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.