EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) - The Dallas defense hinted at an all-out blitz early in the second quarter, and Daunte Culpepper saw it coming. He alerted his Minnesota teammates, stepped back into the shotgun and calmly threw a soft pass over the line for a 63-yard touchdown that put the Vikings ahead for good in Sunday's season-opening victory over the Cowboys.
Yes, after five years of ups and downs, leading teams good, bad and in between, Culpepper is looking awfully comfortable.
"I think he's off to a very good start,'' coach Mike Tice said. "We've got a long way to go, but I know he has put the work in and he has certainly matured with the offense and the offensive coordinator and the players around him. I think he understands he just needs to drive the car.
"And it's a pretty nice car he's driving.''
Minnesota has had one of the NFL's most feared offenses since drafting All-Pro wide receiver Randy Moss in 1998. When the Vikings have struggled, much of the blame - fairly or not - has fallen on the driver.
After watching from the sideline as a rookie in 1999, Culpepper set a high standard in his first year as a starter by passing for 3,937 yards, 33 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, going to the Pro Bowl and playing in the NFC championship game. With his remarkable agility and a 6-foot-4, 265-pound frame, Culpepper showed the speed to outrun defensive backs and the brawn to bowl over linebackers.
He began to struggle in 2001, however, and a sprained knee kept him out of the final five weeks of a miserable season. Tice took over for Dennis Green in 2002, and new coordinator Scott Linehan brought some new wrinkles to the offense.
Though he played well at times, Culpepper was a mess that year. He led the league with 32 turnovers, including 23 interceptions, and he even got benched during the fourth quarter of a particularly poor November outing at home against the New York Giants - when the boos were at their loudest.
The Vikings started 6-0 last season, and while they finished 3-7 and failed to make the playoffs, Culpepper made big strides after signing a 10-year contract extension in May.
Gus Frerotte filled in admirably while Culpepper missed two early games with a back injury, and many fans unable to forgive Culpepper's past mistakes began calling for a switch. But he endured the criticism, completed 65 percent of his passes for 3,479 yards, reduced his interception total to 11 and earned his second trip to the Pro Bowl.
He picked up last Sunday where he left off with a 242-yard, five-touchdown, no-turnover performance against Dallas - the top-ranked defense in the league in 2003.
The Vikings weren't surprised. The 2002 team was one in transition, and it was going to take some time for Culpepper to mesh with some of the new additions.
"Now he's basically got the same talent around him, and he doesn't feel like he has to do it all,'' Linehan said. "Just going where he has to go with his reads and letting the playmakers make plays.''
Behind one of the NFL's best offensive lines, backed by a deep running game and bolstered by the offseason acquisition of wide receiver Marcus Robinson, the 27-year-old Culpepper looks ready to take his career to a higher level.
"I feel very thankful that everything has panned out for me here,'' he said.
Moss, one of Culpepper's closest friends, has seen his quarterback come a long way in two years. The biggest reason for his progress? He just needed time to get comfortable.
"By Daunte being able to make superb decisions out there on the field,'' Moss said, "it just makes our offense a whole lot better. Everybody is stepping up and growing up.''
Robinson, who spent his first six seasons with Chicago and Baltimore, is impressed.
"Five touchdowns for him ... in this offense, it's nothing,'' Robinson said.
That puts Culpepper on pace for an unrealistic 80 touchdowns.
"With this offense, you never know,'' Robinson said. "You've got so many playmakers.''
One thing that makes Minnesota so dangerous is the improvements Culpepper has made in recognizing defensive schemes and calling audibles to change the plays. The line, anchored by Pro Bowl center Matt Birk, is good enough that the Vikings want other teams to blitz - usually giving them a favorable matchup downfield with Moss.
"I make a check at the line of scrimmage, but it still takes 11 guys to do their job,'' Culpepper said. "When you get that to happen, it's a beautiful thing.''