Second Coming Rejuvenated after a year in retirement, Randall Cunningham is setting the league on its ear and leading the Vikings to new heights

December 07, 1998

It didn't feel like a sabbatical. At the time, it felt like the
rest of his life. Two years ago Randall Cunningham was out of
football and on his knees in strangers' houses. He was cutting
marble and granite for kitchen counters and bathrooms. "Have you
ever tried to cut black granite?" asks Cunningham, the Minnesota
Vikings' starting quarterback. He does not await your answer.
"Now, that's hard work."

Another tough job: convincing Cunningham's critics that he has
radically improved since returning in '97 from his one-season
hiatus. Try telling them that he is staying in the pocket
longer, seeing more of the field and making better reads than he
ever did in 11 seasons as a Philadelphia Eagle. Talk about hard
work.

What's the difference between the Cunningham who retired after
the '95 season because teams evinced hardly any interest in him
and this year's model, the 35-year-old who is on the short list
of candidates for the league's MVP award? What's the difference
between that washed-up Eagle and this fired-up Viking, whose 23
touchdown passes and 109.2 quarterback rating lead the league,
and who pureed the Dallas Cowboys' secondary like sweet potatoes
on Thanksgiving Day, throwing for 359 yards and four scores in
Minnesota's 46-36 win? What's the difference? When we posed the
question to Rodney Peete, the Eagle who displaced Cunningham in
Philadelphia, he was not in a generous mood.

"What's different about Randall? Randy Moss, Cris Carter, Jake
Reed, Robert Smith. That's really it," said Peete, ticking off
the names of Minnesota's trio of big-play wide receivers and its
superb running back.

Cunningham digests, then rebuts, this analysis. "Rodney is a
jealous person," he says. "He's stabbed me in the back before."
A pause follows, then Cunningham, perhaps realizing that those
are strong words to be emanating from the mouth of such a godly
man as himself, adds this: "But I've forgiven him."

God knows Peete has suffered enough. While Cunningham has gone
on to star for the best team in the NFC, his successor in
Philadelphia has alternately struggled and borne a clipboard for
the league's lowest-scoring offense. Rodney's sour-grapes
explanation for Randall's success is as understandable as it is
inaccurate. Cunningham admits that he wasn't the most astute
reader of defenses during his days as an Eagle, but he also
points out that he wasn't asked to be, particularly from 1986 to
'90, when he played for coach Buddy Ryan, a defensive specialist
who had as much interest in offense as he did in Ashtanga yoga.

"Buddy basically asked me to make five or six big plays a game,
and the defense would do the rest," says Cunningham, who
nonetheless made three consecutive Pro Bowl appearances
beginning in 1988. When he pulled the ball down, bolted from the
pocket and commenced freelancing, he says, "I was doing what I
was told."

In Minnesota, where the 11-1 Vikings have won nine of the 10
games he has started since replacing the injured Brad Johnson,
Cunningham's orders are different. "Here," says Minnesota
offensive coordinator Brian Billick, "we've asked him to drop
back and go through a progression of receivers. We've asked him
to be smart, to make reads and make plays within the system.
It's what a lot of people around the league told me he wouldn't
be able to do, and it's exactly what he's done. Anyone who
thinks Randall has been successful just because he throws a nice
deep ball doesn't get it."

Which is not to say the Vikings will be de-emphasizing their
big-play offense anytime soon. His advancing years
notwithstanding, Cunningham still throws the NFL's most
beautiful bomb. And as he proved again last Thursday at Texas
Stadium, where he caught three passes, all for touchdowns, Moss
is, at 21, as good as or better than any other receiver in the
league at beating defensive backs deep and then outleaping them
for the ball.

When Moss was his primary receiver and the Cowboys (who were
playing without Deion Sanders) rolled their coverage toward the
rookie, Cunningham calmly went to his second and third reads. He
has been much more comfortable with the offense in '98 than he
was late last season, when he started five games--two in the
postseason--in relief of the injured Johnson. Back then
Minnesota coaches streamlined the game plan for Cunningham,
reducing it to 60%-70% of what Johnson was asked to master. This
season, says Billick, "we go into the game with the same number
of plays."

Whereas Cunningham only occasionally made it to his second read
last season before fleeing the pocket, this year he has shown far
more poise and patience. On Oct. 5 at Lambeau Field, the Green
Bay Packers focused on confining him to the pocket, figuring that
was where he posed the least threat to their 25-game home winning
streak. Four Cunningham touchdown tosses and 442 passing yards
later, the streak was toast, as was the notion that Randall isn't
a pocket passer.

When Johnson fractured his right fibula in the second game of
the season, Cunningham came off the bench to throw the
game-winning touchdown pass in a 38-31 win over the St. Louis
Rams. If the Vikings were still concerned about Cunningham, he
eased their minds the following Wednesday. In preparing for his
first start of the season, against the Detroit Lions, he
completed 18 of 19 passes against Minnesota's first-string
defense. The sole incompletion was a drop.

More so than a year ago, when he was still learning Billick's
system, Cunningham has projected a quiet, contagious confidence
this season. Just before kickoff against Dallas, Billick,
afflicted with butterflies, approached his quarterback on the
sideline and said, "You're gonna have to keep me calm today."
Cunningham smiled, then threw first-quarter scoring passes of
51, 54 and 56 yards as the Vikings bolted to a 21-6 lead.

Cunningham's newfound serenity transcends the football field.
"There's been a lot of grace poured down on me," he said last
Saturday while overseeing work on his new, 14,000-square-foot
home outside Las Vegas. "I have peace in my heart." He went on
to describe a kind of spiritual awakening that occurred in him
during his year away from the game.

"I've been a Christian since 1987," he said, "but I was a
hypocrite for a lot of the time. I was built up to be this
superstar, and I spent all my time trying to live up to that."
In hindsight, he sees that his motives were selfish. "I was
doing it for man, rather than for God," he said. "I needed to
humble myself."

General managers around the league helped him reach that goal by
expressing little interest in him after the '96 season.
Additional humility awaited as he started his new business,
grinding and hoisting slabs of expensive stone. He had long
since ceased to take football for granted when the Vikings
informed him in April 1997 that they wanted to bring him in as
Johnson's understudy. He took their interest as a sign from God.

Of course, Cunningham takes it as a sign from God when he can
find a parking place without driving around the block. Born-again
Christians often speak of their desire to let Christ's "light"
shine through them. Cunningham's nickname, in that case, should
be Klieg. Two days before a divisional playoff against the San
Francisco 49ers last season, a reporter concluded an interview
with Cunningham by wishing him luck. "Pray for me," came the
reply.

Give the man credit--he isn't just bearing witness, he's leaving
as little as possible to chance. During TV timeouts, after
Billick gives him the play, Cunningham sometimes steps from the
huddle and offers a short prayer for its success. If a bomb has
been called, for instance, "I'll ask God to anoint the play, to
complete it, to give him glory."

Admittedly a selfish player in Philadelphia, Cunningham appears
to have traded in his ego for a purple jersey. He has been
exemplary in Minnesota, never taking it the wrong way when
younger Vikings recall seeing him on television while they were
in elementary school. He always says the right thing, and
appears to mean it. For instance, when he's asked who should be
the starting quarterback once Johnson, who broke his right thumb
while spelling the injured Cunningham during a 31-24 win over
the New Orleans Saints on Nov. 8, regains his health, Cunningham
always insists that he'll happily resume his role as a backup.
Eagles wide receivers coach Gerald Carr believes Cunningham's
season away from football was the key. "He finally realized it
wasn't all about Randall," says Carr. "Once he realized it
wasn't all about him being a superstar, he became one."

This season Cunningham has thrown eight touchdown passes of 50
or more yards. At the same time, he has been careful with the
ball. He did not throw an interception in his first five games,
though he has since thrown seven. His 60.9 completion percentage
is a career best for a season in which he has thrown at least
200 passes. He may have played his best game in Minnesota's lone
defeat, completing 21 of 25 passes in a 27-24 loss to the Tampa
Bay Buccaneers on Nov. 1. He threw two touchdown passes, and
another was dropped. He was intercepted once, when a blitzing
linebacker hit him in the back as he released the ball. He threw
one ball away to avoid a sack. For his fourth incomplete pass,
the ball glanced off Carter's hands.

"I think the time off gave him peace of mind," says Bucs coach
Tony Dungy, who insists that Cunningham "has to be the MVP of the
league."

How to stop him? "Get pressure on him without blitzing, without
giving up any coverage," says Dungy. "Get him in a rush, get him
to make a bad decision. So far, that hasn't happened."

"Two-deep zones don't seem to bother him as much as they used
to," adds New Orleans defensive coordinator Zaven Yaralian, a
former New York Giants assistant who faced Cunningham twice a
year when both were in the NFC East. "You can't just sit back in
zone coverage and let him throw it. You have to come after him."

The Saints could have had Cunningham on their side following the
'96 season, when they came close to signing him before he opted
to go to Minnesota. No great loss, the Saints told themselves;
they picked up Heath Shuler and Danny Wuerffel instead. "Come to
think of it," Yaralian was saying last week, "we also had a
chance at [drafting] Randy Moss. Jeez, we could have ruined
their whole season."

Under the terms of the two-year, $2 million deal Cunningham
signed last March, he will become a free agent after this season
if he plays more than half of the team's snaps. That is all but
assured. Will Cunningham, who has said money is not of paramount
importance, accept less than he could get elsewhere to stay in
Minnesota?

"The Bible says tomorrow is not promised to us," he says. "I'm
just thankful for what I have now. I will pray that God puts it
in the Vikings' heart to do what is right."

Believe this: The loss of Cunningham might spark a mini mutiny
in Minnesota's locker room, where respect and affection for
number 7 run high. The criticism in Philadelphia that he was too
focused on himself doesn't wash with the Vikings. Not after his
performance on Nov. 15--six days after having two dime-sized
bone chips removed from his right knee--when he led the team to
a 24-3 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

Never one to miss an opportunity to deflect a bit of glory to
the man upstairs, Cunningham gave the bone fragments--in a small
jar--to team chaplain Keith Johnson. At a Sunday-morning service
preceding the game, says Cunningham, Johnson brandished the bone
chips while extolling the healing power of the Almighty.

Cunningham's season has been a reminder of the healing power of a
sabbatical. It has also been a revelation. He is awash in grace,
so he won't be offended by our admission that he is smarter than
we thought he was. Not only is Cunningham not soft, he is as
tough and durable as black granite.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO COVER Born Again The remarkable transformation of Vikings quarterback Randall Cunningham [Randall Cunningham set to pass football in game] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO SOARING Cunningham, who threw for four scores against the Cowboys, is on pace to have his finest season in 13 years as a pro. [Kavika Pittman diving for Randall Cunningham in mid-air leap] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER HIGH-HANDED In a scene that became painfully familiar to Dallas fans, Moss scored on a 51-yard pass play on Minnesota's opening possession. [Randy Moss celebrating with football in end zone] COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO OFF AND RUNNING Carter, known as a possession receiver, burned the Cowboys for seven receptions, including a 54-yard score. [Cris Carter running with football in game] COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER [Randall Cunningham]

"Anyone who thinks Randall has been successful just because he
throws a nice deep ball doesn't get it," says Billick.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)