Vikings' Cunningham makes smooth move Veteran QB steps in, jump-starts career

December 31, 1997|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green was in the market for a backup quarterback last winter. Two-time MVP Randall Cunningham was shopping for a job.

Eleven months later, their blissful football union has exceeded expectations all around.

Few who knew him expected Cunningham to settle in comfortably behind Brad Johnson, the Vikings' quarterback of the present and the future.

Fewer still would have predicted playoff success -- and two-minute mastery, at that -- for the quarterback who won only one of five playoff starts in Philadelphia with the underachieving Eagles.

Yet, defying the odds, the clock and the New York Giants, Cunningham accomplished what four other quarterbacks had failed to do under Green -- win a playoff game. Thanks to a come-from-behind, 23-22, wild-card victory last week, the sixth-seeded Vikings are going to San Francisco for Saturday's NFC divisional playoff game against the top-seeded 49ers.

It was no ordinary comeback, but this is no ordinary situation.

After 11 years with the Eagles, Cunningham, 34, sat out the 1996 season in self-imposed retirement.

"I had no desire to play," he said. "I didn't want to put a uniform on. I was beat up mentally with football. I didn't want to have anything to do with it."

Instead, he started his own business in Las Vegas, where he went to college. He cut marble and installed kitchen counter tops. And once a week he worked in a television studio, analyzing NFL games for TNT.

By season's end, Cunningham was ready to return. He spoke with Green at the Super Bowl in New Orleans about the Vikings. Johnson had just signed a $15 million contract, and veteran Warren Moon was about to leave, so Green had an opening. But he also had reservations.

Would Cunningham play at the Vikings' price? And would he accept a backup role?

"Randall respected that we laid all our cards out on the table," Green said. "A little bit of money, a backup job, great coaching, treat you with a lot of respect. And if the starter goes down, help us to win."

"We wanted the right situation. We didn't want any controversy."

Cunningham wore controversy like a knapsack with Philadelphia. January 1996, he missed a week of practice before a divisional playoff game in Dallas to be with his wife for the birth of the couple's first child. When starter Rodney Peete was injured, Cunningham had to play the last three quarters. He did not know the plays and performed poorly in a 30-10 defeat.

It was his final act as an Eagle. The team did not attempt to re-sign him after his contract expired.

There was only mild interest elsewhere when he wanted to return for the 1997 season. The New Orleans Saints and Mike Ditka offered a one-year, $700,000 contract, and the frugal Vikings countered with an offer of $425,000.

Cunningham opted for Green over Ditka.

"I figured if I went down there and became the starter, when the team didn't do that well, I would be put on the bench, and that would probably be the end of my career," he said.

"But with the Vikings, if I came into a situation where I knew my role, if I had the opportunity to at least watch and learn and then get into the lineup, that could prolong my career. That turned out to be the best move for me."

True to his word, Cunningham, who is deeply religious, sat quietly in the background. But when neck surgery ended Johnson's season in Week 15, Cunningham was the man again. He lost his first two starts, then threw for four touchdowns in a 39-28 victory over Indianapolis that sent the Vikings into the playoffs.

After four starts, Cunningham is still rusty, but he's getting more comfortable each week. Cris Carter, Minnesota's Pro Bowl receiver who played three years with Cunningham in Philadelphia, can appreciate the transition better than most.

"What Randall has done is amazing," Carter said. "He came to us, had to learn a new system and had been out of the game for a year."

"We're both totally different than we were in Philadelphia. He's been through a change. He's matured. He's closer to the team than he was in Philadelphia."

Against the Giants last week, it looked like old times for Cunningham, the most prolific running quarterback in NFL history. He hurdled tacklers, tormented the defense with his ad-lib runs, and made big plays in the passing game when the Vikings had to have them.

Because of that, the Vikings, like Cunningham, are exceeding expectations.

NFL playoffs

Divisional games

Saturday

N. England at Pitt. (-7),

12: 30 p.m., chs. 11, 4

Minn. at San Fran. (-14),

4 p.m., chs. 45, 5

Sunday

T. Bay at Gr. Bay (-14),

12: 30 p.m., chs. 45, 5

Denver at K.C. (-1 1/2 ),

4 p.m., chs. 11, 4

Pub Date: 12/31/97

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