Tonight at 9pm the NFL Network will air A Football Life: Randall Cunningham. This should absolutely be compelling TV.
Randall might be Philadelphia sports at their best and worst. We were graced with one of the greatest talents to ever play the game of football, but he was more interested in becoming a star than winning Super Bowls. And not a football star…just a star. Randall wanted to be Eddie Murphy or Arsenio or Michael Jackson more than Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach or Johnny Unitas.
At his best, Randall did things that would impress RG3, Colin Kapernick, Russell Wilson and even Michael Vick. Randall was a runner at a time when pocket passers ruled the gridiron. Guys like Fran Tarkenton, Bobby Douglass and Roger Staubach had come before him, but Randall was on a whole other level. He was more naturally gifted than any of them. To this day, Randall remains one of the special talents to ever play. Of the modern QBs, Kaepernick is the one who reminds me the most of RC. The Niners are lucky because Kaepernick is all in on being a great QB. If only that had been the case with Randall…
Sports Illustrated once dubbed Randall Cunningham “the ultimate weapon”. That is the perfect description. He was a threat to score every time he ran with the ball. Cunningham also had the arm to throw the ball anywhere on the field. No defender could relax when the ball was in his hands.
Cunningham led the Eagles in rushing four consecutive years and had more than 500 yards on the ground in a couple of other seasons. Think about those numbers. That’s pretty incredible for a quarterback. Cunningham drove defenders crazy when he took off running. He had the speed to run away from them, but he was also extremely elusive. Tackling him was never an easy task. He averaged 6.4 yards per run and had 35 career TDs on the ground.
He also had a rocket arm. He could wind up and launch a pass 60 yards downfield with ease. I don’t think some people realize what a good passer he was. Cunningham threw 30 touchdown passes in 1990. He had three consecutive years with more than 3,400 passing yards. Those are really impressive numbers when you consider that era of football.
Cunningham peaked in 1990 when he was voted the NFL Player of the Year. The future looked great. To quote the great movie Stripes, “And then depression set in”. Cunningham was injured early in the 1991 season opener and missed the rest of the year. He came back for 1992, but had a highly inconsistent season. He was benched for a start at midseason and that ruined his relationship with coach Rich Kotite. Cunningham spent his final three seasons in Philly battling injuries and coaches. The NFL’s “Ultimate Weapon” was benched for Bubby Brister one year and Rodney Peete the next.
The reason coaches had such troubles with Cunningham is that he never let his work ethic match his talent. Early in his career he made plays just on sheer talent. That is the case with a lot of guys who have great physical skills. Donovan McNabb was that way. After about four or five years in the league a guy should start to play like an experienced quarterback and not just a physical talent. McNabb made that transition. So did Steve McNair and Brett Favre. Cunningham never did. The biggest problem is that Cunningham came into the league under the dysfunctional coaching of Buddy Ryan and developed bad habits because of that. You can only imagine what might have happened if a highly structured offensive coach like Mike Shanahan or Andy Reid developed Cunningham from day one in his career. The sky would have been the limit.
Instead we’ll have to settle for some breathtaking moments. Probably Cunningham’s two greatest highlights are his 95-yard touchdown pass to Fred Barnett against the Buffalo Bills and his short touchdown pass against the Giants when he shrugged off the hit of LB Carl Banks and then fired a short TD pass to TE Jimmie Giles. Those are two of the most amazing plays in the history of the NFL, but they don’t erase the frustration of early playoff exits and underachieving.
Cunningham never had a great running back to help him carry the load. That had a large part in putting all the pressure on him. He had weapons like Keith Byars, Keith Jackson, Cris Carter, Fred Barnett and Calvin Williams, but Randall never had someone to truly help him carry the load. The Eagles also struggled to build a functional OL. The 1992 group was the best that Cunningham played behind and that group was better at run blocking than pass protecting.
Randall also made things around the Eagles awkward. To put it mildly, he wasn’t exactly beloved by his teammates. Dave Spadaro offered some good thoughts on this.
The documentary pulls no punches here. Cunningham was not received with a hero’s welcome by some Eagles. Former quarterback Ron Jaworski bristled at Ryan’s idea of using Cunningham as a third-down quarterback, and while some in the media who are interviewed loved Cunningham from the start and knew he changed the dynamic of the way we watched the Eagles, the players weren’t all on board.
As Cunningham’s fame increased and his popularity skyrocketed — catapulted into superstardom when he somehow stayed on his feet in a Monday Night Football game against the Giants when linebacker Carl Banks delivered a midsection blow to Cunningham, yet No. 12 braced himself on the turf at Veterans Stadium, regained his balance and fired a touchdown pass to tight end Jimmie Giles — his off-the-field interests concerned his teammates, and linebacker Seth Joyner speaks very clearly about the concerns in the locker room.
“It became all about Randall,” says Joyner.
Dave’s column is definitely worth reading. He was here during the Cunningham era and saw first hand how life was both good and bad with him. He offers some real good insight.
I think the biggest issue is that the players on defense were a brotherhood and were desperate to win a title. The offense was all about Randall and he thought more about Hollywood than the Super Bowl. All that talent, but no focus. So utterly frustrating, to his teammates and us fans.
I do love watching his highlights. Cunningham did things that still amaze me. He was the Ultimate Weapon. It’s just too bad that he let fame get in the way of football.