Ravens backup backs Grbac

Eyeing team unity, Cunningham won't stoke QB debate

`I'm always in your corner'

Veteran's experience in Philly, Minnesota serves as caution

November 22, 2001|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

This is where Randall Cunningham's experience comes in.

And it has nothing to do with his ability on the field, where Cunningham has played in 159 games in his 16-year career. It is about Cunningham using the professionalism drawn from such a long haul to help defuse a potentially nasty situation off the field.

Cunningham is entangled in the most hotly debated topic surrounding the Ravens: whether he should start Sunday's game at Jacksonville instead of struggling quarterback Elvis Grbac.

Grbac will remain the Ravens' starter, but he is coming off his worst game of the season on Sunday, when he tossed four interceptions and lost a fumble in a 27-17 loss to the Cleveland Browns.

Afterward, Cunningham was one of the first to talk with Grbac to let him know he realizes his role is to be the backup, no matter what the fans chant or what anyone else short of Ravens coach Brian Billick thinks. In essence, Cunningham will not be politicking for playing time.

"I told Elvis after the game, `I'm always in your corner,' so that he doesn't even have a second thought about it," Cunningham said.

Cunningham knows what happens when one quarterback stabs another in the back and helps inflame the debate.

"It is horrible because undermining can happen," Cunningham said. "Hatred, contention, dissension, factions - all those things start. But that won't happen here. As long as I'm a backup quarterback or a starter, I never plan on being a part of anything like that.

"I've seen it. It is a bad thing because it divides a team. I refuse to have a part in anything like that."

Cunningham was involved in a quarterback controversy during the 1995 season in Philadelphia with Rodney Peete. Their relationship was contentious, and Peete replaced Cunningham a quarter of the way into the season, Cunningham's last as an Eagle.

Cunningham went down swinging, saying many times that he felt he should be the starter.

"When I left Philadelphia, I had pride," Cunningham said. "I wanted to be in the lineup, and I didn't handle it right. I wanted to play, and I told them I wanted to play. And that is what people expected out of me. But as far as I'm concerned, I don't need to express that through the newspapers."

The lessons he learned from that experience help him deal with the situation now and a similar deal two years ago in Minnesota. Jeff George replaced Cunningham as starter after six games, but Cunningham handled it completely differently by supporting George. Surprisingly, Cunningham still took criticism for being too cooperative.

"In Minnesota, the rap on Randall was that he wouldn't be a good backup, that he would rock the ship too much," said Billick, who was the Vikings' offensive coordinator and coached Cunningham to the league MVP award in 1998. "He came into Minnesota and was the perfect guy, then was called upon to play. Then when things didn't work out as well and Jeff George went in and [Cunningham] reverted back to saying, `OK, if my role is to be the backup, then I'll do it,' he got slammed for not caring anymore, not having passion for the game. He was trying to do the right thing and he got slammed for it.

"Randall understands his role. He's been the perfect backup. When he was called to start, he stepped in, took control and was a leader as well as producing on the field. And now he understands, he supports Elvis."

Cunningham is 2-0 as a starter for the Ravens, and he produced three fourth-quarter touchdowns in the two preceding games in relief of Grbac.

He has not been perfect, though. Cunningham has completed 54 of 89 passes for 573 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions on the year, but he has been sacked 12 times and had to bring the Ravens back from fourth-quarter deficits in both his starts after the team struggled offensively much of the games.

Still, Cunningham has support in the locker room in whatever capacity he is asked to serve because of his willingness to be a team player.

"Randall understands the situation," tight end Shannon Sharpe said. "He knew coming in that he was going to be the No. 2 guy, no matter what happened. He understood that if Elvis went down for a significant period of time, he was going to be the guy until Elvis got ready. Elvis is ready, and Randall is going back to the bench. That is the way it is.

"In the NFL, you try and cause as little controversy among your team as possible. When you do that, good things happen."

That is what Cunningham is banking on.

"When I was in Minnesota, of course I wanted to play," he said. "But when I was sat down and Jeff came in, I had to support Jeff. I didn't want to cause problems with our team because I wanted to win. I've adjusted to situations from being a younger player and not understanding and just wanting to play, not caring what people thought, to being a mature player on a Super Bowl-winning team."

"I want unity inside my family, not division. In a football arena, if you've heard what the people who have won Super Bowls have said, they've said we were together. You knew everybody had your back. That is the kind of environment you have to be in."

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Jacksonville Jaguars

Site: ALLTEL Stadium, Jacksonville, Fla.

When: Sunday, 4:15 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Ravens by 3

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.