Sports Nut

The Case for Cunningham

Why he belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Cunningham: He’s got the goods

The debate over whether just-retired Terrell Davis belongs in the Hall of Fame has dominated the chattering classes of sport since T.D. announced he was finished a week ago. Obscured has been the recent retirement of a player who will also stir some argument, although to my mind he clearly belongs in the hall— Randall Cunningham.

The NFL MVP award is given out annually by three different entities. Cunningham won the award in 1988, 1990, and 1998—only Jim Brown, Y.A. Tittle, Johnny Unitas, and Brett Favre have been honored in as many years, and they’re all in Canton or headed there. Joe Montana won MVPs in only two seasons. Needless to say, Joe Cool didn’t have an eight-year gap between awards, nor has anyone else.

When Cunningham was drafted in 1985, black QBs were still a rarity. Doug Williams’ historic Super Bowl win was still two years away, and the idea that fast, athletic blacks could succeed at the position was anathema to head coaches around the league. It took Buddy Ryan, a defensive guru who understood the kind of pressure a game-breaker like Cunningham could put on a defense, to prove that a black scrambler could not just survive but thrive in a league increasingly based on speed. Nowadays, with Kordell Stewart, Donovan McNabb, and Michael Vick making a QB who can run or pass seem a necessary part of modern football, it’s easy to forget the Mesozoic Era when Randall was a curiosity. Yet it was only 15 years ago.

The big knock against Randall is that he never won or even made it to a Super Bowl. Moreover, he never distinguished himself in the playoffs. Aside from the stunning loss to Atlanta in the 1998 NFC Championship game, which Gary Anderson and the Vikings D blew, Cunningham’s most memorable playoff moment was probably the 1988 Fog Bowl loss to the Bears, where he somehow threw for 407 yards but also threw for three crucial INTs. He was actually benched by Buddy during a 1990 playoff loss to the Redskins.

But, boy, did he single-handedly carry the Philadelphia Eagles. Taking over from the lead-footed Ron Jaworski in 1987, Cunningham turned in a spectacular four years that saw him not only average more than 3,000 yards and 24 TDs passing, but also lead the team in rushing, including a staggering 942 yards in 1990, the standing record for quarterbacks.

Cunningham’s stats match or beat the Hall of Fame locks of his era. Dan Marino and John Elway played in offenses geared to their passing ability and had almost double Randall’s passing attempts, so they racked up bigger numbers. Marino and Elway are ranked 1 and 2 in most all-time passing stats, but Randall is in the top 25, and there are 25 QBs in the hall—you do the math. The all-important yards-per-pass attempt stat is basically equal: Marino 7.3 per attempt, Elway 7.1, Cunningham 7.0. And Cunningham has a better TD-to-INT ratio than Elway, 1.54 to 1.33.

Randall compares more favorably to Troy Aikman, another Canton lock, who played exactly one less game in his career. Aikman, one of history’s most accurate passers, beats out Randall in completion percentage (61.5 to 56.6) and has about 3,000 more yards in 500 more attempts. But Randall threw for 42 more TDs and seven fewer INTs, and the yards-per-attempt for both is 7.0. Toss in the rushing (4,928 yards and 35 TDs for Cunningham, 1,016 and nine for Aikman), and Cunningham moves past the Golden Boy.

And whither Warren Moon? The general consensus is that Moon is a Hall of Famer while Randall isn’t. The former Oiler racked up huge numbers by throwing on virtually every down, and he ranks just behind Marino and Elway in the accumulated stats. But his TD-to-INT ratio (1.24) is much lower than Cunningham’s (1.54). And Moon, hardly a sterling playoff performer, never took his team to a Super Bowl. If Moon belongs in the Hall, so does Randall.

Like Archie Manning, Cunningham racked up his numbers with mediocre supporting casts. His receivers and backs in the Eagle era included the geriatric Herschel Walker, the oft-injured Keith Jackson and Fred Barnett, Keith Byars, and other assorted mediocrities. Only during his comeback with Minnesota—throwing to Cris Carter and Randy Moss, with Robert Smith running through gaping holes—did Randall get in on the fun Montana, Aikman, and Steve Young were having for most of their careers.

About that comeback: In 1998, already knocked out of the game by injuries, the 35-year-old Cunningham left his granite and marble business in Las Vegas and mounted one of the more triumphant and unlikely second acts in NFL history. The nonpareil scrambler reinvented himself as a pure pocket passer. The Vikes set the single-season points record, as Randall threw for more than 3,700 yards and 34 TDs with an astounding 106 QB rating. Cunningham was voted to his fourth Pro Bowl, and Minnesota dominated the league, going 16-1 before falling to Atlanta in the NFC Championship game.

Cunningham had some divine magic in his fast-twitch muscles. Three plays stand out in Randall’s pantheon of the miraculous. One comes from a 1990 game against Buffalo, when Cunningham, throwing from his end zone, was about to be engulfed from the blind side by Bruce Smith. Spidey-sense at full tingle, Randall ducked under the flying tackle and heaved a pass 60 yards off his back foot. The result: an unforgettable 95-yard touchdown.

The other two came at the expense of the New York Giants, for whom the late-’80s were a Sisyphean struggle to control No. 12 in green and white. In a 1988 game on Monday Night Football, Giants LB Carl Banks torpedoed in and crunched the Eagle QB at the midriff. Most players would have landed in the third row, but Cunningham managed to twist his body in midair, put a hand down for balance while parallel to the ground, regain his footing, and dive in for the score. The following season, Randall uncorked a 91-yard, into-the-wind punt to clinch a key game against the G-men. It was the greatest display of punting by a quarterback since Sammy Baugh led the league from 1940 to 43.

While individual plays don’t make a career, part of being a Hall of Famer is leaving an indelible impression. Cunningham was the most electrifying player not named B. Sanders to take the field since Gale Sayers was knocked from the game. And unlike Terrell Davis, Randall made it back from crippling injuries to return to the pinnacle of the sport. These attributes, plus his pioneer status, far outweigh his lack of a Super Bowl ring and are why Cunningham should be voted into Canton on the first ballot five years hence.