EDEN PRAIRIE -- After a slow start, Daunte Culpepper looked great in the preseason, shredding defenses, threading bullet passes to Cris Carter and lofting bombs to Randy Moss as well as Randall Cunningham or Jeff George did.
What helped him immensely was that the defenses he faced did little or no stunting or blitzing. The Minnesota Vikings may have gone 1-3, chafing coach Dennis Green to no end, but the big thing was that Culpepper did nothing to shake his confidence or his teammates' trust.
But the biggest key to the Vikings' 2000 season isn't so much the second-year quarterback from Central Florida but the eighth-year running back from Ohio State.
As Robert Smith goes this season, so will the Vikings.
With a retooled offensive line and a second-year quarterback under center, Smith will be the safety valve for offensive coordinator Sherm Lewis, whose West Coast schemes emphasize the tailback.
With Leroy Hoard no longer around, Smith will stay on the field on short-yardage, goal-line and passing downs this year.
People talk about how nice it is for Culpepper to have Moss and Carter as his targets. But it's just as important to have an elite back, maybe more so.
"I think it takes a lot of pressure off Daunte," Lewis said. "A good running game takes a lot of pressure off a young quarterback. Because, if you get him in those second-and-medium situations and third-and-medium situations, then you keep him out of third-and-longs."
Which are a young quarterback's worst nightmare. Then, defenses are blitzing him silly and teeing off on receivers cutting across the middle.
"If there's always that threat of a running game, then the linemen don't get that pass pressure that they thrive on," Lewis said.
So, Smith will be there when Culpepper feels the pressure and needs to dump the pass into the flat. He will be there to take handoffs and soften defenses. He will be asked not only to pick up the blitz but to help curtail its use in the first place.
Since 1997, Smith has averaged just shy of 5 yards a carry, best in the business. What's kept him from being the best back in the NFL are injuries. You name it, he's had it. He's missed nearly 40 percent of the Vikings' games over the last seven seasons with ailments including chicken pox, two knee injuries and a hernia.
He's got a sprinter's body -- for good reason, he was a member of Ohio State's 4x400 relay team that posted the best time in the world in 1993. Not being a bruiser, Smith will probably always be susceptible to the big hit.
The one thing he hasn't had so far, however, is a fullback the size and strength of Jim Kleinsasser, who now packs 280 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame, leading the way for him.
"That's got to be scary for a linebacker to see a fullback that big bearing down on him," Smith said.
Barring injury, Smith should easily become the Vikings' all-time leading rusher this season. He needs just 583 yards to pass Chuck Foreman.
The funny thing is that Smith will be auditioning for a spot in another city. He's a free agent after this year and has already declared his intention to test the free agent waters.
Green says that Smith is already making $5 million a year and the Vikings can't afford another payroll boost. Especially with Moss about to break the bank and the team targeting potential free agents Dwayne Rudd and Matthew Hatchette.
Smith just hopes the Vikings don't use the salary cap as an excuse to part ways with him. His stance is that if a team wants to get a deal done, they get it done.
Besides, Smith has already helped out the Vikings a few times when it came to contracts. Two years ago, he rejected a bigger, better offer from the Seattle Seahawks to essentially sign a three-year deal with the Vikings. The final two years of his $25 million package are voidable if he reaches modest performance goals.
Smith said he'd like to stay in Minnesota but must factor in several issues, including how good the team is, who's coming back in 2001, his comfort level with coaches.
"I stayed here (in 1998) because it was the best situation at the time," Smith said.
That might not be the case after this year, and Culpepper could be the one who pays.
E-mail Arnie Stapleton at astapletonap.org
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