Teams riding hot hands of backup QBs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The more the Minnesota Vikings win, the better Randall Cunningham plays, the tougher it gets for coach Dennis Green.

Brad Johnson is the quarterback of the Vikings' future, with the contract to prove it. But Cunningham is the quarterback who got Minnesota to 7-0 this season, winning five games since Johnson suffered a broken right fibula Sept. 13 at St. Louis.

The question is not if, but when Green reinstates Johnson as the starter over Cunningham. The answer no longer is as simple as a doctor's release form.

"It depends on when he's 100 percent healthy," Green told reporters after Sunday's 34-13 victory over the Detroit Lions.

Considering that the original target date for Johnson's return was the Detroit game, and that the next date mentioned was Sunday's game at Tampa Bay, Green appears to be buying time for Cunningham. With good reason.

No coach wants to disturb the rhythms of a winning team with such a drastic move as changing quarterbacks. But the NFL's unwritten code says an injured quarterback gets his job back when healthy. That code is under attack this season.

In Buffalo, backup Doug Flutie has spirited the Bills to three straight wins since starter Rob Johnson went down with injured ribs in the opening series at Indianapolis. The clamor is for Flutie to keep the job even when Johnson is well. Even though Johnson will be a good quarterback down the road, it's safe to say Flutie is the better quarterback right now.

In New York, Jets coach Bill Parcells reinstated injured starter Glenn Foley in Week 6 after Vinny Testaverde won two starts. But in the wake of a dismal 30-10 loss to St. Louis, Parcells benched Foley and turned the offense over to Testaverde, who improved to 4-0 with Sunday's 28-3 win over Atlanta.

Foley, 1-7 as a starter, is not in the same class with either Johnson. But ultimately, a coach has to do what's best for the team. And in Minnesota's case, at least, a change now might create unnecessary ripples for a team expecting to go deep into the playoffs.

Sometimes it's simply better to invoke the hot-quarterback policy and wait for him to cool off. The 100 percent healthy edict by Green may have the same effect.

Back to the future

Testaverde's newfound ability to stay away from costly mistakes with the Jets has been matched only one other time in his 12-year career. Through five games (four starts) this year, Testaverde has thrown 11 touchdown passes and one interception.

In 1995 with the then-Cleveland Browns, Testaverde threw for nine touchdowns and only one interception through his first six games. The Browns won just three of those six, though, and finished 5-11 after news broke of the team's impending move to Baltimore.

Testaverde finished that season with 17 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions, then enjoyed his Pro Bowl season of 1996 with the Ravens.

With the Jets, Testaverde has a first-class running back in Curtis Martin, a luxury he never enjoyed in Baltimore.

Parcells is leaning heavily on Martin, who has four consecutive 100-yard rushing games so far. Martin is averaging 26 carries an outing for the Jets.

"Anytime you have that balance, it takes the pressure off you," Testaverde said. "You're able to dictate what you want to do."

Not ready for prime time

The Atlanta Falcons (5-2) have been one of the NFL's hottest teams, winning 11 of their past 15 games dating to last season. But in that stretch, the Falcons have beaten only one team with a winning record (New Orleans, last week). What's more, the list of quarterbacks they've beaten in that run is hardly impressive.

Just in case you were expecting the Falcons to make a legitimate playoff run, here's the rundown: Kerry Collins, Bobby Hoying and Tony Banks twice each, along with Danny Kanell, Billy Joe Tolliver, Doug Nussmeier, Warren Moon and Craig Whelihan.

The quarterbacks they've lost to in that time: Steve Young, Testaverde, Trent Dilfer and Jake Plummer.

By the numbers

San Diego quarterback Ryan Leaf had gone 26 quarters without a touchdown pass when he threw a 5-yard scoring pass to Mikhael Ricks this week.

The top two rush defense streaks fell in Week 8. Jacksonville's streak of 18 games without allowing a 100-yard rushing game ended against Denver's Terrell Davis (136 yards). And Atlanta's string of 14 games ended against the Jets' Martin (101).

Wide-out O. J. McDuffie may be Dan Marino's favorite target in Miami, but he's gone 19 games and 82 catches without getting in the end zone. Dallas' Michael Irvin, idle this week, has gone nine games and 49 catches without a touchdown reception.

Kevin Mitchell's fourth-quarter sack of Tampa Bay's Dilfer extended the New Orleans Saints' streak of consecutive games with a sack to 56. The record is 60 by the Washington Redskins.

Best and worst

Biggest mismatch: 49ers defensive end Roy Barker vs. Rams right tackle Wayne Gandy. Barker abused Gandy for four sacks in 49ers' 28-10 win.

Worst pretense of a rivalry: 49ers-Rams. The Rams haven't beaten the 49ers since Nov. 25, 1990, a span of 16 losses. Oddly enough, the series is now tied, 48-48-2.

Best game-breaker: Seattle's Joey Galloway. In a 27-20 win over the Chargers, the Seahawks receiver had an 81-yard touchdown catch, a 74-yard punt return for a touchdown, and a huge 55-yard reception on a controversial call to set up another touchdown.

Worst blown call: Back judge Bobby Skelton in the Seahawks-Chargers game. Skelton fell down as Chargers' Terrance Shaw intercepted a John Friesz pass at the 2, then awarded Galloway the catch when he got up to see Galloway wrestling for the ball. Seattle scored a touchdown two plays later.

Biggest oversight: Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp. After zealously criticizing Kerry Collins, he got beat by Saints quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver.

Worst goof: Oilers special teams coach Russ Purnell. The Oilers wound up with two kickers on the field for a potential tying field goal in a 23-20 loss to the Bears. Long kicker (and punter) Craig Hentrich actually attempted the 49-yarder, which was blocked, and Al Del Greco was flagged as the 12th man on the field when he couldn't get back to the sideline quickly enough. Even if the kick was good, it would have been waved off.

LTC Most acrobatic interception: Raiders' Eric Allen. The veteran cornerback twice juggled a pass from Bengals quarterback Jeff Blake, but held on even as he rolled on the ground.

Best argument: Bills quarterback Doug Flutie. With three straight wins, Flutie is making a lot of NFL personnel men look bad and the Bills look good.

Pub Date: 10/27/98

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