Cunningham knows time, money running out

ON THE NFL

July 24, 1994|By VITO STELLINO

Randall Cunningham can see the ways things are changing in the NFL these days.

He knows this is a dangerous time to be a 31-year-old, injury-prone pro football player with a big contract who has had only one playoff victory.

Entering his 10th season, Cunningham knows he may need to have a big season if he's going to attain his goal of finishing his career with the Philadelphia Eagles.

"I'm happy here," Cunningham said. "I don't want to go anywhere else. I feel in my heart that I've become part of Philadelphia."

He said he wants to be "like Dr. J" -- Julius Erving, who finished his career with the Philadelphia 76ers, although he didn't begin it with them.

All that aside, Cunningham may enter this season facing as much pressure as any other highly paid player in the league.

The bottom line is he's going to make $2.5 million this year and is scheduled to make $2.75 million next year in the final year of his contract.

He's also missed 28 games in the past three seasons.

In the past, teams could afford to carry players who had been slowed by injuries. In the era of the salary cap, however, players who make almost 10 percent of a team's available salary must produce.

It doesn't help that he has a new boss -- Jeffrey Lurie, who bought the team from Norman Braman.

Lurie said he and Cunningham haven't discussed the situation. They don't have to.

"If Randall has a very good season, he will be paid in a very significant way," Lurie said.

If not?

"He's a smart enough guy to know the realities of the football business today," Lurie said.

What are the realities today?

"You pay on present and future performance, not on past performance," he said.

That leaves the ball in Cunningham's hands. He wants to play at least five more years, noting in five years he'll be younger than Warren Moon and Joe Montana are now.

If he has a big year, he'll probably be part of the future in Philadelphia.

If he doesn't, he could become another Mark Rypien. A year ago, Rypien was a starter making $3 million with the Washington Redskins. He got hurt and now he's a backup with the Cleveland Browns making $1.15 million.

The NFL can be a tough business for the stars of yesterday -- especially one with a big salary.

The battle for the Rams

Can the gang that couldn't shoot straight in St. Louis shoot itself in the foot one more time? That's the key question for Baltimore in its quest of the Los Angeles Rams.

If St. Louis can put together a good deal, it is likely to get the Rams. It's now St. Louis' battle to lose.

The word around the league is that Rams executive John Shaw figures it's easier to make a deal with St. Louis after commissioner Paul Tagliabue told him a week ago that the league would approve a move to St. Louis, but block one to Baltimore.

Despite all that, there's no guarantee St. Louis can pull its warring factions together. Remember, Tagliabue wanted the two expansion teams to go to Charlotte and St. Louis. Only when St. Louis couldn't solve its ownership problems did Tagliabue decide to put the second team in Jacksonville.

St. Louis still is grappling with those problems. Beer distributor Jerry Clinton controls the lease at the new stadium and wants to be paid for it. Wal-Mart executive Stan Kroenke, who leads the current group, has yet to satisfy him.

If St. Louis can't get its act together, Shaw could decide it's worth the fight to go to Baltimore.

Meanwhile, Orioles owner Peter Angelos isn't discouraged.

"We're going to stay the course," Angelos said. "Our goal hasn't changed. We remain reasonably optimistic we can accomplish that goal."

He'll keep talking with Shaw, but Angelos still has a Plan B.

He hasn't forgotten that owner Hugh Culverhouse, who is fighting cancer, has set up a trust to sell the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when he dies.

If Angelos doesn't get the Rams, he plans to be knocking on the door of the new governor and the legislature next January, attempting to keep the funding alive for the new football stadium at Camden Yards. If the funding is left in place, Angelos would be very much in the bidding for the Tampa Bay team.

Trustees don't worry about fights with the league. They just sell to the highest bidder.

The new season

The NFL opens its 75th season Saturday with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, between the San Diego Chargers and the Atlanta Falcons.

Four more games are scheduled next weekend, including a game in Barcelona, Spain, between the Denver Broncos and the Los Angeles Raiders.

The NFL also plans games in Tokyo, Berlin and Mexico City.

Going north

Now that the CFL is moving south, look for the NFL to move north. Tagliabue said last week that the league is likely to play an exhibition game in Canada next year, and said Vancouver and Toronto will be "on anyone's short list of cities" for expansion.

Because Tagliabue has virtual carte blanche to put the teams where he wants to, that's a virtual guarantee, although the league hasn't set a timetable for expansion.

Tagliabue also doesn't seem to be worried much about the CFL. "They have one level of play," he said. "We have another level of play."

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