Scrambling for cover

Randall Cunningham wants to be a backup. Really. But the one thing he's never outrun is quarterback controversy.

Cunningham doesn't seem too worried about all that. He intends to enjoy the tranquility he's so sure he has found. His is the unabashed faith of a believer.

But you're cynical. You wonder: Why should this time be any different?

As with most inquiries, you'd like to go right to the source for a direct answer. With Randall Cunningham, it's not that simple. Not because he's reluctant to help--on the contrary, he is extremely accommodating--but because his responses, at times, don't strike the target you've set up. Or, for that matter, any target within a hundred-mile radius. Sometimes they're jumbled, confusing, nonsensical.

If Aikman struggles during the season, some fans will surely call for Cunningham--who was a Pro Bowler after the 1998 season.
Gary Lawson
If Aikman struggles during the season, some fans will surely call for Cunningham--who was a Pro Bowler after the 1998 season.
With Randall Cunningham and Paul Justin, above, the Cowboys now have two quality backups to Aikman.
Gary Lawson
With Randall Cunningham and Paul Justin, above, the Cowboys now have two quality backups to Aikman.

After a conference call last summer, Philadelphia Daily News Eagles beat writer Marcus Hayes commented that things hadn't changed much since Cunningham left town, noting "he proved as able as ever to entertain with his often unintentional comedy and head-scratching insights." Cunningham's not stupid--at a time when you practically need a degree in quantum physics to navigate the salary cap, he's one of a handful of NFL players bright enough to negotiate his own contracts--but he does have a way of confounding interviewers. During his days with the Eagles, before he got married to his wife, Felicity, he told reporters that then-coach Buddy Ryan "is the husband, and we are the wife. We have to do what he says. That's the way it is."

A few years later, after getting benched, he was asked his reaction to sitting and said he thought "the whole world is confused right now. We have a new president. The economy is all messed up. You know, earthquakes, hurricanes. I think everybody should get into the Bible right now and do what God wants us to do, because this world could be ending very soon, and my main goal is to go to heaven and not hell.''

To be sure, Cunningham is a riddle at best, a complex individual who's unlike anybody you've ever met. Sometimes, you're not sure whether he's having fun at your expense, muddling your notes with verbal gauze to get a few kicks, or whether he plainly gets lost in thought. Either way, he's difficult to get a read on.

Often, it's because he answers every question as if he's conducting a whispering sermon. Whether Cunningham's praising His name or quoting Scripture with remarkable accuracy, the Almighty regularly works his way into Randall-speak. In that regard, he's not much different from the average follower. What separates him and, for example, former teammate Reggie White is that he has no qualms about crediting the heavens for his return to the game (he sat out the 1996 season).

By doing so, by invoking God in the course of discussing his professional decisions--suggesting, basically, that He is an agent--Cunningham invites criticism from unbelieving media types. A lot of it.

"Anywhere you're at in life, people are going to look at you and judge what the situation is or what it should be," he says. "I guess that's why the Bible it says not to judge, because ultimately He is the judge."

Even before he found religion, Cunningham was painted as a strange bird. His eccentricity was pointed out from jump. It was never easy for Randall Cunningham, this celebrity thing. Oh, sure, for a good while he embraced it, even became it, but it wasn't something he did well.

The fame was inevitable, of course. When you're 6-foot-4, 215 pounds of gridiron grace, when you can hurl a ball 70 yards the way a child flicks a marble or juke a linebacker with the same fluidity and effortlessness, when you can dazzle in an instant, you might as well walk around with a large neon arrow pointing at your head. But as beloved as Cunningham was in Philadelphia, things didn't always run smoothly. Not with the press, not with one of his head coaches, not with some of the players.

As a second-round pick out of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas in 1985, he underwent a lot of scrutiny. Any player selected that highly would, but he did even more so because fans in Philly doubted the organization, considering its history of poor drafts. They weren't alone. In his book Bringing the Heat, the story of the 1992 Eagles, Mark Bowden writes that the in-the-know crowd, especially talent evaluators, were also skeptical: "When he threw the ball, his body uncoiled like a rope, a loose, smooth, wave action that began at his heels and concluded with a whipping motion at the end of a long, rubber arm, the way a Disney cartoonist might draw it. The throwing style was so unique that hidebound scouts--their minds patterned to seek out Unitas, Namath, Marino--took one look at it and said, The kid'll never make it. Throws like a fuckin' windmill. Takes him too long to release the ball."

In the end, they were wrong--Cunningham worked plenty on the timing of his delivery so that it's now more than acceptable. But even after developing into one of the most versatile quarterbacks ever, after winning countless awards and the admiration of national followers and analysts, local criticism and drama plagued him.

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