I’ve been mulling over Daunte Culpepper’s return ever since it became clear that he walked onto the squad and immediately became the best quarterback on the team. At first glance, the move seems to be the latest in a consistent refusal to build for the future on the part of the Lions, be it by stubbornly refusing to let Drew Stanton sink or swim, or by ignoring the persistent need to improve lines on both sides of the ball. Somehow, and I’m not sure why, this feels different. In Miami, I never bought Culpepper as a savior; Chris Chambers has always been a Fredo wideout being paid Michael money. Oakland was an even more dismal prospect (I’m still surprised Russell didn’t just hold out for the entire season after watching that unfold). Here, however, Culpepper appears to have purpose that he lacked in either of those situations. I’m not talking about the fact that a quarterback who is recently responsible for one of the greatest seasons ever (2004 wasn’t THAT long ago…) is coming to a franchise that has had nothing to celebrate for a long, long time. That was the case in Miami and Oakland, and Daunte proved ill-suited to the role of savior. The difference here is that, in Detroit, Daunte will (or should) be asked not to lift up a whole franchise by lifting up himself, but instead will be asked to use the gifts he already has to help lift up another person. That person is Calvin Johnson.
On the one hand, the load is much lighter; on the other, it’s significantly more important, both for Detroit and the league as a whole, that Culpepper meet the task at hand. For a year and a half, in the midst of the most abject failure in the league, Megatron has been developing into something of a star (oddly enough, he’s managed to do so as his team has fallen apart around him). Still, there comes a point for a receiver when, if he’s going to maximize his talents, he needs the assistance of his signal caller. Jon Kitna, who never knew how to do anything but launch footballs with all the precision of a shotgun. This made Williams better, and his growth as a deep target is largely due to Kitna being able to reach the places Williams’s skills can take him. But after a while, it takes someone with a degree of precision to turn raw talent into an understanding of where to be, and when. Orlovsky doing a bad Kitna impersonation wasn’t going to do that. Left to his own devices, Calvin Williams would have been an incredible specimen forced to develop himself through his own use of his own gifts, a sort of cyclical development that eventually wears itself out absent help. Chthonian churning inevitably burns itself out without purpose.
With Culpepper, however, Johnson has the capable hand he needs to guide his development. After all, as quick as we all are to attribute Culpepper’s success to Moss, at least some of Moss’s growth has to be due to Culpepper, doesn’t it? In Culpepper, Megatron will find a quarterback who knows how to use his arm to put the ball in the best place for his receiver, as opposed to simply launching the ball to a place where he trusts his receiver’s physical ability to carry him. It’s the difference between a collaborative process and a struggling artist. Culpepper, in essence, becomes the muse for Megatron’s ability to produce.
And maybe that’s the thing; I’m excited to watch Daunte placed in this situation with this person, because after an unbearable stretch of focusing on himself, right down to his own business negotiations, he now is in a place where he has someone else that he can focus on. He must focus on that other person. Remember, for one season, when the situation was similar, Culpepper created magic with an accomplice. Here, paired with someone who, by all accounts, is a focused, well intentioned player, there’s no reason to think he can’t help do the same. Watching one veteran save a young player’s career, and if we’re lucky watching that rookie turn the veteran back into a shade of his old self, is going to be fun, if nothing else.