Cunningham to Ravens? Can't pass up that insurance

April 25, 2001|By Mike Preston

WHAT KIND of football season would it be without the Ravens stirring up some kind of quarterback controversy in the off-season?

Let's see. First there was Vinny, then Eric, Jim, Eric again, The Water Buffalo, Phony Stoney, Tony, Tony and then Trent.

And now it's Elvis Grbac, Chris Redman and possibly Randall Cunningham for the 2001 season. Or is it Elvis, Randall and Chris?

Word leaked out in this newspaper a couple of months ago that Ravens coach Brian Billick was considering Cunningham for the No. 3 position, and apparently Cunningham couldn't keep it to himself any longer.

"It's Baltimore, but I just haven't signed yet," Cunningham told the Fort Worth Star Telegram on Monday.

The Ravens were pretty much admitting the same thing yesterday, with Billick confirming a possible post-June 1 signing date of the 15-year veteran, easily one of the most athletic players to ever play the position.

Billick didn't hesitate designating roles yesterday. Elvis was No. 1, Chris No. 2 and Randall No. 3 ...

Unless there was something at stake such as a playoff berth, or a bye or home-field advantage.

But before we clear that up, let's answer the obvious question of the day, which is why the Ravens didn't offer the backup position to Trent Dilfer, who led the team to a Super Bowl victory in January.

Here's the obvious answer: "I would have no problems with Trent coming back here, none in the least," said Billick. "But it would be a lot to ask of Trent winning a Super Bowl with the same team, and then to come back not in a second, but a third capacity. If anybody could do it, it would be Trent. Maybe it's a bit presumptuous of me because we didn't approach Trent, but it would have been awful hard to invite him back. I don't imagine he would have taken it."

Billick is being nice. He is telling a half truth.

Here's the rest of it: By the end of last season, Dilfer's dead arm couldn't consistently hit PSINet Bankrupt Stadium from 10 yards away. During the postseason, he couldn't hit 50 percent of his passes.

In practice.

The Ravens weren't just a running team at the end of the season because of Jamal Lewis. They were afraid to let Dilfer throw. Drugs kill, and so would have Dilfer's interceptions.

Cunningham brings more to the table. For one, he can still throw a forward pass.

And of Grbac, Redman and Dilfer, none of them knows Billick's offense better than Cunningham, who spent two seasons with him in Minnesota in 1997 and 1998. While Billick and offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh prep Grbac for the season and games, Cunningham can help Redman, entering his second season. It's a role Cunningham played for Billick before during the 1997 season without complaint.

"I've established with Randall the parameters," Billick said. "We had a similar situation with him in Minnesota and it worked out well. Randall understands clearly that Elvis is the starter, that we're tying to develop Chris Redman and nothing will change that during the course of the preseason, nothing that I can foresee."

But this is where the rules might change. If Grbac gets hurt and Redman doesn't develop as fast as expected, or if there is the enormous pressure of a playoff game, then Billick brings in Cunningham. If Redman does develop, then Cunningham continues to stand on the sideline with a clipboard and his baseball cap turned backward.

It's a great ace to have.

The Ravens get a quarterback with playoff experience, one with whom Billick has a comfort level, something he didn't have with Dilfer at the end of last season.

The last time Billick and Cunningham were together, Cunningham was the league MVP in 1998, completing 259 of 425 passes for 3,704 yards and 34 touchdowns. He has thrown for 29,406 yards in a 15-year career with 204 touchdowns. He has a career quarterback rating of 81.5.

Ravens fans actually have been watching Cunningham the last two seasons. He has a lot of the same characteristics of former starter Tony Banks. They both have that long, lanky stride and the sidearm throwing motion, but Cunningham runs better, has more pocket awareness and wins games.

The scrambling is still there, and so is the ability to make big plays on deep passes.

Can he do it for 16 games?

Nope.

But that's not why the Ravens want him. Cunningham is basically a stopgap for an injury to Grbac, or until the staff feels comfortable with Redman.

It's not the worst thing that can happen to a team. Cunningham is only 38. He could be 40 and playing third base for the Orioles.

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