The alleged reason that the Bengals didn't take Pro Bowl quarterback Daunte Culpepper with the third pick in the 1999 NFL Draft is they weren't quite sure he could pick up an NFL offense.
By the time they realized that the guy they took, Akili Smith, couldn't get a grasp, the 2000 season turned 10 games old with Smith on the bench and Culpepper headed to his first of two playoff appearances.
Believe it that the people here now have high regard for the big and blessed Culpepper at an estimated 6-4, 275 pounds, particularly two men who have just faced him recently in Bengals defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan and defensive tackle Bryan Robinson.
"He's a defensive end playing quarterback," said Bresnahan, who coordinated a Raiders defense that beat Culpepper in 2003. "He's huge and that presents a challenge in itself for us. He's an unbelievable athlete for the size that he is."
"You can put him on the ground," said Robinson, who played against Culpepper twice a year for the Bears. "But when you do go to take him, just know you're taking a man and not a little boy. He can make it a very long day for us."
This is a hard matchup to get your hands around. The last time the Bengals played the Vikings and Randy Moss was 1998, when Randall Cunningham quarterbacked Minnesota within a blown field goal of the Super Bowl. Moss, of course, is gone. Linebacker Brian Simmons is the only Bengals defender still here from '98. Culpepper missed the one game he would have played against Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis when he sat out the 2001 finale against Baltimore with a knee injury.
And Akili Smith has been to both Bays (Green and Tampa) as well as NFL Europe on his way out of the league, but that's OK. Another quarterback drafted ahead of Culpepper, Tim Couch, and the one drafted right behind him at No. 12, Cade McNown, are nowhere to be found.
Meanwhile, Culpepper is coming off back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons, combining the NFL's second all-time completion percentage of 64.4 percent with 2,391 rushing yards. No one in their right mind expects him to repeat his five-turnover game (three interceptions, two fumbles) in last week's no-touchdown loss to Tampa Bay.
But, this is just his second game without Moss, so is that 24-13 loss a trend or an aberration? The Bengals don't think it's the former, but they would like to make it the latter for at least another week.
DAUNTE CULPEPPER's STARTING RECORD:
2000 - 11-5 (1-1 in playoffs)
2001 - 4-7
2002 - 6-10
2003 - 7-7
2004 - 8-8 (1-1 in playoffs)
2005 - 0-1
TOTAL: 36-38 (2-2 in playoffs)
BENGALS QUARTERBACKS STARTING RECORDS:
2000 - Akili Smith 2-8; Scott Mitchell 2-4
2001 - Jon Kitna 6-9; Smith 0-1
2002 - Gus Frerotte 0-3; Smith 0-1; Kitna 2-12
2003 - Kitna 8-8
2004 - Carson Palmer 6-7; Kitna 2-1
2005 - Palmer 1-0
TOTAL: 29-52 (0-0 in playoffs)
"You always try to contain those quarterbacks that have the mobility to run with the football," Lewis said. "You want to shoo them, just keep shooing them backwards. Make them throw it farther, if they want to throw it. He's an impressive guy on tape. He has been, ever since he began to start there at Minnesota."
Robinson thinks Lewis is talking about keeping Culpepper in front of the defense so that he doesn't turn the corner in breaking contain and running wild, or sucking up defenders to loosen his receivers.
"Daunte has come a long way from the time I first faced him as far as being able to do different things to hurt you," Robinson said. "He really wants to hang in there and use his arm. That's what he wants to use, but he's also wiling to use his legs and he can beat you with them."
The Bengals are talking about the principles they always talk about when playing a mobile quarterback. Simmons probably said the same thing seven years ago a few days before Cunningham hit Moss on a 61-yard touchdown pass in the 24-3 loss in Minnesota: "You have to stay in your lanes and be disciplined and don't let him get outside you." Free safety Madieu Williams said the DBs have "to plaster the receivers," because Culpepper can run around and bide time.
But, let's face it, they've never played a guy like this just because of his girth. Well, rookie linebacker David Pollack thinks there might have been one guy.
"Jared Lorenzen, the Pillsbury Throwboy from Kentucky," said Georgia's Pollack. "I know Culpepper's a freak of nature. He's bigger than half the D-line."
No one has to tell Pollack that in his NFL debut back in the preseason in Philadelphia he bounced off 240-pound Donovan McNabb and McNabb threw a touchdown instead of getting sacked.
"That was just crappy tackling," said the 255-pound Pollack. "He makes a lot of things happen with his feet. You better run your feet through him, or he'll say, 'Goodbye.' "
Left end Justin Smith has watched plenty of video of Culpepper waving.
"You get a speedy guy like Culpepper that can get out (of the pocket) and make plays, and time and time again you see guys getting free shots at him and missing him. You just know you've got to solid him up and try to get him down."
Bresnahan's Raiders beat the Vikings, 28-18, in Oakland back on Nov. 16, 2003 despite Culpepper's 396 yards and 42 yards rushing for a touchdown on seven carries. But he also threw three interceptions and got sacked three times.
But that was with Moss.
"He'd throw the ball out of there down the field to Randy Moss. That was their offense. And the running game," Robinson said.
Who knows now that his No. 1 receiver, Nate Burleson, has 97 career catches? His speed threat is Troy Williamson, a rookie drafted with the seventh pick who didn't get a ball thrown to him last week. Culpepper likes to air it out with a career 7.8 yards per pass attempt. But in his first post-Moss game, it was nearly a yard less.
No matter where Moss is, Bresnahan knows Culpepper has the ball.
"We obviously have stressed that he's a big man and we have to bring it," he said. "And not let what happened with Donovan McNabb a couple of times, where we were in position to make the sack and let him bounce off."
James: Wants to be in there
JAMES GRINDING: Pro Bowl cornerback Tory James is doing what he's done ever since he opted for the Bengals over the Vikings on the first weekend of free agency in 2003; sucking it up and not complaining. He insists he'll play Sunday even though gout suddenly and strangely attacked his toe early in the week of the opener, and he has missed the first two practices of this week.
"I don't do anything and it comes out of the blue," James said. "But I'll be all right."
Defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan winced Thursday talking about what James must be feeling.
"All know is its sore. It's bothering him," Bresnahan said. "He took the shot on Sunday and played the best he could play. It obviously affected him certain times when he had to plant and change direction. Anybody that's had gout, especially if you get it on the bottom of the toe, it's painful."
But James says he'll go, and you have to believe him. After the Vikings wondered about his durability in the 2003 free-agent derby, James has started all 33 games since he signed in Cincinnati.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that weekend health was a reason the Vikings didn't want to match the Bengals $14.4 million offer that included a $3.7 million signing bonus and a $6 million payout in the first year. James remembers that the offers were relatively the same, and he thought he was headed to Minnesota after his visit. Then a day later Lewis called to offer a visit to Cincinnati to talk to him and then defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. The rest is Bengals history, the club's first Pro Bowl cornerback in eight years when he went to Hawaii last year.
"My agent (the Mark Bartelstein-Rick Smith group) talked to me about what was going on here and what the best fit for me was," James said. "I know I made the right choice. I wanted to be a part of something that I worked to help get it to where it's going to be. That sounded better to me. I know I made the right choice."
Then, when Lewis changed coordinators after last season, it turned out to be Bresnahan, his coordinator from Oakland who revived his career in the 2002 Super Bowl run.
"There's a reason for everything," James said.