Most people laughed when Dennis Green suggested at the start of the season that his Minnesota Vikings might have a shot at the Super Bowl.
With a quarterback who had never thrown a pass in a regular-season game? Without two Pro Bowl offensive linemen cut for salary cap reasons and picked up by Tampa Bay, the odds-on favorite to win the NFC Central.
So far, the Green has the last laugh going into Monday night's critical home game with the Bucs. If the Vikings can beat the Bucs on Monday night, they'll be 2 1/2 games ahead. If they lose, they'll be just a half-game up with a return meeting in Tampa in three weeks.
The most important reason for the Vikings' ascension is the quarterback.
Daunte Culpepper, the only one of last year's high draft picks to spend all of 1999 on the bench, is holding his own. With, of course, Cris Carter and Randy Moss to throw too. That prompts the question: Which came first, the quarterback or his receivers?
From the end of last year, Carter has mentored Culpepper the way he mentored Moss when Moss came into the league with a reputation as a me-first troublemaker. Culpepper didn't have that rep, but Carter has tutored him in the subtleties of becoming a big leaguer -- off-the-field and on.
They're also operating with Sherman Lewis as the offensive coordinator and Emmitt Thomas as defensive coordinator -- Lewis by way of Green Bay, and Thomas from Washington and Philadelphia through Green Bay (as they say on draft day).
Culpepper passed a major test on the road in the Silverdome in his fourth game. Most coaches believe they can stop a quarterback when they have three game tapes, but Culpepper threw for 269 yards, including TD passes to Moss of 61, 50 and 17 yards.
Still, give Green most of the credit for having the courage to let Randall Cunningham and Jeff George move on with only Culpepper behind them.
"In unrestricted free agency, maybe 25 percent of your team is going to be new every single year," Green says. "Maybe some people have handled it better than others. We'll just continue working at it."
So far, it's working well.
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