Less than three years removed from a season in which he tossed 39 touchdown passes, it's difficult to fathom that Daunte Culpepper's tenure as a significant player in the NFL is already over.
It's certainly difficult for the 30-year-old Culpepper to accept. But some franchises are still curious to see what's left in his powerful right arm and what the status is of a right knee shredded by a catastrophic 2005 injury.
Which is why Culpepper, persona non grata in Miami only 15 months after having been hailed there as the long-overdue replacement for Dan Marino, figures to relocate via trade (unlikely) or free agency (more plausible) if the Dolphins grant his request to release him.
The Dolphins have granted Culpepper, whose base salary for 2007 is $5.5 million and whose contract runs through the 2013 season, permission to speak to other teams. A franchise that would probably accept a ham sandwich as trade compensation for Culpepper -- OK, actually a low-round draft choice -- at least isn't being totally ham-handed about the situation, now that it has secured Trent Green as its latest presumptive quarterback/savior.
How many viable suitors an on-the-market Culpepper can quickly identify, working as his own agent, remains to be seen. But even in a league where there is always plenty of rhetoric about the dearth of quality quarterbacks but few realistic job openings to validate the talk, Culpepper will stir up an offer or two. After all, this is a player whose 110.9 passer efficiency rating in 2004 rates as the fourth highest in league history, even though it occurred two teams and two knee surgeries ago.
It's one thing to fall from grace. But it's nearly impossible for any quarterback with a pulse and a résumé to tumble completely out of the NFL. Even with what has transpired in the past two seasons, Culpepper is not yet reduced to blip status on the league's radar screen.
But here's the rub: The prideful Culpepper, justifiably or not, still considers himself a starter. And right now in the NFL, despite the perception to the contrary in some quarters, it doesn't take a handful of fingers to count the starting opportunities available only six or seven weeks before teams begin reporting for training camps.
Which will make Culpepper's task, no matter how tempting his résumé might be to some general manager or coach, all the more formidable.
How formidable? Chew on this: Three of six general managers and personnel directors with whom ESPN.com spoke about Culpepper since Thursday afternoon acknowledged that the first call they would make if they needed to hastily fill a spot on their quarterback depth chart would be to the retired Drew Bledsoe. The other three allowed that Culpepper would be a factor for them, but emphasized they couldn't guarantee him a starting job. Or even the chance to compete for one.
This for a quarterback with four 3,000-yard passing seasons, one 4,000-yard campaign, 137 touchdown passes, an average of 25.8 touchdown passes in the five seasons in which he was physically whole and started double-digit games and a laudable career rating of 90.8. That Culpepper might be viewed as just yesterday's news to a lot of teams might be not only news, but a harsh dose of reality, to him.
Certainly, the truth hurts. But what might hurt Culpepper in the market is the fact that he still has physical issues 19 months after his knee blew apart as he scrambled upfield against the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 30, 2005. On top of that, his financial demands might be excessive for a guy with so many questions still buzzing around him. While he might agree to take a shot with a team that promises him only a backup role, his pride won't allow him to accept caddie status. Adding him because of who he is, or at least who he was until that fateful afternoon in 2005, could cause distractions for a team.
Any or all of those things could conspire to reduce the number of franchises that might consider Culpepper even as a curiosity.
Take, for example, the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team that has been widely speculated might have interest in Culpepper. Certainly the Jags have uncertainty at quarterback, with Byron Leftwich entering the final year of his contract and David Garrard struggling down the stretch in 2006.
Jacksonville officials have spent much of the offseason trying to rebuild the confidence of Leftwich and attempting to regain his trust. Leftwich has lost some weight, improved his mobility a bit and rededicated himself. Coach Jack Del Rio has proclaimed the former first-rounder his starter. And first-year offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is said to have fallen hard for the four-year veteran.
To suddenly interject Culpepper into that environment, no matter how it's spun publicly, would undo much of what the Jaguars have spent the spring trying to accomplish. No matter how confident Leftwich is, he might feel betrayed and certainly his head would once again be on a swivel.
Yet the talent of Culpepper remains such, at least perceptually, that Jacksonville officials are said to be at least tinkering with the notion of checking him out.
And there are almost certainly other franchises, though probably not quite as many teams as Culpepper might like, who are similarly teased. Baltimore, New England, Oakland, Chicago, Detroit, Minnesota and St. Louis have been mentioned -- although not by anyone who has decision-making authority in any of those precincts because it would be violating the NFL tampering rules. Yet all of those teams share a common denominator.
None is prepared to offer Culpepper, who figures to suffer a little ego comedown at some point soon, a starting job. And as Culpepper continues to try to navigate his way around the various potholes in his path, it's that reality that might be as tough to reconcile as anything he has been through physically the past two years.
In a league whose many hallmarks include the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately mind-set, Culpepper hasn't done much at all since 2004.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer with ESPN.com.