Randall Cunningham was the most unique quarterback I ever saw play. He was a truly dynamic player. He had a great arm. Cunningham could also beat you with his legs. He was quick and fast as a runner. He was the most elusive scrambler I ever saw. He did things, both on the ground and in the air, that players today can only dream of.
Cunningham wasn't the best quarterback. The best I ever saw was John Elway. Cunningham wasn't the most naturally talented. Sadly, Michael Vick gets that title. Cunningham was still special. He was the best dual-threat combo. Some might argue that Fran Tarkenton should get that spot. Others might argue for Steve Young. Cunningham was more dynamic than either of those guys.
The thing that made Cunningham so special was his ability to run. He was fast. If he got to the open field, the defense was in trouble. He was unbelievably elusive. He could side-step pass rushers in the pocket. He could make defenders miss out in space. It didn't matter whether Cunningham was facing a defensive lineman, linebacker, or defensive back. He had an answer for them all. He used his speed, quickness and elusiveness to get by his opponents.
Cunningham didn't always take off downfield. He often would scramble to buy time for his receivers to get open. There are a couple of plays that really stick out in my head. The greatest in my mind came against the Buffalo Bills in 1990. The Eagles were pinned at their own 5-yard line. They faced 3rd and 14. Cunningham dropped back into the end zone. He had a little pressure and started to move to his right. Somehow he sensed defensive end Bruce Smith was coming from behind him and ducked under a tackle attempt. That move alone was pretty incredible. It was made purely on instinct and feel. Cunningham then slid to the left, away from everyone. He looked downfield and spotted Fred Barnett. Cunningham planted his feet and hurled the ball 60 yards. Barnett caught the ball at the Bills' 45 and raced into the end zone for a 95-yard touchdown. Those of you too young to remember, watch it in the highlight video. It is amazing.
Another play that we see more often in highlights came against the Giants on Monday Night Football in 1988. The Eagles had the ball in the red zone. Cunningham rolled to his right on a pass play. Linebacker Carl Banks came up and nailed him around the knees. Somehow Cunningham managed to keep his body off the ground despite the big hit. He regained his balance and threw a touchdown pass to tight end Jimmie Giles.
One of the secrets to Cunningham's success was the fact he was so limber and had such good balance. Even on plays where he wasn't able to avoid hits, it still was not an automatic win for the defense. The Carl Banks hit was a perfect example. I doubt any other quarterback could take a hit like that and keep the play going. It wasn't a particular skill so much as a combination of his natural ability and his body type. Cunningham listed at 6-4 and 212 pounds. Compare that to Donovan McNabb. He's two inches shorter and 20 to 25 pounds heavier. Cunningham was a tall, slender, springy athlete. He wasn't going to break many tackles, but actually getting to him was no easy task.
You can't just call Cunningham a running quarterback. He was much more than that. He threw for 30-or-more touchdowns in a season twice in his career. Joe Montana only did that once in his career. Steve Young did it twice in his. I'm not saying Cunningham was on the same level as those guys as a passer, but he was more than just "okay." He was good and could be great at times.
He threw 207 career touchdown passes, including 21 or more each year from 1987 to 1990. Cunningham threw for almost 30,000 yards in his career. He had four seasons with 3,400 or more yards. He had an explosive arm and was a gifted downfield passer. He could be accurate on short and intermediate throws, but was better when he could really air it out.
Cunningham was awkward mechanically. He had a wind-up motion. He threw the ball sidearm at times. He didn't step into his throws the way a coach would like. There wasn't a whole lot about his game that coaches would love. Cunningham was incredibly gifted, but did things his own way. He was a very improvisational player. That drives coaches crazy. They want someone to follow the exact design of the play. You might wonder why that would be such a big deal since Cunningham was such a good player. The answer could be found in the postseason.
Cunningham's highlight plays only showed up in the regular season. Teams play differently in the postseason. They gameplan a little better. The officials let defenders be more aggressive. Guys also just play faster. You can't get away with relying on improvisation. Offenses have to execute well. The Eagles did a poor job of this. They scored a total of 25 points in Cunningham's first three playoff games. Ouch. The offense finally came alive against the Saints in 1992. The Eagles won 36-20, although nine of the points came from the defense. The next week Cunningham and the offense stalled at Dallas and lost 34-10.
One of the reasons I referred to Cunningham as being "the most unique quarterback I ever saw" was because of the situation he was in. Not only was he a gifted passer and dynamic scrambler, but he was the team's leading rusher each season from 1987 to 1990. Neither Young nor Montana ever did anything like that. Tarkenton never led his team in rushing for even one season. Even Michael Vick never led the Falcons in rushing. Cunningham did it four consecutive years. Think about that. Amazing. He also averaged 24 touchdown passes and 3,300 yards passing each of those years. That is one of the most incredible stretches from a quarterback in the history of the league.
Part of the reason that Cunningham was so productive was his supporting cast. He played for coach Buddy Ryan, a defensive guru. The focus was building up the defense first and foremost. Ryan did try and build an offensive line, but simply had no luck. He tried to find a running back, but never could. He did give Cunningham a quality set of receivers with guys like Keith Jackson, Cris Carter, Fred Barnett and Calvin Williams. Unfortunately, the Eagles' lack of good blocking and a reliable running game were problems for most of Cunningham's career. They also were a big part of the reason the team struggled in the postseason. Ryan's attitude was that the Eagles should win any game if the offense could generate three or four big plays. He wasn't all that concerned with efficiency or consistency. That attitude was one of several factors that cost Ryan his job. Rich Kotite was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach following the 1990 season. Kotite was going to do things differently.
Things started to go south for Cunningham in 1991. He was injured in the season opener and missed the rest of the year. 1992 brought on a whole new set of problems. The team was red hot early in the year, but went cold about midseason. Cunningham struggled during a stretch where the team went 1-2. The offense put up 29 total points. Kotite sensed the season slipping away and made Jim McMahon the starter for a game. The team scored 31 points and won. Cunningham got his job back the next week, but things would never be the same. He was injured early in 1993 and spent most of the year watching. He started hot in 1994, but eventually lost his job to Bubby Brister. Ray Rhodes took over the team in 1995. He and coordinator Jon Gruden brought in the West Coast offense. Cunningham struggled as the team started 1-3. He was benched and that ended his time as an Eagle.
One of the problems that Cunningham had was the fact that things came so easily to him. He didn't have the best work ethic when it came to studying the playbook, watching game film or working on the little things in practice. He was able to be a dominant player based on ability and instincts. As he started to age, the highlight plays faded away and inconsistent play was more prevalent. Kotite and Rhodes both treated Cunningham differently than Ryan. They didn't settle for big plays. They wanted him to be consistent and really run the offense. That never happened.
Cunningham spent 1996 out of the league. He came back to play for Minnesota and had a great year in 1998. He helped the team to a 15-1 record. They set the league record for points scored, which was surpassed last season by the Patriots. Unfortunately the postseason once again came to a premature close as the Vikings were upset by the Falcons in the NFC title tilt. He spent a few more years in the league, but 1998 was the last we saw of his great play.
One question I get from time to time is whether Randall Cunningham should be in the Hall of Fame. That is a very tough question. He was a great player, but not for a long period. He also struggled in the postseason. In the end, he probably won't make it to Canton, but he will always be a part of football history. As long as highlights like the pass to Barnett and the Carl Banks escape exist, people will have to appreciate what a great player Cunningham was when he was at his best.