Randall: A Football Life

Posted: November 5th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | 44 Comments »

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.

Ouch.

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.

_


  • Steven Steiner

    I just assume everyone remembers Randall like I do since I grew up watching football during his career, but there are so many things about this guy that made you love him and then hate him at the same time (I am talking about as a player, not as a person). In 1992 it looked like the Eagles were going to be good enough to go to the Superbowl finally. We beat the Cowboys on Monday night football and Randall was awesome and Hershel Walker finally gave us a threat at running back – and then you found out after the game Randall had gold tassels on his cleat laces. Then you just thought, “What is going on in this guy’s head?” Just keep playing like your playing and get us to a Superbowl – don’t worry about shoelaces…

    If you ever get a chance, read “Bringing the Heat” – it’s by the guy that wrote “Blackhawk Down” – believe it or not – and it chronicles the 90′s Eagles teams. One thing I remember reading about Randall is when he was benched for a game and Kotite had Jim McMahon play a game against, I think, the Raiders. Jim McMahon said the other Qb’s would just marvel at how little Randall understood about NFL defenses. He said he’d come off the field and Randall would say, “They were in zone Jim, did you see that?” and Jim McMahon would be thinking that that’s something Qb’s don’t even have to think about and Randall was acting like he was a student of the game because he could spot that. But for every infuriating thing like that, there’d be Randall flicking a ball effortless down the field or running by guys on his way to a first down. Great, great player. Someone I think Merill Reese would describe as “mercurial”.

    • Michael Winter Cho

      I was new to football and grew up in Hawaii, which has no pro team of course. Due to certain rebellious tendencies (the Niners were Hawaii’s adopted team) and, just by chance, watching Randall play, I chose the Eagles as “my” team on the spot. Even though I knew little about the game, I do remember well the depressing inadequacies in the playoffs, although it’s the amazing highlights and euphoria that usually comes to mind. Him being out for the season in the first game got me ready for ye olde bad Eagles luck. We didn’t have igglesblitz back then, so I had no idea he didn’t practice or that he was less committed than his teammates.

    • rosmith51

      Funny… I just cited the same reference to someone who was praising Randall on the EMB.

  • mcud

    I wonder if Randall was going to be the person he was, and have the drive he had, regardless of the coach. In other words, if Andy Reid or Shanny had been his coach, he might never have had success in the league, and been the ’94 version of himself from the beginning. This would have robbed us of the greatness. Buddy Ryan may be THE reason Randall is worth remembering.

    And boy, is he worth remembering. Incredible talent. To me, he is unquestionably the greatest talent ever to play QB, including Vick.

    • TommyLawlor

      Interesting perspective.

      • Matt

        Sounds just like Vick although I think Randall had a higher upside and was a better passer.

        • A Roy

          Play fakes. Incredible play fakes where he kept the ball and practically stopped … convincing the opponents that he didn’t have the ball.

          • Jerry Pomroy

            Let’s not forget that he could long jump over defenders like an Olympic gold medalist & also whatdayah know he could also punt.

        • Thorin

          Cunningham was sort of like Vick, only better at everything Vick is great at. He actually won the nfl qb arm strength competition while Marino and Elway were in their primes. He went to Minnesota at the end of his career and set records throwing to a rookie Randy Moss and retiring Chris Carter. One of the great seasons any qb has every had.

          And scrambling … Vick is dangerous, fast and elusive. Cunningham may not have been quite as fast, but he was super human elusive. And like Jerry said, the leaping … You just couldn’t believe this guy just did that!

          sadly, he played behind some of the worst o-lines in Eagles history. Buddy Ryan was a terrible hc for offense (he basically said We have Randall, Just let him be Randall, what else do you need on o? ) And he wasn’t a very good leader as a ab. He wanted to be a star, but he wad also sensitive and withdrawn. He is cautionary tale for scramblers now, but there were no cautionary tales for him.

    • Cafone

      I really think you could go the other way with that too though. Maybe Cunningham could have been much better with an offensively minded coach. We all loved Buddy, but let’s be honest: his strategy was draft/coach defense and just let Randall run around and make things happen on offense.

      • tag1555

        No Eagle fan likes to hear it, but Randall’s best years as a passer here were in Kotite’s more structured offense, not Plumb’s give-me-5-big-plays-Randall approach. As soon as Richie took over as OC, Randall’s passer rating went from high 70s/low 80s to high 80s/low 90s. There was a more-or-less seamless transition at WR from Carter/Quick to Barnett/Williams
        in ’90, when Kotite took over the offense, with Keith Jackson and Byars remaining somewhat constant throughout, so it probably wasn’t because Randall suddenly had better targets to throw to.

        There’s a popular part of Randall mythology that he would have been a totally different/better QB if Doug Scovil hadn’t passed away. Problem is, Scovil was on the team ’86-’89, and RC plateaued as a passer during that time rather than getting progressively better. Again, unpopular to say it, but most of the credit for Randall’s better years here probably needs to go to Kotite rather than Scovil.

  • Sean

    As Bill Murray pointed out in Stripes, “America is 10-1.” Perhaps the Eagles will one day be as good as America

  • Weapon Y

    The parallels between Vick and Randall are astonishing. Incredibly gifted runners and passers, but they didn’t have the work ethic. The difference is that Vick got that work ethic when he was released from prison and joined the Eagles. Randall never did. Their common flaw was that they were freelancers. A lot of Vinny Curry’s critics blabber on and on how he’s a freelancer for wanting to do things his way, but Vick and Randall both fit this label far better at their position. Even today, Vick doesn’t play disciplined and instead plays his way: extend plays as long a as possible and put the team on his back. Vick appears to have a far better attitude than Randall off the field, but his on-field habits are just as bad as Randall’s were. That is why any attempt to make him fit in a Chip Kelly offense, or any NFL offense is futile.

    • TommyLawlor

      Those Vinny Curry critics are called “coaches”. He did freelance too much and it hurt his playing time. He’s playing with more discipline now.

      I definitely agree that Vick and Randall took freelancing to a whole different level. Doubt anyone would argue that point.

      • Weapon Y

        Obviously the coaches know more than I do. That’s why they coach and I don’t. That doesn’t mean they can never ever ever be wrong or exaggerate a player’s flaw. Based on my amateur observation, I couldn’t go back to the Eagles game tape, pick out a play, and say, “See that, Vinny Curry just shot the gap and it caused the defense to give up huge yardage.” If you could do that for me, Ill keep my mouth shut and never say a word again about this. Honestly, I didn’t think he looked any worse than the rest of the second team defensive line at two-gapping (which to be fair isn’t perfect, but still competent enough). He’s no JJ Watt, but I really cringe at talking about his two-gapping as if it’s as bad as Tim Tebow’s throwing motion. I reflexively and fiercely defend, even to the point of going on the argumentative offensive, the guy because I’m a fan.

        Anyway, as far as the documentary goes, I thought it was really good. With Randall, you could’ve had a two hour long documentary. That’s how much material there was on him.

        • TommyLawlor

          He did shoot gaps and miss plays.

          I do agree that the coaches should embrace his skills more than they do. Guy is really good when allowed to attack. Use that.

          • SpritiTinkle

            That might be the one thing that really irks me about our defense. A few of our young guys seemed to be at their best in college when allowed to attack gaps. Kendricks, Cox, and Vinny come to mind. I know that the coaching staff has a vision, but it just doesnt seem like they are maximising the talent on the roster.

          • ohitsdom

            Kendricks is able to attack much better in this defense then last year’s. Last year he was taking on linemen because the D line was shooting gaps, this year the D linemen 2 gap to keep the LBs clean.

    • Jerry Pomroy

      I agree wholeheartedly, but 3 things I’d add in comparing the two is that Randall was far superior to Vick in the passing game, Randall had size & was a different type of runner than Vick. Randall was elusive but a long strider in the open field. Similar in many ways but also very different. I’d have to agree with Tommy in that if looking at the style of play, Kaepernick is probably the closest comparison you’ll get in the NFL.

      • Weapon Y

        Oh I absolutely agree that style wise Randall was more similar to Kaepernick. But work ethic wise he was pre-Philadelphia Vick. Kaepernick is what Randall would’ve been had he gotten his act together.

        • Jerry Pomroy

          Wasnt doubting you. Just agreeing with Tommy, but was also pointing out how Vick & Randall were so similar, yet so different. Kinda took an under the radar shot at Vick’s height or lack thereof.

  • Mr. Magee

    No doubt RC – and the eagles of that era – did not reach full potential.
    But I have wondered over time if that fog that set in during the playoff game in Chicago did not rob him and that team of an opportunity that might have been career defining.

    • TommyLawlor

      Very possible. What a nightmare game.

    • Always Hopeful

      I’ve often thought about this. As a team they had (seemingly) so many butterflies at the beginning of that game. I haven’t looked at in a while, but they had so many opportunities to go up big on the Bears in the first half, but shot themselves in the foot each time.

      I choose not to speak about the 2nd half because I did not see it :-)

      • Mr. Magee

        The Eagles were definitely the better team, and could have taken the whole thing that year. As to you seeing the Birds shoot themselves in the foot in the first half, you must have had a heck of a TV; all I could see (starting in Q2) was a white/grey screen, with the feint outline of a player every couple of minutes or so. Back then the NFL played in ALL conditions – no games were snowed out, fogged out, you name it.

  • Jerry Pomroy

    I can still hear my mom screaming “go Randle baby…go!” when he’d take flight downfield.

  • http://www.jamesrengland.com/ JEinOKC

    Hell of a punter too. I wasn’t able to watch the doc, but did they happen to show any clips from his short lived kids game show Scramble? I’ve never been able to find anything on YouTube which almost makes it feel like it didn’t really happen

  • Anders

    I have only seen highlights of him, but sounds like the ultimate QB.

    Ohh and he got a son who is a high school senior.
    This is is some of his junior highlights:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EupGjMZVbB8

    Colleges such as Baylor and Oregon had offered him scholarships before his senior season and his also a top of the class track and high jump guy.

    • Cafone

      Physically he was the ultimate QB. Mentally… not so much. If we could have put McMahon’s brain inside his body he might have been the best ever. If we put his brain in McMahon’s body he would have been cut in high school.

      That’s not to say he was dumb. He just didn’t really seem to be too into football, at least not to the extent one needs to play QB in the NFL.

      • T_S_O_P

        Or some of the coaching stability McMahon or McNabb had early in their career.

  • Cafone

    I’ll always curse the name of Bryce Paup for that dirty hit that put Cunningham out in what would have been our Super Bowl season. Maybe it wasn’t even a dirty hit… but it’s not on youtube so I’ll continue to remember it that way until I see evidence that proves otherwise.

    • sonofdman

      The showed that hit on the show tonight. It still looks dirty to me and I got pissed off watching again.

  • Insomniac

    It’s a shame that some of the best athletes to live never reached their full potential. Randall and Bo Jackson were one of a kind.

  • GermanEagle

    Randall Cunningham did have one of the best deep throws too. It was just a thing of beauty to watch him as a passer when he got second wind in Minnesota.

  • Jason A Hines

    I have been searching the internet for either a pic or a video of one of my favorite Randall moments and can’t find it. I’m in my 30s so Randall was the 1st Eagles QB I knew so I have fond memories of him jumping over people and the 95 yd TD to Barnett (still trying to figure out how he got away from Bruce Smith). But the moment that gets me somehow is from his time in Minnesota. They used to show clips of it a lot and I was hoping to see it tonight but didn’t. On one particular snap (can’t even remember what game it was or the situation) they have a closeup of Randall under center. He looks over at something and then while he’s waiting for the snap he breaks out into the biggest smile I’ve ever seen. Almost odd to see that happen at that moment in the middle of a football game. Does anybody else remember this moment or am I alone out here?

    • Always Hopeful

      I don’t remember THAT moment, but he did that (if I remember correctly) in Philly too. Randall was my idol when I was in high school. I remember him being drafted by the Eagles and showing up to Philly with a Michael Jackson like Thriller/Beat It jacket and a Jheri Curl too!

      He really caught my attention in a pre-season game where he was just the best athlete on the field. He ran, he threw, he jumped…it was wild and crazy, but so exciting.

      I would try and throw spirals like him (he wasn’t quite Warren Moon, but he threw a nice ball) and call out his name when I played in the school yard. Other kids were like, “who?” ha, ha, ha.

      The “what if’s” with him are multiple…

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  • T_S_O_P

    Eagles wise, my all time guy. Along with Peter Lorimer, my favourite sportsman all time too.

  • Emet Waite

    He is the only reason I’m an Eagles fan till this day, growing up in Southern California. He was Bo Jackson at QB to me and I was just drawn to what he could do on a football field. I was in high school at that time and I didn’t realize till later in life how undisciplined he was as a QB, but he was a joy to watch.

  • Jamie Parker

    Every time the Eagles had a 3rd and long situation, my friends would shout, “Randallize ‘em!” at the TV. In one of the most entertaining games I’ve ever seen, the 42-37 win over the Redskins in ’89, they were facing a 3rd and 25 from inside their own 10 yard line. One of my friends shouted, “Randallize ‘em!” at the TV and sure enough Randall took off and gained 26 yards on the play. It was then called back for a penalty though. That’s how electric he was. I still say “Randallize ‘em” and my wife has no idea what I’m talking about. I wish I had seen the show.

  • ojdiddoit

    my stomach still flip flops when I think about the days of Randall Cunningham,hell he could even punt