"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.