Five years ago today, the Vikings stepped into the world of the unknown at quarterback. A decision by the Vikings put the future of the quarterback position and, in the process, gave us an insight into the lengths teams will go to not to disclose their real intentions heading into draft weekend.
It was March 14, 2006. The NFL world was abuzz that the Vikings and Miami Dolphins were going to make a trade with Daunte Culpepper after Miami broke off talks with free agent Drew Brees. On March 15, the deal was made official. In the days leading up to the trade, however, the handwriting was spray-painted on the wall concerning the future of Culpepper in Minnesota. After being the franchise QB since the day he became the starter in 2000, it was clear Culpepper’s days with the Vikings were numbered.
New head coach Brad Childress was in the infancy of his regime with the Vikings. Asked to clean house of the Love Boat cast and crew and start the Vikings organization in a new “culture of accountability” era, Chilly from Philly was bringing some new ideas to the table. One of them was that he wasn’t going to be dictated to by a player (much less an injured player), regardless of his standing with the team. On March 14, Miami opted to drop out of the two-team Drew Brees sweepstakes and worked out a deal that would trade the Vikings a second-round draft pick (used on offensive lineman Ryan Cook) to obtain Culpepper.
Starting five years ago tomorrow, the search for Pepp’s replacement began. A long-term replacement has been a long time in coming. Tarvaris Jackson was drafted. Brad Johnson was a caretaker. Gus Frerotte was available. Sage Rosenfels was a Plan B option. Even Brett Favre was a stop-gap answer and everyone knew it. Five years later, the Vikings find themselves in the exact same position without resolution. The times have changed, but the song remains the same.
With the Vikings being “outed” as one of the teams identified by Cam Newton’s chatty father for a private workout, it all but eliminated the chance for the Vikings to dust off their fake moustaches and Ray Bans to repeat one of the more interesting glimpses inside the undercover nature of the NFL when it comes to expressing interest in draft prospects.
Climbing into the Wayback Machine, dial the clock back to 2006. In his first major decision as head coach, Childress made up his mind that, one way or another, Culpepper is gone. If he can’t be traded, he’ll be cut. Toast. History. Chilly sent a strong, rip-the-Bandaid message to the rest of the locker room that there was a new sheriff in town, he looked suspiciously like Major Dad and he’s calling the shots – not the players.
At the time, there were a lot of juggling balls in the air with the Vikings organization. Zygi Wilf was getting his feet wet in the dark business of firing and hiring in the NFL (he inherited Culpepper, Mike Tice, Captain Stubing, Isaac the Bartender and the rest of the Love Boat crew). Childress still had boxes stacked in his office. The coaching staff was new and had its own ideas for installing a new offense and defense. Another new face, de facto general manager Fran Foley, had a workplace demeanor that could best be described as confrontationally dark. Foley was on his way in (he would last just one month before being fired two days after draft weekend). It’s unclear whether Foley and Childress agreed on the value of Jackson, but Childress was looking to stamp his legacy on the franchise.
Unfortunately, he did.
In something straight out of the cloak-and-dagger movie scripts that collect dust in the storage rooms of movie studios, the Vikings coaching and scouting staffs became undercover draft operatives. Scouts had developed a solid opinion of Jackson over the previous months, as he had dominant moments against consistently sub-par competition at Alabama State. He was a project to be sure, but he was someone the team was interested in getting more than just a casual look at before committing their draft chips. The Vikings sent their top evaluators for a private workout.
To hear the story told, it was a little bit CIA “black ops” designed to conceal their intentions for Jackson and a bit like Smoky and the Bandit. In the end, it worked … sort of. The Vikings believed Jackson wouldn’t be available to them in the third round (a very debatable point) and made the move to slide into the last pick of the second round with a trade with Pittsburgh.
When Childress addressed the media following the pick, he was pressed on what they saw in Jackson that made the team trade up to get him. At that point, the story began to unfold about the junior G-men dispatched like Watergate burglars to Alabama to work out T-Jack under the cone of silence and the darkness of night as they traveled the highways and byways of the Deep South. The trail of the draft pick led all the way back to Winter Park and showed what lengths a team would go to in order to get their own due diligence while keeping silent on the matter.
With the chance to do the same this year, the opportunity was all but eliminated by the pronouncement by Cecil Newton at the Auburn Pro Day, even though the Vikings may try to sneak him into town for a visit. Given his high-profile (and a bean-spilling inner circle), that may not be possible. It would be fun to see the Vikings try to have Rick Spielman traveling with a full beard and baseball cap so as to go unnoticed, but those days may be gone for the Vikings in the news-immediacy of the current sports world.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been five years since the Vikings have entered a season with quarterback not being the “elephant-in-the-room” question dogging the team. It doesn’t appear that question is going to get its ultimate answer any time soon, even if the team drafts a franchise-type QB in the first round next month.
In the Seven Degrees of Kevin Bacon of this Vikings saga, the circle of life in the NFL comes almost complete. The Dolphins fired Rick Spielman when Nick Saban took over as head coach. Saban’s first big management decision is to give his recommend to either spending big for Brees or trading for Culpepper. He picked Culpepper. On the day of the trade, the Dolphins made unnecessary room for Pepp on the roster by releasing Gus Frerotte. Spielman eventually brought in Frerotte to back up Jackson and, two games into the season, Chilly ended the Jackson experiment and mades Frerotte the starter. One has to wonder if New Orleans would have won the Super Bowl (and, in turn, beaten the Vikings) if Saban had chosen Brees over Culpepper? Or would Saban still be coaching in the NFL, with a Super Bowl ring on his finger? One can only speculate.