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 deemphasizing 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."