Wednesday, September 29, 2004

A Sharper Pepper?

Since their inception, the Vikings have created in their fan base high expectations. Those expectation rose dramatically in the 1970s with the emergence of the Purple People Eaters defense.

But while the focus of the great Vikings' teams of the 1970s was on the defense, the QB always seemed to be at the eye of any storm--a trend that has continued through the present day. When the Vikings have lost, the fans have usually looked to the offense and the QB, whether it was Tarkenton, Kramer, Gannon, Dils, Moon, Johnson, McMahon, Cunningham, or George. It is, therefore, not suprising that fans continue to find flaws in the Vikings' QB, and that fans continue to ask whether the current QB is the best option.

This fan scrutiny applies not only to QBs donning Vikings' uniforms, but to every QB in the NFL. And for good reason, as the quarterback is the only player who touches the ball on every offensive snap. Therefore, the quarterback is in the best position to influence the offense in every game, and the first player that comes to mind when considering where a team might be able to improve its play.

At this point in the 2003 NFL season, many Vikings' fans could be excused for celebrating the insertion of Gus Frerotte into the starting QB role, following an injury to Daunte Culpepper near the end of the first half of the third game against Detroit. No matter what the coaches were saying, no matter how much many in the local media wanted to put a good face on it, Daunte's play in the first two plus games last season was less than stellar.

When players underperform, or just stink, coaches fall back on a pat refrain--"we don't measure the QB's performance by statistics, the QB is our emotional leader," they say. Yet, when the same QB has a QB rating over 100, the coach is the first to pump the player for offensive player of the week--not based on heart, but on stats. Therefore, stats seem to matter. And Daunte's stats through game three of last season were less than one would expect from a player recently inked to a 10-year contract, including a nice signing bonus.

On the road against the Packers in week 1, Daunte was 15/30 for 195 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs. Daunte also rushed nine times for 50 yards, but fumbled twice (losing both), and was sacked twice for -12 yards. The Vikings won the game 30-25 and Tice called Daunte's performance efficient.

In week 2, Daunte was 20/26 for 214 yards, 2 TDs and 0 INTs. He also carried the ball 7 times for 17 yards, fumbling three times (losing 1), and was sacked 3 times for -16 yards. Tice hailed Daunte's performance. I did not, despite a 24-13 home victory over the Bears.

At Detroit in week 3, Daunte was 7/13 for 105 yards, 0 TDs and 0 INTs. He rushed twice for 16 yards and 2 TDs with zero fumbles beforing an injury forced him to leave the game.

Week three looked like the week that Daunte was beginning to turn it around after two uninspiring games, though it is difficult to call 7/13 passing inspiring when it comes against Detroit's early-2003 defense.

While the first two plus games of 2003 left ample room for fans to wonder whether the Vikings' coaching staff should at least give Gus Frerrotte a shot at QB, Daunte was re-inserted into the starter's role after recovering from his injury. Unfortunately, Daunte's final three games of 2003 looked very much like the first three games of 2003.

Against Chicago, on the road, Daunte was 24/34 for 222 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT. Daunte rushed 4 times for 16 yards and was sacked twice for -7 yards. The Vikings lost on a game ending INT in the endzone.

Back in the cozy confines of the Metrodome the following week against KC's porous defense, Daunte was 20/29 for 260 yards, 3 TDs and 1 INT. Daunte also rushed 3 times for 16 yards, fumbling twice (recovering both), and was sacked twice for -14 yards. The Vikings won handily, 45-20.

On the last weekend of the season, at Arizona, Daunte was 18/28 for 197 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT against the worst defense in the NFL. Daunte also rushed 7 times for 40 yards, fumbled once (recovered), and was sacked 1 time for -5 yards. The Vikings lost despite sacking Arizona QB Josh McNown 8 times for -69 yards and holding Arizona to -17 yards of offense in the third quarter. Pitiful.

Virtually everyone who coached, wrote about, or spoke about the Vikings refused to place any blame on Daunte for the abysmal finish to 2003. And there is certainly ample support for criticizing the game plans in the last two road games, but Daunte's numbers simply do not immunize him from criticism.

Which brings us to the point of all this discussion--whether Daunte is a better quarterback this year than he was last year. The numbers, to date, are mixed, but the performance nevertheless appears improved over this time last year and over the last three games of 2003.

In week 1, at home, against the purported defensive juggernaut Dallas Cowboys, Daunte was 17/23 for 242 yards and 5 TDs. He rushed 6 times for 25 yards and was sacked twice for -0 yards. The Vikings crushed the Cowboys 35-17.

At Philly in week 2, Daunte was 37/47 for 343 yards, with 1 TD and 1 INT. He rushed 8 times for 41 yards, fumbled twice (losing one), and was sacked 4 times for -11 yards behind Adam Haayer's debut at right tackle. The Vikings lost 27-16.

Last week, the Vikings beat Chicago at home behind 19/30 passing by Daunte for 360 yards and 2 TDs. Daunte ran the ball 6 times for 13 yards and 1 TD, fumbling twice (recovering both), and was sacked 3 times for -10 yards.

Against Chicago and Dallas, Daunte's QB rating was over 130. And even against Philly, it was around 100. Daunte's performance against Dallas and Chicago was good enough to earn him NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors--an honor that suggests that, even if Daunte has flaws, his flaws are less than those held by his peers.

The QB rating tells us something about Daunte's performance this year versus last, in that it suggests that Daunte was very efficient in two games and above the norm (about 85-88) in the third game. Pretty good for any NFL QB.

Equally impressive is the fact that, despite injuries to his starting right tackle, blocking tight end, and center, and despite the dismal performance of Haayer in the Philly game and at the beginning of the Chicago game, Daunte, while feeling the heat and taking sacks, lost minimal yardage on sacks (-21 on 9 sacks versis -26 on 5 sacks in the last three games last season). That suggests that Daunte may be overcoming his greatest shortcoming--the deer in the headlights syndrome. No longer does Daunte freeze in the face of pressure, instead stepping up in the pocket and finding the outlet for what usually amounts to a fairly sizable gain.

And, although Daunte continues to put the ball on the ground, he has lost only one fumble this season. That doesn't mean that the fumbles don't hurt (despite Daunte's contention), as the fumbles amount to a loss of down and often mean the end of a potential scoring drive. But it suggests that Daunte is being more considerate of how he carries the ball. Against Chicago, on a play similar to the play in which he was stripped at the goal line against Philly, Daunte simply settled for a shorter gain, going to the ground early to protect the ball. That's smart running and a maturing QB.

One shortcoming that clearly carried over from last season, however, is Daunte's unsettling road results. Daunte simply has not won on the road. That has to change. And it will require the same kind of game that Daunte has played at home this year--minus the fumbles--for such a change to transpire. If that happens--and much of Daunte's road success hinges on the coaching staff's game planning and play calling--Daunte may shed his three greatest foibles in the same season. And that could save the Vikings and Tice.

Up Next: Can't a Brother Get Some Love?









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