NFL news must travel slowly to Las Vegas, the off-season home of
former star quarterback Randall Cunningham. Immersed in his new
passion--the custom marble and granite business--Cunningham last
week had a distorted view of the 1996 quarterback market. When
he was asked if he could foresee his free-agency fate, he said,
"I'll be playing, and I'll be starting. There are three or four
teams that want me to be their starting quarterback."
Try one. Maybe. The quarterback-needy Arizona Cardinals passed
over Cunningham last week; instead they signed career sub Kent
Graham to compete with 37-year-old incumbent Dave Krieg. The New
York Jets and the Pittsburgh Steelers also ignored Cunningham
while making key quarterback decisions: The Jets signed
free-agent Neil O'Donnell, and the Steelers planned to go with
Jim Miller, Mike Tomczak or Kordell Stewart. That leaves the St.
Louis Rams as the only team with a starting job available,
unless the Oakland Raiders don't re-sign free agent Jeff
Hostetler, which is unlikely. Cunningham is scheduled to meet
with the Rams on March 22, and if he's willing to accept an
incentive-laden contract with a base salary of less than $1
million, he will succeed Chris Miller as the St. Louis
quarterback. Suffering from the aftereffects of six concussions
in the last two seasons, Miller was waived by St. Louis on
Monday. If talks with the Rams fall apart, Cunningham will have
to find work as a backup, perhaps in Oakland.
Five years ago Cunningham was coming off one of the most
remarkable seasons a quarterback has ever had--3,466 yards
passing, 942 yards rushing, 35 touchdowns combined--and appeared
set to join Dan Marino and John Elway as one of the NFL's elite
at his position. Now, with four years left in the decade he was
supposed to dominate, Cunningham is trying to save his career.
"My one regret is that I stayed in Philadelphia too long [11
seasons] and kind of let the Rich Kotite coaching era roll over
me," says Cunningham. "But I'm only 32. I'm still a franchise
quarterback--with the right team."
Flash back to the wonder years, from 1987 to '90, when then
Eagles coach Buddy Ryan, a defensive specialist, didn't care how
Cunningham did his job. "I remember Buddy used to say to
Randall, 'All I need is for you to make four or five plays a
game to make the difference,'" says one former teammate. "And
Randall used to go out and make these unbelievable plays, plays
nobody else could make. Buddy was relying on Randall's athletic
ability and not his ability to read or learn defenses, and that
turned out to be Randall's undoing." That and some serious
injuries--torn medial collateral and posterior cruciate ligaments
in his left knee in '91 and a broken left leg in '93.
When Kotite was promoted from offensive coordinator to replace
Ryan in 1991, he tried to bring more structure to the Eagles'
attack, which didn't fit Cunningham's improvisational game.
Then, after Cunningham suffered his knee injury in the first
game of the season, backup Jim McMahon did two things--hung out
with his teammates and studied defenses ardently--that further
soured the coaching staff on Cunningham. Still, Cunningham
passed for 2,775 yards and 19 touchdowns in '92, 850 yards and
five TDs before his injury in '93 and 3,229 yards and 16 TDs
before Kotite benched him in December 1994.
"I thought he was one of the most dangerous players we ever
faced," says Jimmy Johnson, the Dallas Cowboys' coach from 1989
to '93. "But he also could throw it right to the defense in a
big spot. It got to where you never knew which Randall you'd see."
Last year new Eagles coach Ray Rhodes and young coordinator Jon
Gruden brought in the West Coast offense. Expecting Cunningham
to run the precision West Coast scheme, says Washington Redskins
coach Norv Turner, "was like asking Barry Sanders to be a power
back or Jose Canseco to be a singles hitter." Rhodes benched
Cunningham twice in the first four weeks of the season and has
since signed former Green Bay Packer backup Ty Detmer (21 passes
in four NFL seasons) to take Cunningham's place and challenge
Rodney Peete for the Eagles' starting job.
At his workshop in Las Vegas last week, Cunningham worked the
marble grinder and seemed content with whatever his football
future holds. He got into this new business, he said, because he
and his wife, Felicity, had some excess marble from the
construction of their Las Vegas house last year. He began
working with it, saw the building boom in Las Vegas, hired a
staff and opened his marble and granite shop. "During the day
I'm basically grinding marble," he said. "The image people have
of me is that I'm hanging around with stars. But I like dirty
work. This is the real me."
It could be the permanent him if the 1996 season is a rerun of
the past few years.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS After 11 seasons with the Eagles, Cunningham's finds the daily grind of business to his liking. [Randall Cunningham in game]
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK [See caption above--Randall Cunningham working in marble andgranite shop]