NFL news must travel slowly to Las Vegas, the off-season home of former star quarterback Randall Cunningham. Immersed in his new passion—the custom marble and granite business—Cunningham last week had a distorted view of the 1996 quarterback market. When he was asked if he could foresee his free-agency fate, he said, "I'll be playing, and I'll be starting. There are three or four teams that want me to be their starting quarterback."
Try one. Maybe. The quarterback-needy Arizona Cardinals passed over Cunningham last week; instead they signed career sub Kent Graham to compete with 37-year-old incumbent Dave Krieg. The New York Jets and the Pittsburgh Steelers also ignored Cunningham while making key quarterback decisions: The Jets signed free-agent Neil O'Donnell, and the Steelers planned to go with Jim Miller, Mike Tomczak or Kordell Stewart. That leaves the St. Louis Rams as the only team with a starting job available, unless the Oakland Raiders don't re-sign free agent Jeff Hostetler, which is unlikely. Cunningham is scheduled to meet with the Rams on March 22, and if he's willing to accept an incentive-laden contract with a base salary of less than $1 million, he will succeed Chris Miller as the St. Louis quarterback. Suffering from the aftereffects of six concussions in the last two seasons, Miller was waived by St. Louis on Monday. If talks with the Rams fall apart, Cunningham will have to find work as a backup, perhaps in Oakland.
Five years ago Cunningham was coming off one of the most remarkable seasons a quarterback has ever had—3,466 yards passing, 942 yards rushing, 35 touchdowns combined—and appeared set to join Dan Marino and John Elway as one of the NFL's elite at his position. Now, with four years left in the decade he was supposed to dominate, Cunningham is trying to save his career.
"My one regret is that I stayed in Philadelphia too long [11 seasons] and kind of let the Rich Kotite coaching era roll over me," says Cunningham. "But I'm only 32. I'm still a franchise quarterback—with the right team."
Flash back to the wonder years, from 1987 to '90, when then Eagles coach Buddy Ryan, a defensive specialist, didn't care how Cunningham did his job. "I remember Buddy used to say to Randall, 'All I need is for you to make four or five plays a game to make the difference,' " says one former teammate. "And Randall used to go out and make these unbelievable plays, plays nobody else could make. Buddy was relying on Randall's athletic ability and not his ability to read or learn defenses, and that turned out to be Randall's undoing." That and some serious injuries—torn medial collateral and posterior cruciate ligaments in his left knee in '91 and a broken left leg in '93.
When Kotite was promoted from offensive coordinator to replace Ryan in 1991, he tried to bring more structure to the Eagles' attack, which didn't fit Cunningham's improvisational game. Then, after Cunningham suffered his knee injury in the first game of the season, backup Jim McMahon did two things—hung out with his teammates and studied defenses ardently—that further soured the coaching staff on Cunningham. Still, Cunningham passed for 2,775 yards and 19 touchdowns in '92, 850 yards and five TDs before his injury in '93 and 3,229 yards and 16 TDs before Kotite benched him in December 1994.
"I thought he was one of the most dangerous players we ever faced," says Jimmy Johnson, the Dallas Cowboys' coach from 1989 to '93. "But he also could throw it right to the defense in a big spot. It got to where you never knew which Randall you'd see."
Last year new Eagles coach Ray Rhodes and young coordinator Jon Gruden brought in the West Coast offense. Expecting Cunningham to run the precision West Coast scheme, says Washington Redskins coach Norv Turner, "was like asking Barry Sanders to be a power back or Jose Canseco to be a singles hitter." Rhodes benched Cunningham twice in the first four weeks of the season and has since signed former Green Bay Packer backup Ty Detmer (21 passes in four NFL seasons) to take Cunningham's place and challenge Rodney Peete for the Eagles' starting job.
At his workshop in Las Vegas last week, Cunningham worked the marble grinder and seemed content with whatever his football future holds. He got into this new business, he said, because he and his wife, Felicity, had some excess marble from the construction of their Las Vegas house last year. He began working with it, saw the building boom in Las Vegas, hired a staff and opened his marble and granite shop. "During the day I'm basically grinding marble," he said. "The image people have of me is that I'm hanging around with stars. But I like dirty work. This is the real me."
It could be the permanent him if the 1996 season is a rerun of the past few years.