MANKATO (AP) -- The crowds of fans were smaller than in recent years, but everything else was the same as the Minnesota Vikings reported to training camp Sunday. Among the similarities: another new quarterback.
Daunte Culpepper, a second-year player who took just six snaps last season, is expected to become the team's ninth starting quarterback in the last 10 years.
Culpepper, who arrived at Minnesota State University, Mankato carrying a bible and an orange Mongoose dirt bike, said he's undaunted by those who doubt he's ready for the NFL.
"By the time all is said and done, those guys are going to bite their words," he said.
The question of whether Culpepper can be a capable starter is just one of many uncertainties facing coach Dennis Green and the Vikings, although Green greeted the arrival of the season with his usual optimism.
"We look at this as a chance to be the best team we've ever had here in the nine years we've been here," Green said.
But this year's version of the Vikings looks nothing like the 1998 team that finished 15-1 and lost to the Falcons in the NFC title game. It doesn't even look much like last season's 10-6 squad, which lost 49-37 to the Rams in the second round of the playoffs.
To begin with, the offense won't amount to much -- regardless of what Culpepper does -- if the offensive line doesn't hold up. With Pro Bowlers Jeff Christy and Randall McDaniel now in Tampa Bay, Matt Birk has to prove he can play center, and left tackle Todd Steussie will need to rebound from last year's poor season after making the Pro Bowl in '98.
"This year, there's a little less margin of error for me personally," Birk said.
The secondary was regularly torched last season for big plays, and it won't help that Jimmy Hitchcock left for the Carolina Panthers. Robert Tate was switched from wide receiver to cornerback last year and second-year man Kenny Wright showed some signs of promise last season. But can any combination of Carlos Jones, Chris Rogers, Keith Thibodeaux, Carl Kidd or Don Morgan emerge from the pack of untested youngsters?
"Last year, we went up and down," said strong safety Robert Griffith, who led the defense with three interceptions and 128 tackles in 1999. "The good thing about last year is we had to come together as a unit."
At running back, Robert Smith could turn in his fourth straight 1,000-yard season. But goal-line specialist Leroy Hoard is gone. He scored 10 touchdowns while Smith had just two and Moe Williams, who Green expects to get more carries, had just one rushing touchdown. So can Smith stay healthy for 16 games? If not, who will take his place?
The defensive line is in shambles with the loss of Duane Clemons, Chris Doleman and Jerry Ball, who combined for 19 sacks last year. Doleman and Ball retired and Clemons signed with Kansas City.
First-round draft pick Chris Hovan, unsigned and the only Viking not to report on Sunday, will have to contribute immediately at defensive tackle.
Defensive end Bryce Paup, an 11-year veteran who signed as a free agent, is coming off two disappointing seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He'll need to at least approach the form he showed in 1995, when he had 17 1/2 sacks for the Bills and was the NFL's defensive player of the year.
Kicker Gary Anderson had an incredible season in 1998 when he made all 35 field goals and all 59 extra point attempts. But the 41-year-old, who missed 11 field goals last year, could be playing his last season, and his 19-year career might end prematurely if he struggles early this year.
Despite the questions, it's not as if the Vikings are hopeless this year. Far from it, despite facing one of the most difficult schedules in the NFL.
Randy Moss, who had 80 catches for 1,413 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, is continuing his development into the NFL's best receiver. And 14-year veteran Cris Carter, who caught 90 passes for 1,241 yards and 13 TDs last season, shows no signs of slipping.
The linebacking corps of Ed McDaniel, Dwayne Rudd and Kailee Wong is among the league's best. Punter Mitch Berger, who averaged 45.4 yards per punt last season, is a likely Pro Bowler.
No one showed any signs of pessimism on Sunday as players, coaches and team officials settled into the dorm. The mood was as upbeat as it's ever been, Green said.
"I think we're a very confident football team," he said. "I think we should be."
Quote of the Day: "I think it suits me perfect. It's indestructible, durable. It's nice on the inside too." -- Griffith, on his new wheels, a Hummvee.
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