LB Derrick Brooks knows the Vikings still have the kind of weapons that have kept them high in the league rankings for the past decade
Quarterback Daunte Culpepper played two series during the Vikings' 2005 preseason opener on August 12, in what we might call Game One of the post-Randy Moss era in Minnesota. Playing with the first team – the men you should expect to see in action against Tampa Bay in Sunday's regular season opener – Culpepper threw his first five passes to five different people: TE Jermaine Wiggins, RB Michael Bennett, WR Travis Taylor, WR Marcus Robinson, WR Nate Burleson. Only the pass to Robinson was incomplete, but Culpepper went back to Robinson with his sixth pass and hit him for 14 yards.
In the Vikings' second preseason game, on August 20, Culpepper went a little deeper into the game, playing the whole first quarter and the first series of the second. Again, his first four passes were to four different men – Burleson, Taylor, Wiggins and TE Jimmy Kleinsasser – and all four were complete. Oh, he also tucked it and ran twice for 18 yards in that sequence.
Over the course of the Vikings' four preseason games, Culpepper played the equivalent of a full game, maybe just a little less than four quarters. During that time, he completed 36 of 44 passes (81.8%) for 520 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a 114.0 passer rating. Those are huge numbers for a single game, but not ones that are inconsistent with Culpepper's past. What was most interesting about his preseason performance, scattered over four weekends, was how many people he got involved in the offense.
That's no knock on Moss, who helped Culpepper accomplish big things over the past five years. During Moss' seven years with the Vikings, the offense was always good, but it was particularly good when a lot of different weapons were employed. In 1998, for instance, Moss' rookie year, the Vikings scored an NFL-record 556 points behind huge years from Moss, WR Cris Carter, RB Robert Smith and RB Leroy Hoard (and QB Randall Cunningham). In 2003, Moss had a gigantic season (111 catches, 1,632 yards, 17 touchdowns) in the NFL's top-ranked attack, but the Vikings also had four different players with at least 400 rushing yards and five different players with at least 400 receiving yards.
So, even when the Randy Ratio was in effect, other Vikings were getting the ball. Still, Moss' departure takes away roughly 97 touches a year in the Minnesota offense, and there's no telling at this point how those plays will be redistributed. However, if the preseason is any indication – and such evidence must always be taken with a grain of salt – they could go to everybody. And anybody. At any time.
And that might make the Vikings as dangerous as ever.
"When they had their first group in there, they went down the field and scored every game," said Buccaneers LB Derrick Brooks, who has faced Culpepper five times. "So that's very impressive what they're doing. Obviously, everybody's touching the ball. I think that's something that in the past may not have been there before this preseason. Daunte Culpepper is getting the ball in everybody's hands and they're getting a lot of plays on the offense."
Though his new team, the Oakland Raiders, lost their season opener to New England on Thursday night, Moss made his presence felt immediately, catching five passes for 130 yards, including a juggling, 73-yard touchdown catch on a one-play drive in the second quarter. Don't fret for the Vikings, though, say Buccaneer defenders. The Metrodome cupboard is far from bare.
"They still have Daunte Culpepper," said CB Brian Kelly. "He didn't lose any strength in his arm and he is still a big-time passer. They have weapons over there that they are confident with. They have a lot of guys that can make big plays over there on offense."
Moss changes games, but his departure doesn't necessarily change how the Vikings will go about business on offense. They are still built around Culpepper's strong and accurate arm, and they still have plenty of talent at wide receiver, so the sudden, long-range scoring plays are still a significant threat.
"It looks very similar," said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden of the Vikings' 2005 offense. "They added Troy Williamson, who's a great prospect, very fast. I think Burleson's coming into his own. It's hard to replace a guy like Randy Moss, but when you have a quarterback like [Daunte], they do have a lot of expertise and experience around him, he understands their system and they look pretty good to me on tape."
The Vikings' new-look (or maybe not-so-new-look) offense was not the only thing the Buccaneers were discussing leading up to the season opener. Here's what we overheard in the locker room this week:
QB Chris Simms on former teammate Brad Johnson, now a Viking: "He's your ultimate professional. Very passionate guy, understands the game. He got taken out of the Seattle game and they put me in. I know he was a big supporter of me and I truly respect that—the way he is as both a person and a player."
Simms on what it was like coming in as a rookie under QB Brad Johnson: "He's been around the league for such a long time, just come off a Super Bowl win. I was excited just to be here because they had just come off the Super Bowl win. Nonetheless, he's a guy who never let his ego get in the way, really just worked hard. You got the same Brad day in and day out."
Head Coach Jon Gruden on if it will be strange to see Brad Johnson on the other sideline: "Yeah, it is. It will be exciting. Hopefully I get a chance to see him. Obviously, he's got a lot to do with us all wearing rings, and he's been a big part of our history here in Tampa Bay. We miss him, and we certainly wish him well. Hopefully he doesn't give away any of our secrets. Just so he knows, if he asks, [Chris] Hovan's trying to give us some of the Viking defensive secrets. We're looking forward to seeing Brad. He's a great guy and a class act and we all know that."
TE Anthony Becht on QB Brian Griese: "He's a very calm, veteran player and he knows the system well. He's very experienced. He knows where to go with the ball. He reads defenses well and I feel confident when he's back there that's he's on the same page as what we want as an offensive unit. It's good to have him back there."
Becht on how much Brian Griese is in rhythm with everybody: "From what I've seen in practice and in the preseason, he is on target. I think his preparation that goes into every week for the games helps him get that timing issue and all those other details out that he needs to get done. So, I'm not really worried about what he's going to bring to the table. I think what he's shown with the guys in the huddle and on the field, it looks good so far."
QB Brian Griese on if the versatility of the younger guys gives Jon Gruden's offense more of a chance to be explosive: "We'll see. I think Jon Gruden is going to find ways to get mismatches no matter who's in the game. So, the more weapons you have, naturally there's more opportunities for that. We have to find out what these guys are really good at doing. I think as the season goes on, guys will step forward in different roles. Like Michael Pittman, for instance, but maybe he's helping us out in a different area of the offense. We still don't have an identity yet and I think that's what we have to find."
WR Joey Galloway on if he notices a difference on the field when everyone knows their role: "Yes. I think it's very noticeable when a guy feels comfortable in a role. We all have to learn everyone's role, but when you know it, you can not only do your job, but you can help out the other guys and then you can communicate better."
Galloway on how different this year's receiving group is compared to last year's: "I think we kind of know where we are right now. We know we've got some guys who have played and we've got some guys who are young and haven't played. We're pretty solid in our roles right now, what each guy's expected to do when we play. Last year, of course, with the early injury we started shuffling some guys around and that's tough. It's tough to be successful that way. Hopefully, we won't have to deal with that this year."
Becht on the Bucs' offense: "I think we want to be well-rounded. Our identity will be shown on our performance this week against Minnesota and the weeks to come. We want to start out strong. We want to start out effective and we want to be productive on offense."
Becht on what the offense is going to have to do to establish itself: "I just think we have a very elaborate offense. We have to be attentive to detail. We have to know what we're doing. Everybody has to be on the same page. With the bonus couple of days that we had, we've been able to get our packages and do the things we've wanted to do, study them on film and be ready for anything they give us. We need to just go out there and play a relaxed, intense football game."
Griese on how the offensive line is shaping up: "They're working hard. They're working really hard and I think there are obviously some young guys that are going to be playing. I don't know how many, but I'm excited about the tenacity with which they play. You can't really judge somebody on how well they're doing with the mental aspects of it until they're out there in the game situation and you can't really judge their conditioning part of it until you play a full game. I'm excited to watch them play. We've been running the ball a lot better, in my opinion, than we did last year and I'm really excited about that. I'm looking forward to playing with them."
T Anthony Davis on if there is anything he can pass along to the young linemen like Dan Buenning: "I tell Dan all the time we just have to communicate. That is the best thing that is out there, communication. From a physical standpoint he is a good guard. He is physical and he can run and pull."
WR Michael Clayton on what advice he will give to Carnell Williams: "Just relax and be him. He's a good enough player he doesn't have to go and do anything special, just follow the rules and just be him. There's nothing he is going to have to do out of the box."
Galloway on facing Minnesota's defense: "They are an extremely talented group. It's a heck of a challenge for any receiving group. I feel like we're pretty talented here. What a way to get started and find out where we are against one of the best secondaries in the league. I know we're looking forward to it.
Gruden on Earnest Graham: "He's made plays. In the process, he's not only become a good halfback and a good runner, but he's become a good pass protector, he's become a good special teams player and he's even become a guy who we think can become a fullback in some situations. So he's come a long way as a football player. It's a credit to Earnest Graham and [Running Backs Coach] Art Valero. Those guys have worked very, very hard and it's good to see hard work pay off."
LB Derrick Brooks on the role of the defense: "We've just got to do our job. We don't know how the game's going to play out on Sunday. Our offense may put up 50 points. We may give up 49, who knows. We feel very confident about our offense. Our job is big enough as it is, so we don't worry about them. We just trust, we see the work that they're putting in, the things that they're going to accomplish. I feel real good about our whole team. It's probably helped that we've been at it awhile. The chemistry is good. We've just got to make sure we get mentally prepared to go up there and not let anything outside of football be a distraction."
DE Simeon Rice on Minnesota's offense: "It's a great test for the defense, it's going to show what we're all about and what we're trying to accomplish this year in terms of an energy standpoint. And it is a statement we're making for the rest of the year based on how we are going to come out this first game."
CB Brian Kelly on how comfortable he feels with Tampa Bay's secondary: "We have a group now with Dexter Jackson who has been with us, Jermaine Phillips in his third year back there, and of course me and Ronde Barber have been in the system. Juran Bolden is getting comfortable. We feel really good with our cohesiveness going into this game."
S Jermaine Phillips on if they have watched film with Randy Moss on the field from last year: "A little bit. Not too much. We are just now really starting to get into different things as far as film goes. They have some good guys and the ball is spread out a lot more now that Moss is not there. It is a little bit more unpredictable."
Rice on defending Daunte Culpepper: "He's a strong guy, he can throw the ball, take big hits, and dish them out. He's what you want at quarterback. For us defensively, it's going to be a showing of what we are all about and what were trying to get accomplished for the whole year. As a whole, this game is appropriate for so many reasons."
LB Barrett Ruud on the expectations that go along with being a linebacker in this defense: "It's difficult. It's kind of an imperative position in the cover-two defense. There are times you have to play the run and you have to be way back in the field in the pass, too. So, it's a very important position."
Brooks on Ryan Nece taking over for Jeff Gooch: "He's been there before. This is not Nece's first time starting. He started for us a couple of years ago. I expect him to do a lot better. My confidence is very high on Ryan. He had one of the better camps out of all the players. He made plays. I've been fortunate to see him get back in the starting lineup. I miss Jeff Gooch a lot, believe me."
Brooks on what kind of year he expects out of Anthony McFarland: "I expect him to have his career-best. If I expected anything less than that, I'd be cheating him. I'm going to ride him hard because he's got so much potential to be great. Something he's done this year, more than in the past, is he's done a lot of work with the little things and not taking them for granted. A lot of work away from coach. A lot of mental things as far as trying to develop his game and that's something that when players make the next step, that's something that they do."
DT Anthony McFarland on if he likes the direction this team's headed right now: "I like the direction we're headed when we go to Minnesota. That's where we're heading right now. As far as having to define whether we're older, younger and all that, we've got 53 guys and we're fixing up our plan regardless of age. We're ready to take on Minnesota and see what we can do."
Ruud on if he's nervous about the first regular-season game: "I prepare the same way for all the games. I think, obviously, there's more time to prepare, more time to think about your game, where in the preseason you're just practicing and all of a sudden, okay we're playing a game. We've had a week and a half to prepare. Honestly, I think I'll probably be a little bit nervous before the game, but I always am. But, I think you get rid of that nervousness with preparation. It builds confidence."