Randall Cunningham had one of the most unique careers in NFL history.
Right from the very start, he was used in a way never seen before. When he first came into the league, Buddy Ryan played Ron Jaworski on first and second down and then threw Cunningham in the game on third downs to see if he could create magic. He was sacked 72 times in that abysmal 5-10-1 year but ran for more than eight yards per carry and five touchdowns while showing enough arm talent to be given the starting job the following season.
On his resume, Cunningham is credited with turning the Eagles into a premier franchise in the late 80s and early 90s, only to retire and then come back in ’97 and eventually make Pro Bowls nine years apart. He won Dennis Green’s first playoff game. He ushered Randy Moss into the NFL and led one of the best offenses of all time and even registered punts of 91 and 80 yards.
Along the way Cunningham proved that a black quarterback could be the face of a successful NFL franchise and win consistently using his athleticism and arm talent.
There is a clear line of demarcation for black QBs before and after Cunningham emerged as a superstar in 1988. You can look at that year as a key point in the evolution toward 2019, which many dubbed the “Year of the Black Quarterback,” with Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Dak Prescott and Russell Wilson leading the way.
FiveThiryEight did a terrific deep dive podcast on Cunningham. Listen below.
For his trail blazing alone, Cunningham might have a case to be acknowledged by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But a closer investigation into his disjointed career bears out that, despite its volatility, his performance as a whole was comparable to the NFL’s best QBs of the era.
“I think there’s a strong argument,” long-time NFL analyst and former Viking defensive back Solomon Wilcots said on the Purple Daily show on SKOR North. “What the Hall of Fame is requiring is that high level of play over a long period of time, particularly if it leads to championships. You and I both know that he played well enough in ’98 to get the Vikings to a Super Bowl, except of all people to miss a kick you don’t expect [Gary] Anderson to miss a kick. That robbed [Cunningham] of an opportunity. Probably if they get to that game they’re going to play the Denver Broncos and that great Elway team. I think if they won that game, we’re having a whole different conversation. Randall Cunningham was as good as any of the other great quarterbacks of his time…he had a beautiful arm, a beautiful throwing motion and I think had he done it longer or had it resulted in a trip to the Super Bowl victory, I think we’re having a different conversation.”
Certainly Cunningham’s lack of a championship puts him behind QBs whose teams had more success but that doesn’t mean he was short on winning. From 1987 to 1998, Cunningham ranked seventh in win percentage among QBs with at least 1,000 passes, just behind Brett Favre and Jim Kelly and ahead of John Elway, Troy Aikman, Warren Moon and Dan Marino. That’s while playing in the NFC East, which featured stacked Dallas and Washington teams.
Because he was such a dynamic runner, ranking No. 1 in rushing yards from ’87-’98 among QBs with 3,996 and ranking second in TDs (28) and first in yards per rush attempt (6.3), Cunningham’s passing went less noticed. But his pure passing numbers stack up favorably during the 10-season stretch of the NFL taking the next step in becoming America’s most popular sport.
He ranked ninth in QB rating from ’87-’98, ahead of Aikman, Elway and Bernie Kosar and only 0.6 behind Moon, 1.2 behind Marino and Kelly. He was also ninth in Adjusted (for sacks and INTs) Yards per Attempt, tied with Moon, ahead of Aikman and 0.04 behind Kelly, 0.05 behind Elway.
If we use fantasy scoring, Cunningham compiled the fifth most fantasy points of the era in far fewer games. He played 25 fewer games than Steve Young, who is fourth, 38 games behind Warren Moon, 50 games behind Dan Marino and 54 less than Elway.
His offenses routinely were among the best, rating fifth in points in his breakout year ’88, third in ’90, fifth in ’92 and No. 1 in ’98. He retired as a four-time All-Pro, PFWA MVP in ’90 and after the 2001 season as the NFL’s all-time leader in rushing yards and carries for the quarterback position.
The players who played against him had nightmares.
“Man, he was elusive and he had a rocket arm,” said Wilcots, who once intercepted Cunningham. “He could throw it as well as any of the great passers during that time. But he was a load on third down because he was so elusive. He would get out of the pocket, wait for you to drop deep and run for a first down. He killed many defenses that way.”
“He was the guy you wanted to play against, but you also hated to play against because you knew he was just an incredible football player,” former Giants linebacker Carl Banks told ESPN’s Jason Reid. “I’ve 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.”
Cunningham could also be dinged for a down period in his career between 1993 and 1995 in which he suffered injuries and benchings. But he would hardly be the only Hall of Famer to have bumps along the way. Between 2002-2007 Kurt Warner went 13-29 with 54 touchdowns and 47 interceptions. Warren Moon’s first 45 games he went 12-33 with with a 69.1 rating. And likely HOF’er Eli Manning went 39-60 from ’12-’19 with an 85.8 rating.
Plus if longevity is the criticism, there are exceptions to that rule as well. Terrell Davis made fewer Pro Bowls and fewer All-Pro teams. Gale Sayers only led the NFL in rushing twice.
“Absolutely, 100 percent, [Cunningham] should be in,” Banks told Reid. “The voters just 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 combine Cam Newton and Michael Vick, both of their skill sets, you still don’t get Randall Cunningham.”
Whether he’s ever given the honor he deserves or not, Eagles fans will remember The Ultimate Weapon as being ahead of his time and must-see TV. Vikings fans will revere his comeback in ’98. And the next generation of young black quarterbacks who aren’t told to try another position can check YouTube for one of the greats who helped them gain that opportunity.