It was fourth down and Randall Cunningham saw the punt team come on the field. This was his cue to jog to the sideline, pull on a parka and take a seat on the bench. Except this time the Eagles' quarterback had a better idea.
"I called out to Buddy, 'Let me kick it,'" Cunningham recalls. "He said, 'OK, go kick it.'"
It was a shocking gambit that caught everyone in Giants Stadium - including the Giants - by surprise. It was the fourth quarter of a 17-17 game. The Eagles were pinned at their own 3-yard line. On a frigid December day in 1989 with winds gusting up to 35 MPH, field position was critical. Yet here was head coach Buddy Ryan trusting Cunningham, who had not punted in two months, to kick one out of his own end zone.
Cunningham's kick turned the tide in what was a huge NFC East game between the Eagles who were 8-4 and the Giants who were 9-3. By flipping field position, Cunningham put the Giants in a hole and two plays later, defensive tackle Mike Golic sacked quarterback Phil Simms and forced a fumble that fellow defensive lineman Mike Pitts recovered at the 7-yard line. From there, running back Keith Byars powered into the end zone and the Eagles had a 24-17 victory.
"When I kicked the ball, I didn't think I hit it that well," Cunningham says. "It was like a line drive but it was a spiral and it got into the wind and kept going. When it hit the ground, it just kept rolling. Meggett couldn't catch up to it. It turned out to be a big play."
We'll never know what would have happened if Cunningham had not said, "Let me kick it." In retrospect, it was a smart decision. The Eagles were having trouble with their punting game. John Teltschik was out with a knee injury. Runager, who was the punter on the Eagles' 1980 Super Bowl team, was brought in to replace him, but Runager was averaging just 33.4 yards per punt. He didn't inspire confidence on a blustery day at the Meadowlands.
"It was really cold (wind chill of 2 degrees) and in that stadium the wind can take over a game," Cunningham says.
"That was Buddy," Cunningham says. "He wasn't afraid to put his trust in his players and we had that kind of relationship. If I said, 'Hey, Buddy, I can do this,' he let me do it."
The regular punter, Max Runager, stayed on the bench and Cunningham went back in punt formation. The Giants were confused, thinking it might be a fake. In the press box, we scanned the sideline for Runager thinking he must be injured, but he appeared to be fine. What was going on?
Cunningham took the snap and kicked the ball. What happened next was Eagles history.
The punt traveled 68 yards in the air. It hit the turf at the Giants' 40-yard line and skipped past return man Dave Meggett who finally chased it down at the 9. He returned it only as far as the 16. Officially, it was a 91-yard punt breaking the club record of 82 yards set by Joe Muha in the 1948 season. It was the third-longest punt in NFL history.
"I knew we'd be kicking deep in our own end zone, but the wind was at my back so I thought if I could just get the ball up in that wind it could go a long way."
Everyone knew Cunningham had a strong leg. He averaged 45.2 yards per punt during his collegiate career at UNLV. When the Eagles selected him in the second round of the 1985 NFL Draft, they spent their time developing him as a quarterback and never seriously considered using him as the full-time punter. Still, Cunningham worked on it after practice once or twice a week just in case he was ever needed.
"Randall has no form," said former special teams coach Al Roberts. "You can talk mechanically and structurally about how to place the ball on the foot and the power zone, but Randall has such outstanding athletic ability, he just gets his foot on the ball and God does the rest. You don't coach that, you just let it go. You just say, 'Randall, kick.'"
Because he lacked textbook form, Cunningham was not consistent as a punter. He would boom four or five kicks in a row then shank one. Consider this: Cunningham only punted the ball 12 times as an Eagle yet he has two of the three longest punts in team history. In addition to the 91-yard boom, he had an 80-yarder against Dallas in 1994. On the flip side, just four weeks after his epic punt at the Meadowlands, Ryan called on Cunningham to punt again in a playoff game against the Rams and the kick went for 20 yards.
Punting helped put Cunningham in the College Football Hall of Fame earlier this month. Now 53 years old, Cunningham was honored at the National Football Foundation Awards Dinner in New York where he joined an induction class that included former Eagles teammate William Fuller. A prerequisite for induction is a player must be named first-team All-America and Cunningham earned that honor as a punter at UNLV. As a quarterback, he "only" made honorable mention in 1983.
After the ceremony in New York, Cunningham came to Philadelphia for another dinner the following night. It was a meet-and-greet affair at the Hotel Monaco. Several hundred people filled the room to shake his hand and pose for a photograph. More than 20 years after playing his last game as an Eagle, Cunningham remains an enormously popular figure in the city.
"I love Philadelphia," says Cunningham, who has been the pastor of a church in Las Vegas for the past 11 years. "I love the city and I love the people. The happiest years of my career were the years I spent here. Every time I come back it's like coming home."
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 Comcast SportsNet. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the year for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. You can read all of his Eagles History columns here. He is also the author of The New Eagles Encyclopedia.