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Daunte may soon escape from health purgatory


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Culpepper gets leg up in bid to start Sept. 7

 

DAVIE, Fla. -- As Miami Dolphins quarterback Daunte Culpepper settled under center for the first time in training camp Saturday -- only days after officially being cleared to take part following a knee injury last season that turned his ligaments into something resembling a bowl of linguini -- the attention naturally moved in his direction.

 

Would he hold up? Was there any lingering trouble? Could he really be ready only nine months removed from the devastating injury, one that partially contributed to the Minnesota Vikings strangely trading away their franchise passer?

 

Two hours later, we had our answer.

 

Culpepper was healthy enough to handle his entire workload in his first practice of the season, passes rifling onto the hands of receivers with his usual rocket-like force. He later came back to take part in the night practice, and the highlight was a long, perfectly thrown pass to receiver Marty Booker that had the attending fans shouting with delight.

 

Is he ready to play a game right now? Not quite. But it's clear that this is a man who has made an amazing recovery from a serious injury.

 

"When I got hurt, I had visions to be here today, and I still have visions to be ready for the first game," Culpepper said following Saturday's morning practice.

 

If there are no setbacks -- and that's always a big if with a passer throwing in live-contact drills when people are falling at his legs -- Culpepper will be the starter when the Dolphins take the field to open the NFL season Sept. 7 against the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

 

Between now and then, he has some work left to do. He estimates that he's at about 85 percent of where he needs to be. When watching him during those Saturday practices, it was clear he favored his injured knee some.

 

During his drops, Culpepper was much more methodical and mechanical than he was during his seven years with the Vikings. It was as if he was thinking a little bit about the injury as he took the snap, maybe rightfully so, since the right knee is in his plant leg.

 

Fredrick Evans was a seventh-round pick in April out of Texas State, but he has already drawn some notice from Dolphins coach Nick Saban. At 6-4, 305 pounds, the defensive tackle has an impressive body. He looks the part, and if he can show anything during the training camp, he might be able to stick as a backup.

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As the Saturday morning practice progressed, Culpepper looked more confident, his drops sharper. But that night, he seemed conscious about it again. Despite favoring the leg a little, he still made laser throws to a variety of spots. He even pushed it some. When one of his passes was picked off, he ran after the defensive back down the sideline for about 40 yards.

 

"Watch it there, Culpepper," said a fan in the stands. "Take it easy."

 

They know what he means to the team.

 

Later in the practice, he actually pulled the ball down on a quarterback draw, weaving his way through defenders.

 

"We're encouraged by the progress that he's made," coach Nick Saban said. "And I think that's a tribute to him."

 

The Dolphins are the preseason flavor of the summer, hotter than a walk down South Beach on a sunny afternoon. After reeling off six consecutive victories to close out the 2005 season, then trading to land Culpepper in a deal that will someday rival the natives giving up Manhattan as one of the worst transactions in history, the Dolphins have become a trendy Super Bowl pick.

 

Without Culpepper, they certainly wouldn't be. He is two years removed from an MVP season with the Vikings, which is why Dolphins fans are so excited. For the first time since Dan Marino took his ball and went to the broadcast booth, the Dolphins have a legitimate NFL-quality starter.

 

No more trying to get by with Jay Fiedler and Ray Lucas and A.J. Feeley and any other journeyman the team tried to plug in as the next Marino.

How many games will Daunte play this season?

 

One practice showed the difference between Culpepper and those types of passers. He can actually throw it, his passes as pretty as any you'll see. Even without being 100 percent, and perhaps doing some arm throwing rather than using all of his lower body, Culpepper launched a variety of shots down the field with power. What's more, they often hit their targets, which is novel approach in these parts the past few years.

 

"I think you're going to see a better Daunte than you did in Minnesota," Dolphins receiver Kelly Campbell said.

 

He should know. He was there with him for four seasons.

 

The reason Campbell said Culpepper will be better is because he doesn't have Randy Moss. That might seem like lunacy since Moss is arguably the best receiver in football, but to hear Campbell explain it, it's really not.

 

"He didn't have the freedom to run the offense and do his thing," said Campbell, who signed with the Dolphins as a free agent this spring. "He was too focused on people telling him where the ball should go. Here, he uses all the guys instead of focusing on one player. Instead of looking at that one guy, holding it, waiting and waiting on him to get open, and then going somewhere else late, he is spreading it around here. That wasn't his fault. It's just the way they wanted it. I don't want to say it was all on the coaches there, but it was on everybody to get the ball to Randy. Now he just looks at his No. 1 read, if it's not there, he goes right to the next one and then the next one. It will make him a better player."

 

The Dolphins plan to be smart with Culpepper. If the knee flares up, he will sit out a practice or two. They will keep an eye on his arm, too. Without using all of his leg strength, he might develop some soreness during camp.

 

As for the brace, Culpepper doesn't even want to wear it. He was told by the team medical staff to do so. It isn't anything bulky or prohibitive, more like a sleeve on the knee -- nothing, really, considering how he tore three ligaments last October in a loss to the Carolina Panthers.

 

Along the way to getting back on the field, he faced plenty of doubters. There were some reports that he might even miss this season, which made his return Saturday that much more triumphant.

 

"I'm not surprised at all," Culpepper said. "When I woke up after the surgery, Dr. (James) Andrews told me, 'Hey, I did my part. I secured those ligaments and double-knotted them and double-tied some things in there for you because I know the type of player you are. You like to run around and make things happen with your legs.' He told me that it was on me to put forth the effort in the rehab sessions and workouts to get the strength back. I'm here today. As training camp goes along, we're going to get more live drills. I'm going to be able to really push it and test it and see where I am, but I feel pretty good right now."

 

It's odd when you think about it. This is a franchise yearning for a big arm since the day Marino walked away, but the focus Saturday was on the right leg of the guy who will be doing the throwing this year. It will be that way for a while, all eyes on the black-braced right knee of the first real quarterback the Dolphins have had this decade.

 

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