age 57, to the delight of people around the league who believed the longtime defensive coordinator had to wait too long for his shot. So when Zimmer -- who turned 58 earlier this month -- talks about an open battle at the quarterback position, adding that the Vikings won't be afraid to play rookie Teddy Bridgewater if he's good enough to win the job, there's every reason to believe the coach. There's also every reason for Zimmer to make sure Bridgewater has to clear a high threshold if he wants to line up as the Vikings' starter in St. Louis on Sept. 7.

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Zimmer
Zimmer needs only to look at the situation that played a large part in his job becoming available last winter. In April 2011, four months after the Vikings removed the interim tag from coach Leslie Frazier's title, the team took Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick. Ponder had no offseason to learn the Vikings' playbook and no time to work with his new coaches because of a lockout that stretched until August. But after six mediocre performances from a 34-year-old Donovan McNabb (in what turned out to be the final six games of his career), the Vikings handed the job to Ponder and never looked back, putting two young quarterbacks behind him in 2012 and using several solid games during a playoff push at the end of that season -- a year in which Adrian Peterson ran for 2,097 yards -- as justification to declare Ponder the uncontested starter before 2013, despite the presence of Matt Cassel on the roster.

Would things have turned out differently if Ponder had been given more time to develop? Possibly not. But by putting him in the lineup as soon as they did, the Vikings were, in effect, making a statement that Ponder was ready to take the job for good and locking themselves into a long stretch with him. They didn't have to make that pronouncement as soon as they did, but if they'd waffled on it shortly thereafter, they would have invited scrutiny for their lack of direction at quarterback (as they did with their Ponder/Cassel/Josh Freeman carousel in 2013). Quarterback instability ultimately doomed Frazier, and in effect, it doomed his predecessor, Brad Childress. After feuding with Daunte Culpepper shortly after taking the job, Childress pushed for the Vikings to select Tarvaris Jackson in the second round of the 2006 draft and vacillated on Jackson until the team signed Brett Favre, whose stormy relationship with Childress ended with the coach's ouster 10 months after the Vikings nearly reached the Super Bowl.

The bet here is that Zimmer won't make a rash decision with Bridgewater, not when the Vikings are set up so well to avoid one. In Cassel, who's signed for the next two seasons, they've got the perfect custodian for Bridgewater: a veteran who's solid enough to handle the job in the short term, but not entrenched enough to step aside without a fuss. And even Ponder, who will be a free agent after the season, has some usefulness in 2014, as an emergency option in case Cassel gets hurt (or struggles early) and Bridgewater isn't ready. The Vikings have done everything they can to construct a healthy atmosphere for Bridgewater's growth. The key to the whole thing, though, is a coach who's patient enough to let it work. Zimmer might get only one shot as a head coach, and he's got something of a cushion this season, with the Vikings moving into a temporary home while trying to remodel their defense. One poor season won't cost the coach his job, but mismanagement of the quarterback situation ultimately could. Especially with offensive coordinator Norv Turner at his side, Zimmer should have the good sense to avoid the potholes his predecessors hit.

So how does this all play out? The 2012 Seattle Seahawks might provide a good blueprint. They signed Matt Flynn to a three-year deal worth just $9 million guaranteed, giving themselves a quarterback they could play if Russell Wilson wasn't ready to start. When Wilson ultimately won the competition, the Seahawks were free to trade Flynn a year later. Only time will tell if Bridgewater turns out to be as good as Wilson has been -- the Vikings QB has looked sharp to this point, albeit only against defenses prohibited from hitting him -- but if he can take advantage of the situation, Minnesota has the mechanisms in place to make it work, just as the Seahawks did.

For Bridgewater to get on the field in September, he should have to prove he's unequivocally the best man for the job. Otherwise, with the Vikings facing a nasty early schedule, a tie should go to the veteran. It's a good, sensible construct for the rookie coach and quarterback, and with so many recent cautionary tales about the costs of quarterback foul-ups, the Vikings would be wise to take advantage of it.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Nate Burleson will run out onto the Metrodome turf Sunday morning, look around for a minute and in those moments right there, the veteran wide receiver figures all of the emotions will come back to him.

He’ll look around at where he used to play, at the place he once called home and take everything in for a moment. He’ll chat with some fans and perhaps look out into the crowd to see if he sees any old No. 81 Burleson jerseys still lingering amongst the fans.

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Brad Mills/USA TODAY SportsLions receiver Nate Burleson will return to the Metrodome Sunday to face his former team.
Minnesota drafted him in the third round of the 2003 draft. He stepped on to a team with Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss and the two of them, combined with other Vikings, shaped the mindset of his entire career.

So there is symmetry here for the Detroit Lions veteran wide receiver.

“It hasn’t really hit me yet,” Burleson said. “I think once I go out and run on the field, that’s when it’s going to hit me. Probably fall on me like a ton of bricks. Might get emotional.

“Every time I go back, there’s still people that remember me and show me love. Occasionally I’ll see an old 81 jersey over there with my name on it. It’s a trip, man, to know that people still support you and love you and can appreciate you, even if you’re in a different jersey.”

There’s more than that. Sunday will be closing time for the Metrodome, the place Burleson broke into the league and learned so much of what he needed to know as a 21-year old rookie from Nevada.

And he knows there’s a chance Sunday might be more than closing time for the stadium he broke into the league in, the place he caught his first touchdown as a pro against San Francisco his rookie year, when he celebrated with a little shimmy dance.

He knows there’s a chance Sunday could be it for him, too. The Lions collapse at the end of the season means there could be change in the organization coming soon after the final game and he knows that could mean a change for him as well.

All season, he has said he wants Detroit to be the last place he plays. He doesn’t want to uproot his family again. Doesn’t want to start over again as a thirty-something on a new team (he’ll turn 33 during training camp next year), especially if it isn’t a contender.

Burleson is under contract for next season and has indicated he would restructure his deal if it meant he could stay in Detroit. But that isn’t a guarantee. So Sunday could be it for him, too.

“It’s a strong possibility, yeah, I’m not afraid to talk about it,” Burleson said. “It is a possibility. And it’s fitting that I would go back and play at the place where it all started.

“There’s always some type of story behind the football game, which makes it that much more interesting to play.”

And Sunday will be all about endings. The somewhat meaningless ending of a season for two teams not heading to the playoffs. The potential end of two head coaching tenures for both Minnesota's Leslie Frazier and Detroit's Jim Schwartz. The end of an era of Minnesota football with the shuttering of the Metrodome.

And possibly the end of some careers.

Understand, Burleson wants to return. He would like to play one more season with the Lions and feels he has enough left to be a contributor on a team that, talent-wise, should be among the better ones in the league.

But that isn’t entirely up to him.

So while he hasn’t thought too much about beginnings and endings this week, how the start of a career and the end of one could take place in the same place, he has his memories.

Like playing on the Metrodome turf and thinking it was so fast and “getting scraped up every single game,” but lined up next to Moss and Culpepper.

Like when professional wrestler Brock Lesnar showed up during Burleson’s second season in Minnesota and was “bodyslamming people in the midst of a brawl.” Or when his coach, Mike Tice, ran out on the field during a midseason practice.

“(Lesnar), that was my second year,” Burleson said. “He was bigger than life. It was just crazy, man, chaos.

“And Mike Tice running out with his pads on because he wanted to hype the team up in the middle of the season. Talk about let’s do hitting drills. It was a fun atmosphere, man. It was a fun atmosphere. I thoroughly enjoyed playing with the Minnesota Vikings.”

Burleson has enjoyed his entire career, from Minnesota to his hometown in Seattle and finally to Detroit, a city he has adopted as his own and a place he feels completely comfortable in.

So it’s been a fun ride for Burleson. Just one that has an uncertain future after Sunday.

“I wasn’t thinking about it but how it all worked out and not knowing where I’m going to be next year, you know, it’s exciting,” Burleson said. “I’m embracing the moment.”
LONDON -- It was just about eight years ago that Daunte Culpepper had his last great game with the Vikings, and one of his last great days in the NFL. Culpepper threw for 300 yards on Sept. 25, 2005, passing for three touchdowns in a 33-16 Vikings win over the New Orleans Saints. But Culpepper tore his ACL just over a month later, and only started 20 NFL games in his next four seasons before turning up in the United Football League on his way to retirement.

[+] EnlargeDaunte Culpepper
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY Sports Daunte Culpepper still holds the Vikings record for TD passes in a season with 39.
Culpepper's exit from Minnesota was punctuated by a lengthy dispute with coach Brad Childress over how the quarterback would rehab his knee injury, and his last game with the Vikings came in a season tainted by the Vikings' now-famous "Love Boat" scandal during their bye week. But Culpepper, now 36, said he has fond memories and no regrets about his time in Minnesota.

"All good memories," Culpepper said after the NFL International Series Fan Forum on Saturday. "I would have loved to stay there my whole career. That's just how it happens in the business sometimes. People move on. But my memories of Minnesota were excellent -- every game was sold out. We had some games I wish we could have won, but overall, it was a positive experience for me. The fans were absolutely wonderful."

Culpepper reportedly lost his 10,000-square foot home in South Florida to foreclosure last summer, and opened a restaurant near his alma mater (Central Florida) soon after. The restaurant -- a sports bar named Culpepper's -- was a nine-month project before it opened, the quarterback said, and he's spending the rest of his time with his wife and children in Florida.

He threw 39 touchdowns -- still a Vikings single-season record -- the year before he injured his knee, and finished as MVP runner-up to Peyton Manning, forming one of the league's most dangerous deep-ball combinations with Randy Moss. Even on Saturday, Culpepper said he had chills recalling his favorite moments in the NFL: watching fans stand up in their seats while one of his 60-yard passes to Moss sailed through the air.

But Culpepper said he doesn't think back much to what happened after that 2004 season, when Moss was traded to Oakland and the quarterback injured his knee. Nor does he wonder what might have been had he stayed healthy.

He was even a good sport about the last question of the event, when a British fan in a Steelers jersey asked Culpepper if he'd be bringing any of his "friends" out for a cruise on the Thames River; Culpepper posed for a picture with the fan and his son afterward.

"I played the game the same way the whole time," he said. "I played to win. Whatever I had to do to try and win, I was going to do it. Every game I always wanted to be able to look myself in the mirror and say, 'Hey, I put everything out there.' I don’t regret anything about how I played the game."
DAVIE, Fla. -- It’s an old story in South Florida, but it's definitely an interesting one. There was a time when New Orleans Saints Pro Bowler Drew Brees nearly became the Miami Dolphins' franchise quarterback.

Brees
Brees was a free-agent quarterback in 2006. The Dolphins and Saints were the two biggest suitors. However, Brees was coming off a major shoulder injury, which put fear in the Dolphins.

Miami wound up backing out of the Brees sweepstakes and signed Daunte Culpepper instead. New Orleans signed Brees and went on to multiple playoff seasons and one Super Bowl victory, while the Dolphins struggled with the quarterback position.

“I do believe I was their first choice, but at the end of the day I felt like New Orleans was the best fit for me for a lot of reasons, not just football,” Brees said on Thursday’s conference call with the Miami media. “I know they ran me through a round of physicals and evaluations and all kinds of stuff when I was there, which was not a good experience obviously. But I understood. They were going to put a big investment in me, so they wanted to make sure.”

Brees said he recalls Miami’s doctors saying he had about a 25 percent chance of playing in the NFL again. Obviously, they were wrong. Brees, 34, has been one of the NFL’s most durable and productive quarterbacks. He missed just one game in New Orleans over the past eight seasons.

It's a small sidebar to Monday’s battle of undefeated teams, but it’s interesting nonetheless. Brees has moved on and so have the Dolphins, who finally have a young gunslinger in second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

“Here’s the thing: We can sit back and chuckle at it now, but there’s no hard feelings,” Brees explained of his Miami experience. “Everything happened the way it was supposed to. I don’t think about it for a second. I really don’t.”
Of the 16 contracts signed by NFL players with a maximum value of at least $100 million, no one has ever earned $70 million in those non-guaranteed deals. That will change this year with Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, according to ESPN Stats & Information's John Parolin.

Roethlisberger is scheduled to receive $11.6 million this year ($9 million in a bonus as part of a restructured contract), which will give him $76.5 million from an eight-year, $102 million deal that he signed in March 2008. The most any NFL player had received from a $100 million contract was $69 million (Donovan McNabb).

This will likely be all that Roethlisberger will get from his current deal. Roethlisberger is in line for an extension after this season because his salary-cap number will be around $18 million and restructuring his contract this time won't free up much cap room. Plus, an extension would probably guarantee the 31-year-old Roethlisberger finishing his career with the Steelers.

Of the eight completed $100 million contracts in the NFL, only McNabb and Brett Favre earned over 50 percent of the maximum value of the contract. Daunte Culpepper only received $19 million from his $102 million deal signed in 2003 and is now facing foreclosure on his South Florida home.

Of the eight active $100 million contracts, Drew Brees is second behind Roethlisberger, receiving $40 million.

The new contracts for Darrelle Revis in Tampa Bay and Kam Chancellor in Seattle will be interesting to analyze once the figures can be confirmed.

Initial reports tend to focus on maximum payouts, which can be misleading. Sometimes the new money available through an extension produces a misleading new average per year.

For context, John Parolin of ESPN Stats & Information recently put together charts showing how much money players received after signing deals reportedly worth at least $100 million. The answer was less than 50 percent in most cases.

The first chart examines the numbers for contracts that are no longer active.

The second chart shows how much money players have received on active contracts with maximum values of at least $100 million. It counts the $29 million signing bonus associated with Joe Flacco's deal as money already paid.

Randy Moss the greatest? Let's discuss

January, 29, 2013
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Randy MossDerick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsThe 49ers' Randy Moss doesn't lack self-confidence during Tuesday's Super Bowl media day.
NEW ORLEANS -- One day after San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh took on President Barack Obama, receiver Randy Moss challenged Jerry Rice's status as the NFL's greatest receiver.

Wait, weren't the AFC champion Baltimore Ravens supposed to be the big talkers during Super Bowl week? They're multiple-syllable underdogs at this point.

Moss stole the show at Super Bowl media day by declaring himself the greatest receiver of all time.

"I think I'm the greatest receiver to ever do it," Moss said. "Because I think back when Jerry was playing -- and no disrespect to Jerry Rice, because he's arguably the greatest -- but for me to be able to go out here and change and revolutionize the game from a single safety to a Cover 2 safety and dropping three guys deep and dropping four guys deep and still be able to make it happen? That is why I really hold my hat on that, that I really feel in my heart and in my mind that I am the greatest receiver to ever play this game."

If Rice had the greatest career of any receiver in NFL history, which seems indisputable based on longevity and raw numbers, Moss at his best was arguably the most feared.

Moss was faster. I think he was more athletic. If both receivers were to line up on opposite sides of the formation while in their prime, defenses would face a dilemma. I think they would fear Rice more on shorter and intermediate routes. I think they would fear Moss more on deeper routes.

Rice benefited from beginning his career under Bill Walsh and spending most of it with either Joe Montana or Steve Young throwing passes to him. That doesn't diminish his achievements, in my view.

Rice dominated. He reached 1,000 yards receiving 14 times. Moss did it 10 times. Rice scored at least nine touchdowns in a season 12 times. Moss did it nine times. Each had nine seasons with at least 10 touchdowns. Rice had four seasons with at least 1,500 yards. Moss had one. Rice had six seasons with at least 1,400 yards. Moss had four.

Moss also played with a couple of Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks in Tom Brady and Brett Favre, but the years he spent with them were exceptions, not the norm. Brad Johnson, Randall Cunningham, Jeff George, Daunte Culpepper, Todd Bouman, Spergon Wynn, Gus Frerotte, Kerry Collins, Andrew Walter, Aaron Brooks, Matt Cassel, Vince Young, Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick have also thrown passes his way.

To this point, Rice's status as the greatest has been pretty much assumed. Those with a strong grasp of league history might acknowledge Don Hutson's achievements as unique. However, Rice is an overwhelming choice as the best receiver in NFL history.

An ESPN.com panel featuring Raymond Berry, Boyd Dowler, Mike Holmgren, Ken Houston, Warren Moon, Keyshawn Johnson and Ted Thompson voted Rice first and Moss second in anonymous voting five years ago.

"Jerry Rice, he's so obvious, it scares me," Dowler said at the time.


Mike Tice Jerry Lai/US PresswireMike Tice may have more of a role as an offensive "manager" than that of a traditional coordinator.

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- It shouldn't be this difficult. Finding Mike Tice on a football field should be easy. Just look up and listen.

Tice stands 6-foot-8 and has a deep voice he employs liberally during practices. It's hard to miss. So on the opening day of the Chicago Bears' training camp, I looked over to the spot where you normally find an NFL offensive coordinator. But as the Bears' quarterbacks warmed up, there was no Mike Tice.

I checked the receiver group. Couldn't see or hear him. Tight ends? Nope.

It wasn't until I located the offensive line that I caught a glimpse of him, my first clue that the Bears have crafted a unique -- but, I think, appropriate -- arrangement to operate their offense this season.

More than ever, NFL offensive coordinators rise from a quarterback background, developed as a player or an assistant coach or both. In the NFC North, for example, we have the Detroit Lions' Scott Linehan (college quarterback, quarterbacks coach) and the Minnesota Vikings' Bill Musgrave (NFL quarterback and quarterbacks coach). It's not a requirement for the job, but consider it a nod toward the increased importance of quarterbacks at this level.

Tice, on the other hand, will run the Bears' offense through the line -- a dream of many offensive line coaches that rarely comes to fruition. The idea, after the Bears spent two years struggling to meld their scheme with personnel, is to build an offense around quarterback Jay Cutler but operate it within the context of what the offensive line can handle.

It was an idea that initially sounded unappealing to Tice, who settled into a position coach's life over the past seven years after a rocky end to his tenure as the Minnesota Vikings' head coach. But given the opportunity to fashion the job to his strengths and expertise, Tice reconsidered.

"The more I thought about it," he said, "I thought, 'Who knows the offense we have better than I do? Who knows the line? Who knows how to protect the line better than I do? Who knows how to hide their flaws better than I do?' I've got a great relationship with the quarterback, [Devin] Hester, the tight ends, Why not?"

Based on Thursday's initial practice, and a subsequent interview, it's safe to assume Tice will spend a majority of his time with the offensive line. During practice, he'll break away only for seven-on-seven drills, leaving offensive line coach Tim Holt to run one-on-one blocking drills, and he'll spend about half of his total meeting time in the line's room. Meanwhile, newcomer Jeremy Bates will be Cutler's position coach and a key conduit of the passing game.

It would be easy to conclude, as I was prepared to, that in reality Tice is the Bears' blocking and running coordinator while Bates is the passing game coordinator. Tice, however, insisted that will not happen and said it is important "to be involved in the passing game and all facets and not just have a situation where I handle the runs and protection and someone else handles the passing game."

So how will it all work?

From what I can gather, Tice has crafted an offense that blends the power running game he learned from longtime NFL coach Joe Gibbs, elements of the West Coast passing game culled from Bates' career path and a downfield portion Tice used with the Vikings. Tice will call plays from the sideline, but he'll leave an important segment to Cutler -- who will get a pass-run option based on defensive alignments. (Tice once famously dubbed this element his "Duh offense" because it asks quarterbacks to audible to a pass when defenses are aligned against the run and vice versa.)

"We want to be able to do everything," Tice said. "We want to be able to catch and run. We want to be able to throw it deep. We want to be able to play-action, we want to be able to move the pocket. We want to be able to run the ball explosively. It's really not that different than what we did in Minnesota.

"I think Jeremy Bates has done a nice job of putting in his version of the West Coast scheme, which is nice. We melded that with the long stuff that we used to do in Minnesota and we kept our run game intact. Now we have the run game that you'll recognize. The quarterback has a lot to manage on the line of scrimmage, just like [Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper]. And we'll see what happens."

Without knowing the details, it's reasonable to be skeptical of an arrangement that shifts a longtime offensive line coach to the coordinator's role. But in this instance, I think it can work, especially if you consider Tice in the role of offensive "manager" rather than a traditional coordinator.

He'll make liberal use of Bates, an intense film rat who is best suited in a role of scheming by candlelight in his office. He'll rely heavily on Cutler, a veteran with strong opinions on what best suits his skills. And Tice will most assuredly do one thing that hasn't happened for at least two years in Chicago: He'll take into account the strengths and weaknesses of the offensive line when developing a game plan.

Is it unconventional? Sure. Does it have risks? Of course. But for this team at this time, it makes sense.
The New Orleans Saints are going to hear about their 0-4 road record in the playoffs. The record is misleading, but not necessarily irrelevant heading into their divisional-round game against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park.

A look back through those four defeats can provide some context:
  • 2010: lost at Seattle, 41-36, in the divisional round. The Seahawks were easy to underestimate as a 7-9 division winner. Matt Hasselbeck and Marshawn Lynch turned in memorable performances. Drew Brees passed for 404 yards, but only two scoring passes. Seattle overcame a 17-7 deficit. The Saints ran out of running backs and became one-dimensional.
  • 2006: lost at Chicago, 39-14, in the NFC title game. Brees passed for 354 yards and two touchdowns. The Bears' Rex Grossman completed only 11 of 26 passes for 144 yards, but Chicago suffered no turnovers. The Bears rushed 46 times for 196 yards and three touchdowns. This matchup resembles the Saints-49ers matchup in some ways. Those Bears were 13-3. They were stronger on defense and special teams than on offense. The current 49ers have done a much better job avoiding turnovers. Grossman had 20 picks in 2006, whereas Alex Smith has only five this season.
  • 2000: lost at Minnesota, 34-16, in the divisional round. Those Vikings had Randy Moss (121 yards) and Cris Carter (120 yards) catching passes from a pre-injury Daunte Culpepper (302 yards). Jim Haslett was coaching the Saints. Aaron Brooks was their quarterback. Totally irrelevant to the matchup this week.
  • 1990: lost at Chicago, 16-6, in the wild-card round. This one also lacks relevance unless the Saints bring John Fourcade out of retirement to replace Brees. Fourcade completed 5 of 18 passes for 79 yards as the Saints' quarterback. Jim Harbaugh was the Bears' primary starting quarterback that season, but he was hurt. Mike Tomczak started this game in his place.

The 0-4 road record sounds bad, and it is, but only two of those defeats came with Brees and coach Sean Payton on the New Orleans payroll. The Saints were much better offensively in 2011 than they were last season or in 2006. What will that mean Saturday?

Judgment Day coming for the Vikings

October, 25, 2011
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PonderBruce Kluckhohn/US PresswireChristian Ponder, the Vikings' 2011 first-round pick, made his first start this week.
Two ingredients are mandatory for the success of an NFL franchise.

You need a quarterback to win games and a modern stadium to make money.

And at this moment, it's uncertain if the Minnesota Vikings have either.

So pardon the dramatics, if you will, but I truly believe the Vikings are entering the most critical time period in their 51-year existence.

During the month, they will find out if the state of Minnesota will finance a new stadium or risk losing them to another market. And by the end of 2011, the Vikings should have a decent idea whether rookie Christian Ponder is a true franchise quarterback or just the next in a long line of short-term starters.

Check out the chart to your right. Since their inception in 1961, the Vikings have had only three quarterbacks I would consider long-term starters. Fran Tarkenton (13 seasons), Tommy Kramer (seven) and Daunte Culpepper (five) are the only quarterbacks to have been the Vikings' primary starter for more than three seasons.

The Vikings have filled the other 26 years with a mishmash of journeymen (Gary Cuozzo, Wade Wilson, Rich Gannon) and big-time veterans at the end of their careers (Warren Moon, Brett Favre, Randall Cunningham and Jim McMahon). Their hope is that Ponder, 23, will put an end to their annual search for a Band-Aid solution.

If first impressions mean anything, Sunday's debut performance against the Green Bay Packers was encouraging. Ponder threw aggressively downfield; seven of his 13 completions went for at least 15 yards. He was mobile, routinely buying extra time outside of the pocket and gaining 31 yards on four scrambles. And he without question brought an energy and confidence to an offense that seemed to be treading water for the season's first six games.

"He took charge with confidence," tailback Adrian Peterson said. "He never seemed rattled. Just very comfortable, which is something I am very excited about. He bounced back from two interceptions and continued to go strong, which says a lot about him as a leader."

Peterson said the difference was "definitely very noticeable" and, as someone who just signed a seven-year contract extension, seemed optimistic about the franchise's future.

Smart Vikings observers know not to overreact to the emotional debut of a quarterback candidate, and there are plenty of unanswered questions about Ponder's long-term viability. After watching him float a few passes to the Packers' secondary, I would rank arm strength atop that list. But the next nine games should give us a good sense of where his career is headed.

If all goes well, Ponder will be the Vikings' quarterback when they open their next stadium. Where that facility will be located, of course, remains a topic of fierce debate both in Minnesota and in the NFL offices.

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Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesThe Vikings' lease at the Metrodome, their home since 1982, expires in less than four months.
The Vikings' lease at the Metrodome expires in less than four months -- on Feb. 1, 2012. A top league official has already acknowledged the Vikings would be free to pursue relocation options at that point, and owner Zygi Wilf has said he won't sign a short-term lease extension at the Metrodome without financing approval for a new stadium.

Without a deal in place by Feb. 1, the Vikings could technically move to Los Angeles or another market in time for the 2012 season, provided NFL owners grant approval. That timetable has finally moved a decade-long conundrum to the front burner of Minnesota politics, putting enormous pressure on a resolution -- one way or the other -- before Thanksgiving.

Gov. Mark Dayton has set a Nov. 7 deadline for settling on a project site and plan. Wilf prefers a suburban site for a project that would cost $1.1 billion, but powerful members of the business community are pushing for a site in Minneapolis. After making his recommendation, Dayton will oversee two weeks of debate and public hearings prior to a proposed Nov. 21 special session of the state legislature to vote on the final package.

Anything short of approval at that point almost certainly would push the next round of debate past the expiration of the Vikings' lease.

Would Wilf commence relocation efforts next February? Last week, NFL executive vice president Eric Grubman told 1500ESPN.com: "[T]hey are free to explore their options and from all I know they already could be exploring their options. They do not need clearance from us."

It's more likely that Wilf would put the franchise up for sale under that scenario. Presumably, the new buyer would pursue relocation. In either event, we'll know in a matter of weeks whether that possibility will even exist. Barring an extension of Dayton's pre-holiday deadline, Judgment Day is coming for the Vikings -- both on and off the field.
There has been considerable debate this week on whether the Minnesota Vikings could have, or should have, waited to find a less formidable opponent than the Super Bowl champions for rookie quarterback Christian Ponder's first NFL start.

My take: Ponder was the No. 12 overall pick of the draft and a player the Vikings are counting on to lead them for a decade or longer. There should be no concern about protecting him from fierce opponents, now or ever. If they were afraid to play Ponder against the archrival Green Bay Packers, then I would be concerned for both his and their future.

With that said, it's fair to point out that only five rookie quarterbacks in NFL history have made their first start against the defending NFL champion. As the chart below shows, the Arizona Cardinals' Max Hall was the only such rookie to win that start.

It's interesting to note that former Vikings quarterback Tommy Kramer is on the list as well. Kramer and Ponder are two of only three quarterbacks the Vikings have ever drafted in the first round. (Daunte Culpepper in 1999 was the other.) That two of them will have made their first start against the defending champions is interesting to me, if not to anyone else.

Regardless, Ponder will step on the field Sunday in front of a fan base that couldn't have higher expectations for him. Nothing like starting off in the pressure cooker, huh?

"I don't think anyone's expectations have been higher than what I put on myself," he said. "I have high expectations for myself and I prepare myself for success. When things don't go my way, I make sure that they do. I am a perfectionist and I am going to do everything I can and reach my expectations."

StaffordJason Miller/Getty ImagesLions quarterback Matthew Stafford has looked poised for a breakthrough year this preseason.
The Fever is at its pitch. The Detroit Lions are 3-0 this preseason and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has bulled into the head (sometimes literally) of every quarterback he has faced. But for now, at least, I suggest you put Suh's newfound celebrity aside and consider the most important development for the Lions this summer.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford has arrived.

(Cue the "It's preseason for cripes-sakes, you hyperbolic two-bit blogger" response.)

I fully recognize Stafford hasn't done anything that counts in 2011. And yes, there is great danger in drawing dramatic conclusions from 31 preseason passes. But if you've watched those throws, and if you've seen Stafford running the offense in training camp, it's reasonable to consider him in a new light.

Does this mean Stafford will rank among the NFL's top 10 quarterbacks this season? You know how irrelevant I think such rankings are. To me, the important point is that Stafford can be the difference this season between an entertaining Lions team and a winning one.

With all due respect to Suh, only a quarterback can singularly impact a team's winning percentage. Some quarterbacks aren't up to it. This summer, Stafford has shown us he can be.

"It's hard because he's missed a lot of time on the field [in his first two seasons]," Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. "But you can see the ownership he's taken in this offense. ... It's not just me talking in the meeting rooms anymore. He's spot on. He's going to have a great career, I really think."

Now in his third season with Stafford, Linehan should know. At every NFL stop, Linehan and his staff have coaxed substantial improvement even from established veterans. In his third year with the Minnesota Vikings, Linehan presided over quarterback Daunte Culpepper's 4,717-yard, 39-touchdown season in 2004. The following year, he resurrected veteran Gus Frerotte's career with the Miami Dolphins.

Now, Linehan appears to be putting the final touches on Stafford, whose development has been overshadowed by two well-chronicled years in injury rehabilitation. In both the preseason and in the training camp practices I covered, Stafford displayed a level of accuracy and confidence that comes only with multiple years in a good system.

That development has manifested during the games in this way: 24 completions in 31 attempts for 356 yards and five touchdowns. Stafford hasn't been intercepted and has a near-perfect 154.0 passer rating. He has looked as comfortable throwing touch passes to the back of the end zone, especially to receiver Nate Burleson, as he has in launching ropes to tight ends in the seam or aiming back-shoulder passes to receiver Calvin Johnson.


I've tried to provide some context for that preseason performance in the chart. It's important that you note I am not suggesting Stafford has risen into the stratosphere occupied by Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. What I do want to note is that Rodgers annually has put up some inflated preseason numbers that have drawn attention and suggested he was on the cusp of greatness.

Rodgers, however, has never had a preseason as efficient as what Stafford has produced through three games.

"The only thing that has set Matthew back before this have been [the injuries]," Linehan said. "He's had his share of bad luck early on, and he needs to put that all behind him and not even think about it."

I'm guessing Stafford reached that point last Saturday night, when the New England Patriots sacked him once and hit him on two other occasions. Most notably, Stafford absorbed a crushing hit from free-blitzing linebacker Jerod Mayo, resulting in a rare underthrow. But Johnson quickly adjusted to haul in a 30-yard reception.

Linehan said Stafford is a "really smart guy, even though he isn't one to tell you that." More than anything, when I sat with Stafford for a few minutes in training camp, I got a sense that Stafford has fully bought in to how successful he can be in this scheme with the skill players the Lions have surrounded him with. When he gets hit and can't follow through on a throw, for example, he knows he has players like Johnson who can make the adjustment.

"I love playing in this offense," Stafford said. "I'm a big fan. You've got answers versus everything, and [Linehan] gives a lot of control to the quarterback, which is fun for me and good for me. I know when I'm protected, I know when I'm hot, that kind of stuff. But we have the personnel to be really good. We've got three really good tight ends, four or five really good receivers. We have a lot of special talent."

Public discussion about Stafford naturally has centered on his injuries, mostly in the absence of any new developments on the field. I think we've seen enough this summer to move the conversation forward. It's time to start discussing Matthew Stafford in the context of his skills and performance. He has taken that step, and Lions are poised to follow him.
An attempt at perspective regarding San Francisco 49ers-related happenings:

  • The 49ers and Maybin: The Buffalo Bills released Aaron Maybin at least in part because he wasn't a good fit for a 3-4 defense. The 49ers run a 3-4 defense. Not all 3-4s are created the same. Perhaps the 49ers could find a spot for Maybin. It's easy to see why Maybin would want to play for the 49ers. He and 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman were roommates at Penn State. Maybin, Bowman and 49ers tight end Vernon Davis grew up in Maryland. Side note: Maybin was the 11th player chosen in the 2009 draft. The 49ers used the 10th pick that year for Michael Crabtree. Update: Rule out Maybin.
  • Separation at quarterback: So, starting quarterback Alex Smith has tightened his grip on the job over the past couple days. It's an upset if Smith isn't the starter for Week 1 of the regular season. As a former quarterback, coach Jim Harbaugh should know when a quarterback needs a boost. Smith might have needed one after a rough preseason opener and speculation over the 49ers' intentions for the position amid news that Daunte Culpepper worked out for the team.
  • No deal yet for Culpepper: Taking a look at Culpepper opened the 49ers to easy ridicule. Were they really desperate enough at quarterback to consider a 34-year-old UFL passer whose last NFL snap came during the 2009 season? Yes and no. The team would like to add a veteran backup before the season. Doing so wouldn't necessarily affect the team's broader plans for the position. The 49ers know they can wait on Culpepper. Other teams aren't rushing out to sign him. In the meantime, the team can consider its options.

Any Buffalo Bills fans out there with thoughts on Maybin?
Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper and San Diego's Jim Harbaugh were the starting quarterbacks for a Vikings-Chargers preseason game on Aug. 12, 2000.

Culpepper
Culpepper
That was a long, long time ago by NFL standards. Enough time has passed to encompass nearly all of Culpepper's playing career, and for Harbaugh to have held three head coaching jobs in the interim.

Culpepper, now 34 and out of the NFL since the 2009 season, seems an unlikely candidate to provide veteran depth for the Harbaugh-coached San Francisco 49ers.

"We're going to bring in Daunte in for a workout and kick the tires," Harbaugh told reporters Sunday."I'm looking forward to that."

Two questions come to mind immediately: Culpepper? Really?

The 49ers' plans to add a veteran backup for the regular season are well founded. Starter Alex Smith has had injury problems. He took a beating in the first preseason game. Rookie backup Colin Kaepernick needs seasoning.

If the 49ers added Culpepper, they could carry him through camp, see how he fares, then reassess later in the process -- after other quarterbacks become available through release.

The 49ers released David Carr earlier this offseason because he was making solid No. 2 quarterback money and the team didn't value him at that level after re-signing Smith and using a second-round pick for Kaepernick.

Culpepper would sign for the veteran's minimum, presumably, and without guaranteed money. He spent last season playing for the UFL franchise in Sacramento.

Did 'Madden 12' snub Mannings, Brady?

March, 25, 2011
3/25/11
10:43
AM ET
If there truly is a "Madden" curse, perhaps it's not reserved for the player who appears on the video game's cover each year.

Maybe the real curse is in choosing him.

"It's very polarizing," said Anthony Stevenson, senior product manager for EA Sports, the game's manufacturer. "No matter what we do, half the people will be really, really happy, and half the people will hate it."

Not even turning the process over to the people will solve EA Sports' annual problem. For the first time in the game's 23 years, fans can vote for their favorite team to be on the "Madden NFL 12" cover.

A representative for each of the 32 clubs has been seeded in a single-elimination tournament. A weeklong vote will be held for each round until a champion is announced April 27 on ESPN. Fans also can participate in a March Madness-style bracket challenge to predict the outcome.

Funzo democracy at work, right?

Turns out, folks aren't entirely thrilled with the individual nominees. Reigning MVP Tom Brady and perennial fan favorite Peyton Manning aren't in the field. The Miami Dolphins and Carolina Panthers are represented by offensive tackles. The Seattle Seahawks' option isn't a player at all.

One of the rumors making the rounds is that unusual nominees were required because some stars declined an invitation, that they were afraid of the so-called "Madden" curse.

Eddie George, Daunte Culpepper, Michael Vick, Vince Young and Brett Favre are among the supposedly doomed honorees.

Stevenson doesn't buy the connection, although fans have started Facebook campaigns for their favorite players not to get votes.

"People do believe there's a curse with Sports Illustrated covers or 'Madden' covers," Stevenson said. "As an NFL player, you cannot believe in that. If you believe in something like that, then you concede when you step on the field, and something bad happens it's not in your control.

"If you believe in a curse, you're probably in trouble. You're asking to get hurt. Athletes want to believe their well-being and their success or failure is 100 percent in their hands."

In fact, Stevenson sees the opposite of a curse when it comes to the "Madden" video-game franchise.

"All of our past cover athletes get together every year, and it's almost like the '72 Dolphins," Stevenson said. "They get together, and it's literally a fraternity."

This year's pledge period is a tournament bracket.

Stevenson called Thursday to explain why a few of the more interesting nominees were chosen.

[+] EnlargeDanny Woodhead
EA SportsDanny Woodhead's story was one reason he was picked over league MVP Tom Brady.
On the decision to nominate New England Patriots running back Danny Woodhead instead of Brady:
"Tom Brady has been there and done that, and certainly he's very deserving of a 'Madden' cover. But Danny Woodhead is such a unique story people fell in love with. He was on 'Hard Knocks.' We followed the emotional cut from the New York Jets. We know Rex Ryan didn't want to let him go. And then to see that division rival pick him up and how integral he was to that Patriots offense ... if you wanted to put a campaign around him from cut to cover, that's just tough to pass up. Everybody loves an underdog."

On choosing the 12th Man for the Seahawks:
"It's the only team that doesn't have an actual player. It's the 12th Man, and the simplest explanation I can give for that is to see the Saints-Seahawks playoff game. That's really all you need to know. They have this unique fan element to it. The 12th Man is legit."

On bypassing Manning for Dwight Freeney for the Indianapolis Colts:
"Like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning is justified to be on the cover any year. But it almost feels that while [Manning] had a very good year, it wasn't his best year. Statistically, it probably was his least successful year in the last five or six. To do it this year seemed a little bit off.
"Dwight Freeney is one of the most feared defenders in the league. We just thought this was something Dwight Freeney could get excited about and get behind and be a brand ambassador."

On choosing the Green Bay Packers' nominee, Aaron Rodgers:
"Green Bay was really difficult. Clay Matthews is a very compelling personality right now. That was a tough decision, but at the end of the day, if you win Super Bowl MVP, you're going to get the nod. But it was a struggle."

On the New York Giants' decision:
"There's Eli Manning. There's Ahmad Bradshaw. But in the end we went with Hakeem Nicks because I felt like he's really the game-changer on that team. He's an up-and-coming wide receiver. I don't think anybody would be shocked if he was a top-three wide receiver at the end of next season. I thought he was fresh blood that would be very interesting."
[+] EnlargeJake Long
EA SportsJake Long is the Dolphins' representative for the "Madden NFL 12" cover tournament.
On selecting left tackle Jake Long over a Dolphins skill-position player such as receiver Brandon Marshall:
"Jake Long's play on the field speaks for itself. But having that lineman -- along with [Carolina Panthers tackle] Jordan Gross -- is something we've never had. We wanted to give fans options. If there wasn't an absolutely obvious choice, and for the Dolphins there wasn't, why not give fans an opportunity to vote for an offensive lineman?"

Controversial nominees only help in getting fans enthused about the process.

In addition to creating buzz for the product, the "Madden NFL 12" cover tournament provides a distraction from an otherwise depressing time for the NFL.

"We thought it was really important to give our fans something to be excited about, put a positive spin on the NFL offseason," Stevenson said. "We're making a concerted effort to engage our fans and let them know that there's still going to be a new, innovating game coming out in August. And, if anything, football fans and 'Madden' fans can take solace in that.

"'Madden' potentially could help fill a void this year. Just because Tom Brady can't lead the Patriots to the Super Bowl doesn't mean you can't. You can still do that in 'Madden' and get your football fix."

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