Posted by Chase Stuart on June 11, 2007
In baseball, the numbers 511 and 714 have a significance that's unparalleled in football. You probably don't know what 5,123 signifies. If I asked you to name the record for total yards by a single player in a season, it's unlikely you'd know that the answer is 5,123. Even worse, I'd expect very few people even know who holds the record. It's not Dan Marino (5,077), although he is the only other player to accumulate 15,000 feet in a season. Warren Moon, Kurt Warner, Dan Fouts and Rich Gannon all topped 4800 yards in a year, but none of them is the record-holder, either. Warner, Fouts and Moon all have two seasons among the top 11 of all time, alongside some career years from Neil Lomax and Mark Brunell.
The player who has gained more yards in a single season than anyone else in the history of the sport was escorted off his team's practice field last Friday, and appears set to play for his third team in three years despite being just 30 years old.
It was just two and a half years ago when Daunte Culpepper passed for 4,717 yards, 39 TDs and only 11 INTs, while rushing for an additional 406 yards and a couple of scores. Culpepper's 28 more passing touchdowns than interceptions ranks third all time, behind Dan Marino (1984) and Peyton Manning (2004). Culpepper averaged 320.2 yards per game that year, and followed that up with 679 yards and 6 scores in two playoff games. Daunte Culpepper took the field 18 times in 2004, and recorded over 300 yards in twelve of those games. When something happens that consistently, it's difficult to dismiss it as a fluke. Culpepper combined passing and rushing brilliance as well as anyone besides Steve Young in the history of the league. And now? Not a single team appears to want him.
But back to the title of this post: 5123. How did he do it? The typical explanation is two parts "he had Randy Moss" and one part "he was never really that good." But that can't be it, for lots of reasons. For starters, it has to be more than Moss since no other QB has done the 5,000 yards in a season thing while playing with him. And really, how good has Moss been without Culpepper? Ronald Curry led the Raiders in receiving yards in 2006, not Randy Moss. Even if you believe Moss to be the greatest WR of all time, is he so much better than Marvin Harrison or Jerry Rice, so that Manning, Young and Montanta couldn't do what Culpepper did?
Further, 2004 was Randy Moss' worst season as a Viking. He played in just 11 games (and suited up but did not record a reception in two others) while recording then-career lows in receptions (49) and receiving yards (767). To put it another way, Daunte Culpepper accounted for 4,356 non-Randy Moss yards in 2004, which would have ranked as the 36th best season of all time. So 5123 has to be explained by a lot more than just "Randy Moss."
Moss was hurt that year and unproductive, but many argue that Moss' mere presence on the field opens things up for his teammates, leaving his true impact immeasurable. That may be true, of course, but it leaves one to wonder: why wasn't the mere presence of a healthy Moss for all those years enough to allow a Vikings QB to record 5,000 yards? In 1998, the Vikings had Cris Carter and Randy Moss and an unbelievable season out of Randall Cunningham, but Vikings QBs in the aggregate still accounted for "just" 4,633 yards.
Nate Burleson led the Vikings in receiving in 2004, not Randy Moss. But this just adds to the confusion for explaining how 5123 came about. Nate Burleson stinks. He's not any good. Despite being in the prime of his career and being handed starting roles, he's recorded only 520 yards since 2004. I'm not sure how you can start in 16 games, play in 12 others and only get 520 receiving yards, but Burleson did it. In 2006, Burleson ranked sixth among Seahawks WRs and TEs in receiving yards, despite the five men in front of him all missing games last year. And somebody once claimed that Nate Burleson may be the worst receiver to ever have 1,000 yards in a season. The explanation that Nate Burleson was a good receiver is simply not acceptable in deciphering how Daunte Culpepper set the NFL single season record for yards in 2004.
So it's not Burleson, who led the team in yards. And it's not (entirely) Moss, who has some ethereal ability to change defenses but had the worst season of his career. It certainly wasn't the great coaching, as Mike Tice was widely recognized as a below average head coach. The Vikings defense was porous in 2004, although far from historically bad. And a bad defense can only pad individual offensive player stats to the extent that it results in many attempts. But the Vikings ranked 8th in pass attempts that season, and Culpepper's 637 pass + rush attempts isn't out of line with the other all time great single seasons (Warren Moon had 639 and 688, Gannon 668, Fouts 631, Brunell 637).
Marcus Robinson and Jermaine Wiggins put up big yardage numbers, but really, are they unusually talented for a third wide receiver or tight end? Robinson was on his third team in three years and Wiggins was on his fifth team in five years. The Minnesota running backs didn't get many touches and weren't great, but they weren't bad, either. Onterrio Smith, Mewelde Moore, Moe Williams and Michael Bennett rushed 289 times for 1,360 yards, at a healthy 4.7 YPC clip.
When thinking about who should set the all time record for yards in a season, here's what I envision. A great QB, two excellent wide receivers, a strong offensive line, good receiving but bad rushing RBs, and maybe a terrible defense. Or perhaps an extremely deep set of skill position players with great coaching and an accurate and mobile QB; a team that created tons of mismatches for defenses every week.
Seven teams have had a pair of players record 1300 or more yards in a season, and the '95 Lions, '00 Rams and '05 Cardinals each had two WRs top 1400 yards. The 1989 Redskins, 1980 Chargers, 2004 Colts and 1995 Falcons all had three 1,000 yard wide receivers, with the Redskins and Chargers trios each topping 1100 yards. The '90 Oilers, '00 Rams and '84 Chargers had four players top 700 receiving yards, and last year's Saints would have joined that group if Joe Horn had been a little healthier. The 1984 Chargers and '83 Dolphins each had five players with 600+ receiving yards. Yet none of those teams with incredibly talented players and QBs matched what Culpepper did with the '04 Vikings. No, the best the Vikings skill position players can do is claim to be one of two teams with 9 players to record 207 receiving yards in a season, an honor shared with the 2001 Detroit Lions.
How would you describe the '04 Vikings? Their top WR (Nate Burleson) should be out of the league soon, their second WR is a Hall of Fame talent who was hurt for a good chunk of the season, the supporting cast of receivers and tight ends was largely retreads, the running backs were mediocre but with good hands, the defense stunk and the coaching wasn't any good. That hardly sounds like a recipe for excellence.
So what's the explanation? I have nothing else to presume other than Daunte Culpepper's a lot better than people realized. Or maybe, rather, it's Daunte Culpepper was a lot better than people realized. Let's scroll back in time and re-examine Culpepper's career. Culpepper was drafted in 1999 but sat his entire rookie season.
In 2000, Culpepper had one of the greatest seasons ever by a first time starter. His 4,407 combined yards currently ranks 33rd best all time. He averaged 8.3 yards per pass, and had twice as many passing TDs as interceptions.
In 2001, Culpepper was injured and played in only 10 full games. The Vikings went 1-5 in those other games, and 4-6 when he played in every game. He actually averaged more yards per game in 2001 than his incredible 2000 season.
In 2002, Culpepper really regressed as a passer. He had five more INTs than TDs, but it's worth noting that he rushed for over 600 yards and 10 TDs. Do we have an explanation for why Culpepper became a great runner but a bad passer in '02? Well Randy Moss was in the middle of his "play when I want to play" routine, and Mike Tice had created the ill-conceived 'Randy Ratio'. D'wayne Bates -- the Northwestern product who recorded 13 catches his first three seasons with the Bears before signing with Minnesota -- was the team's number two WR with Cris Carter gone. Byron Chamberlain was the main TE, and he recorded 29 yards the rest of his career. Chris Walsh and Kelly Campbell were the backup WRs, and Michael Bennett was the RB. And the Vikings had one of the worst defenses in the league. Going 6-10 on that team doesn't sound too bad, considering the coaching and defensive disadvantage the Vikings had most weeks, along with the inferior supporting cast. And it's not like Culpepper was terrible: his 4,462 total yards that year ranks as the 22nd most in a single season.
In 2003, Culpepper missed two more games, but once again set a career high for total yards per game. And unlike the previous year, he had a sparkling 25/11 TD/INT ratio and played like a star.
We know what happened in 2004, and since then it's been all downhill. But it's easy to forget how absolutely brilliant Culpepper was the first five seasons of his career. He was a yardage machine, and usually had a strong TD/INT ratio, averaging 1.74 touchdowns to INTs over that period. So if the explanation for the record isn't that Nate Burleson's the next Jerry Rice or that Mike Tice is the next Bill Belichick, I'm left with the thought that Culpepper used to be a superstar QB. And it wasn't all that long ago.
Perhaps a look at who should own the record will shed some light on this one. The 2000 Rams QBs totalled 5,578 yards, easily the most of all time. The '90 Oilers (5339), '85 Chargers (5,166), '04 Vikings (5123), '84 Dolphins (5,099) and '95 49ers (5,000) are the only teams to have their QBs as a group top 5,000 yards in a season. What did the 2000 Rams have? The greatest receiving RB of all time still in his prime, two HOF WRs both in their primes, an excellent third WR with great speed and a veteran 4th wide receiver that has 669 career receptions. The Rams had one of the best offensive minds coaching them of this era and a historically bad defense that forced the Rams to get into shootouts every week. And, of course, two pretty darn good QBs in Warner and Trent Green, both who were playing as well as they ever did. The two QBs ranked first and second in adjusted yards per pass that year.
Does that sound anything like the 2004 Vikings? Randy Moss wasn't playing near the level of Torry Holt that year, but that's as close as the Vikings got. Replace Isaac Bruce with Nate Burleson, Az-Hakim with Marcus Robinson, Marshall Faulk with Onterrio Smith and Mike Martz with Mike Tice, and somehow I doubt that Rams team comes within shouting distance of 5,123.
Which begets the question of the day. We know no QB has ever done as much (5123) as Culpepper did in one year. But has any QB ever done as much...with as little?