Scrambling for cover

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

A full year after banishing himself to trade-labor purgatory, that changed. All of a sudden, working with marble and granite didn't look so appealing to the capricious shopkeeper. There began to be rumblings that Cunningham wasn't happy with his new occupation; that he missed staring down irate, charging defensive linemen. Soon Cunningham was peddling himself--he says it was God's will that brought him out of retirement--on the NFL's open market. Except for one thing: It wasn't so open.

Teams desperately in need of some ability under center passed on the former Eagle, including the always inept Arizona Cardinals, who opted for incompetent Kent Graham and ancient Dave Krieg instead. Meanwhile, as he is wont to do, Cunningham ignored it all as if he didn't notice, electing to pretend as though the world was begging for an audience with his holiness.

"I'll be playing, and I'll be starting," he told Sports Illustrated in 1996. "There are three or four teams that want me to be their starting quarterback."

Owner and general manager Jerry Jones believed in Cunningham enough to woo him from Minnesota--even though Jones had already paid Paul Justin half a million bucks to be Aikman's backup.
Gary Lawson
Owner and general manager Jerry Jones believed in Cunningham enough to woo him from Minnesota--even though Jones had already paid Paul Justin half a million bucks to be Aikman's backup.
Owner and general manager Jerry Jones believed in Cunningham enough to woo him from Minnesota--even though Jones had already paid Paul Justin half a million bucks to be Aikman's backup.
Gary Lawson
Owner and general manager Jerry Jones believed in Cunningham enough to woo him from Minnesota--even though Jones had already paid Paul Justin half a million bucks to be Aikman's backup.

On April 11, 1997, Cunningham was reborn yet again, this time with the help of the Minnesota Vikings and head coach-vice president of football operations Dennis Green. (Boy, the signals from God must have gotten really crossed up that time. How could He inspire Cunningham to play for a team whose moniker is derived from a bunch of pillaging, whoring murderers? Just beats all logic, doesn't it?) That year, he appeared in a handful of games, some as a starter, most in relief, some even as a punter. Yeah, a punter--Cunningham can do that too. On the whole, it wasn't a terrific encore; he finished with pedestrian numbers (six touchdowns, four interceptions, 71.3 quarterback rating). More intriguing than any stats, you thought at the time, was that he managed to complete an entire year without drawing attention to himself.

It wouldn't last.


Nobody knew it at first, but when Brad Johnson went down with an injury in the second week of the 1998 season, he reopened Cunningham's Pandora's Box. Johnson was Minnesota's starting quarterback before being lost for the year in the fourth quarter of a fateful game in St. Louis. It was a turn of events that would radically alter everyone's perception of the Vikings.

Johnson's replacement was Cunningham, nowthrust back into a spotlight he knew, and loathed, so well. Most onlookers thought nothing of it, figuring Cunningham would trudge through his duties, throw a few senseless interceptions--a habit for which he was knocked in Philadelphia--and then offer some muddled quote when it was over. Really, what else could come from handing Minnesota over to a washed-up, almost-was-but-finally-wasn't quarterback? No one--and don't say you expected it, because you didn't--thought Cunningham would turn in the season he did. He guided the Vikings to the NFC Championship game while throwing for an incredible 3,704 yards on 60.9 percent passing, 34 touchdowns against just 10 picks and a 106.0 QB rating. The performance earned him all sorts of honors, including his fourth trip to Honolulu for the Pro Bowl.

Meanwhile, once again, Cunningham was the center of attention, which made sense because Jerry Bruckheimer couldn't have dreamt up a story that ridiculous. Once again, Cunningham was in demand. ESPN, magazines, and newspapers all lavished praise and lauded Cunningham.

Even though the Vikes didn't make the Super Bowl, falling a field goal short, that was OK by the media--Cunningham and compatriots would just "get 'em next year." Never mind that reproducing such an outstanding season might be difficult. Never mind that offensive coordinator Brian Billick, who Cunningham said had devised the perfect system for his skills, had fled the scene for a head-coaching job with the Baltimore Ravens.

"Everything worked perfectly in '98 because Billick did a good job preparing Randall," says Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune writer Kent Youngblood, who's entering his third season covering the Vikings. "He didn't have to do much reading. After [Billick] left, Randall said to me many times that things wouldn't be the same."

How prescient. Today's media darling is tomorrow's bitch, and six games into last year the wheels had come off the Randall Cunningham bandwagon. Where once Cunningham could do no wrong, he was immediately vilified and scapegoated for the team's slow start. (Sound familiar?) Talk went from "Jeez, that Randall sure can play" to "Jeez, that Randall couldn't play flag football."

What happened next was, if not transparently predictable, eerily reminiscent: Teammates grumbled about his commitment to the team. Questions arose about his ability to perform. He got benched.

Cunningham was jettisoned to the sideline in favor of understudy Jeff George. There were rumors, unconfirmed, that wideout Cris Carter had lobbied to insert George into the starting lineup, and that his moaning set things in motion for Randall's demotion. Cunningham denies it ever happened, saying only "if it did, Cris never said anything to me about it."

Still, once again, it was only a matter of time before something had to give. Once again, as he watched from the sideline for the remainder of the year, things were in disarray.

This past offseason, with George gone to the Washington Redskins, Cunningham was told by Green he could stay on board, take a significant salary cut, and probably be the starting quarterback. Probably, provided second-year man Daunte Culpepper didn't beat him out first. Either that, or he could take his chances and hit the road.

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