One day in January 1997, Randall Cunningham got a call at his company in Las Vegas, which installs marble and granite counters, from someone in NFL Properties, the league's marketing arm. The guy wanted to know if Cunningham, the former Eagles quarterback who, at 33, had said he was through with football, would be interested in playing later that month in an AFC-NFC game during Super Bowl week—an Old-Timers' Game.
"Yup," Cunningham recalled proudly last week. "NFL Throwbacks Bowl II. Is that awesome or what? Archie Manning and I were the NFC quarterbacks. Ted Hendricks was coming on the pass rush. I threw to Drew Pearson. It seems kind of prophetic to me now, as strange as that sounds. It's like somebody wanted me to be playing football."
In the NFL this season, a lot of people want geezers playing quarterback for them. Ten of the top 13 rated quarterbacks are 32 or older, including league leader Cunningham, 35, who has a 114.3 rating for the Vikings. He's followed by the Bills' 36-year-old Doug Flutie, at 102.7; the Jets' Vinny Testaverde, who turns 35 on Nov. 13, at 101.6; the Bengals' 32-year-old Neil O'Donnell (32) at 100.7; and the 49ers' 37-year-old Steve Young, at 100.5. The Broncos' 38-year-old John Elway ranks sixth, at 98.9, but that rating isn't even the best on the Broncos. That honor belongs to 36-year-old Bubby Brister, who has a 111.3 rating built largely while Elway was sidelined for 2� games because of back and hamstring injuries.
In fact, when the aggregate passer rating in starts this season for quarterbacks who will be at least 35 by the end of the season is compared with the combined rating for the under-35 crowd, it is quite a mismatch favoring the codgers:
With increasingly quick defenses throwing more and more complex looks at the quarterback, there's a lot to be said for experience. Listen to former Giants quarterback Phil Simms, who had second thoughts about retirement after being released by the Giants before the 1994 season. 'The unfortunate part of not coming back," said Simms, who was 38 at the time, "is that I feel like there's nothing any defense can throw at me that would screw me up. I feel more confident playing the game than I ever have."
After appearing in six games with Minnesota last year, Cunningham stepped in this year for injured starter Brad Johnson during a Sept. 13 win over the Rams and hasn't looked back. He seems to be a totally changed man from the ego-driven quarterback who never met the expectation in Philadelphia that he would lead the Eagles to the Super Bowl. He credits a renewed faith in God for the change.
"Placid," is how Vikings offensive coordinator Brian Billick describes him. "I have a different Randall Cunningham than the Randall of his Philadelphia days. People wouldn't believe how truly calm, serene and at ease with himself he is. He only cares about one thing—doing what's best for the team."
The successful older quarterbacks have one thing in common: They're not trying to be the hero. "I just let our system work for me," says Flutie, who has thrown 10 touchdown passes and only three interceptions.
Testaverde, who was run out of Baltimore in June, has settled in nicely with the Jets. "It's like when you look back at your childhood and say to yourself, I wish I knew then what I know today. I'd be a better person," says Testaverde, who after a 28-3 win over the Falcons on Oct. 25 could say for the first time in his 12 years in the league that he had thrown more touchdown passes in his career (186) than interceptions (184). "It's the same thing when you become an older quarterback. You make better decisions. I step to the line now, and I'm not intimidated by anything. I'm just more comfortable."
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