Monday, September 08, 2008

Daunte's headlong dive into hell

Somewhat buried amid the fuss of the NFL's opening weekend was the news that quarterback Daunte Culpepper was retiring from football. The fact that the news passed with so little comment was amazing in itself: In 2004, Culpepper put up one of the best quarterback seasons ever and would have been the runaway league MVP had Peyton Manning not gotten in the way. Less than four years ago, the man was surrounded by talk of the Hall of Fame. Today he's puttering around in his kitchen wondering what happened. What happened was that he was betrayed by his agent.

Culpepper had spent the past two seasons with two different teams, dogged primarily by the knee injury that ended his 2005 season and to a far lesser extent by "character questions" like those that chased him out of Minnesota. How silly it is, then, that it was the character issue rather than the knee that ultimately drove him into retirement. Well ... more accurately, he drove himself into retirement, because -- that idiot agent we just mentioned? His name is Daunte Culpepper.

A lawyer who represents himself is said to have a fool for a client. I'd say the same about most athletes who choose to act as their own agents. There are exceptions, of course. For years, Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi negotiated his own contracts, and he did very well for himself. Then Bruschi had a stroke, and he got himself an agent. The stroke didn't weaken his intellectual ability to negotiate, but it did weaken his bargaining position. Whereas once he was dealing from a position of strength, now he was damaged goods, to an extent. Moving forward, he needed someone who cuts deals for a living.

Culpepper took a somewhat different tack. Since tearing up his knee in 2005, he has acted as his own agent. In those three years, he has been cut by three teams, the Vikings, Dolphins and Raiders, and he left on bad terms with all of them.

Coming into the 2008 season, you would think that if Culpepper wanted to remain an NFL quarterback, he would get a good agent to plead his case to team front offices -- tell, them: Look, I know this guy's been hurt a lot, but the knee's fine. Give him a shot to make the roster. It's not like clubs weren't interested. Green Bay offered him $1 million to back up Aaron Rodgers, and Pittsburgh reportedly offered him the veteran minimum (about $750,000) to fill in for the injured Charlie Batch as Ben Roethlisberger's primary backup.

And Culpepper said no to both offers. Why? Because I ain't no backup! Culpepper, who has appeared in maybe a dozen games over the past three seasons, insisted that he is, was and shall forever be an NFL starting quarterback and that any suggestion that he should wear a ballcap on the sidelines was an insult to his manhood. Or something. In announcing his retirement, Culpepper said that he didn't want to quit football, but that he didn't really have a choice because no team was going to allow him to compete for a starting job. In that statement, he revealed a stunning ignorance of a very well-known reality about life in the NFL.

And that reality is this: Unless he's backing up Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Brett Favre or maybe Carson Palmer, a quarterback on an NFL roster is already competing for the starting job. This league goes through quarterbacks like digital cameras go through batteries. One bad game, and the fans are calling for a change; two bad games, and the front office starts asking questions; three bad games, and the coaches are getting the hook ready. (Exception: Chicago, where each quarterback gets eight to 10 dismal games.) And those QBs who are immune to criticism aren't necessarily immune to injury. Two of the guys on the list I just gave didn't finish their games Sunday: Brady, who's out for the year, and Roethlisberger, who went to the bench with a sore shoulder. Playing in relief of Roethlisberger: Byron Leftwich, like Culpepper a former high-first-round draft pick who had lost his job as a starter and bounced around the league. The difference is that Leftwich has an agent who told him that the best way to get a good QB job in the NFL is to be willing to take a not-so-good QB job in the NFL.

Hey, here's another former high-first-round pick who accepted a job as a backup: Trent Dilfer. He ended up winning a Super Bowl ring, staying in the league an extra decade, and securing himself a lucrative TV career. How about Kerry Collins? He had started in the Super Bowl, and yet was willing to ride the bench in Tennessee behind the apparently fragile-in-more-ways-than-one Vince Young. Guess who's starting for the Titans this weekend?

News of Culpepper's retirement was met with a chorus of "How is it that (Brodie Croyle, J.T. O'Sullivan, Kyle Orton, etc.) can land a roster spot, but a former Pro Bowler like Daunte Culpepper can't?" Ask Culpepper's agent. He didn't want to "compete" for the starting job somewhere; he wanted to come in and be handed the starting job. Based on what? All those touchdowns he threw to Randy Moss in 2004? His 3-7 record as a starter in Miami and Oakland? He didn't want a "spot" on the roster. A NFL roster has 53 spots, and Culpepper wouldn't accept 52 of them.

Maybe he really is done with football, and if so, I wish him well. But maybe his tune will change when he finds himself on the couch every Sunday afternoon. Maybe he'll get to the point where, if the phone rings with an offer to be a backup, he'll jump at the chance. (You don't think the Titans wouldn't be interested in seeing if he can run some of the plays drawn up for Young?) But just as likely, such a call will never come, because Culpepper has slid too far down the NFL totem pole, to the dreaded distinction of "distraction." Every NFL quarterback wants to be the starter. Hell, every NFL quarterback thinks he should be the starter. But those who aren't starters have to know to keep it to themselves, say the right things, and don't do anything to split the locker room. Coaches would rather lose games than lose their teams. Any team that signs Culpepper now comes preloaded with a quarterback controversy. So his phone won't ring.

There won't even be a call from his agent, just to say hi.

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