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Didinger: Randall Cunningham's magical escape against the Giants

Randall Cunningham and Carl Banks will be in Lincoln Financial Field on Monday night. Cunningham will be the Legend of the Game presented by Santander for the Eagles-Giants matchup. Banks is the color analyst for the Giants' radio network.

Randall Cunningham and Carl Banks ...

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Bring back memories?

It does for Carl Banks. He was a Pro Bowl linebacker for the Giants and he is now a semifinalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but when people think about his career they often think about a play he DIDN'T make.

It was October 10, 1988. The Eagles were playing the Giants in a prime-time game at Veterans Stadium. The Eagles had third-and-goal at the 4-yard line. Cunningham rolled right and found himself face-to-face with Banks, one of the surest tacklers on the New York defense.

Banks went low, hitting Cunningham just above the knees. The Eagles' quarterback appeared to be going down but he put his left hand on the turf, regained his balance, straightened up, and fired a touchdown pass to tight end Jimmie Giles. Banks could not believe his eyes.

"It's one of the greatest plays I've ever been involved in," Banks said. "I can honestly say that even though it went against us.

"I played my technique perfectly. I go in to make a routine tackle and he (Cunningham) turns into Stretch Armstrong. It was one hell of a football play. No other quarterback could make that play. It was like Michael Jordan. You get a hand in his face and he still hits the shot."

Merrill Reese, the Hall of Fame Voice of the Eagles, called it perfectly: "Randall Cunningham is Plastic Man."

It was an amazing play. It made the top 100 plays of the NFL's 100 years. It also made the list of the best plays on Monday Night Football which is now in its 50th season. Bill Parcells was the Giants' head coach and Bill Belichick was the defensive coordinator but nothing those Hall of Fame coaches put on the blackboard could account for the one-of-a-kind athleticism of Randall Cunningham.

"When they say he's The Ultimate Weapon, he was truly The Ultimate Weapon," Banks said, referencing the Sports Illustrated cover story on the Eagles' quarterback in 1989. "I don't think there was ever a quarterback who was harder to prepare for or gave defensive players individually more problems or more concerns before the game ever started.

"He was a guy you wanted to play against but you also hated to play against because you knew he was an incredible football player. I played against Doug Williams, I played against Warren Moon, I played against Joe Montana. I don't think any one of those guys brought to a game the fear that Randall Cunningham put in a defense."

Banks says he is still asked about the play. It doesn't bother him that much because he knows he didn't do anything wrong. It is not like he whiffed on the tackle. He hit Cunningham squarely, but somehow he was able to gather himself, find a receiver, and throw a perfect pass.

"It was a pretty damn good tackle," Banks told Jason Reid of The Undefeated. "He was just better. I'd salute him any day of the week. He was just better than I was on that play. It's something you shake your head at and just salute that dude."

The play was an instant classic especially since it occurred on Monday Night Football. Most football fans knew who Cunningham was but that play made him a celebrity. In a long career defined by spectacular plays that one is probably still No. 1 on Randall's "Best of" list.

"I still hear about it," Cunningham said during a 2017 visit to Philadelphia. "It's funny because (the fans) remember it more clearly than I do. It was a long time ago. Like a lot of plays, it wasn't designed that way. I made a lot of plays on instinct.

"Carl had a clean shot at me. I just bounced off him and kept (the play) alive. I looked up and saw Jimmie in the end zone. After the game you guys (writers) asked me how I did it. I don't know. It was just one of those things."

It was a big play in a big spot. The Eagles were improving under head coach Buddy Ryan but the Giants still had their number. The Eagles had lost six consecutive games to the Giants and 12 of the previous 14. For the Eagles, it was their first appearance on Monday Night Football since 1981 and with their 24-13 victory they announced to the national audience that they were a team on the rise. They won the NFC East that season with a 10-6 record.

Cunningham completed 31 of 41 passes for 369 yards and three touchdowns against the Giants. Keith Byars and Keith Jackson each had nine catches. Cris Carter had five receptions for 162 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown. Jimmie Giles? The catch that everyone recalls was his only catch of the night. Reggie White led the defense with 2.5 sacks.

Cunningham did it all that night. John Teltschik, the regular punter, was having an off night (six punts for a 33.2-yard average) so Ryan sent Cunningham in and he boomed one 55 yards. His 369 passing yards were the third most for an Eagles quarterback against the Giants. Only Bobby Thomason (437 yards in 1953) and Sonny Jurgensen (396 yards in 1962) passed for more yards in a game against the Giants.

This year marks the first time Banks made it to the semifinals in the Hall of Fame voting. He has been overlooked in the voting for too long and he feels the same could be said for Cunningham.

"Absolutely, he should be in," Banks said. "The voters don't give him the credit he deserves. He has never been appreciated by those people who never played against him. But people who played against him know how great he was. If you combined Cam Newton and Michael Vick, both of their skill sets, you still don't get Randall Cunningham."

An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He has also won six Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and producer at NFL Films. The five-time Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year is a writer and analyst for NBC Sports Philadelphia. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the year for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. You can read all of hisEagles History columns here.He is also the author ofThe Eagles Encyclopedia: Champions Edition which is in bookstores now.

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