Randall Cunningham has more touchdowns than Troy Aikman, Otto Graham, and Joe Namath. He has more passing yards than Broadway Joe, Terry Bradshaw, and Roger Staubach. He has a better career passer rating than Warren Moon, Johnny Unitas, and John Elway. Cunningham was a four time Pro Bowler in the Golden Age of quarterbacks, with the likes of Joe Montana, Steve Young, Dan Marino, John Elway, and Jim Kelly vying for a Pro Bowl seat every year. He was one of the best athletes to ever play quarterback in the NFL, and was one of the best athletes in the league during his tenure. Yet, Cunningham is widely viewed as an underachiever. His career seems hopelessly unfulfilled.
Randall Cunningham paved the way for quarterbacks like Jake Plummer, Michael Vick, and Vince Young. He had a far stronger arm and quicker feet than Steve Young who was his contemporary with a similar style of play and earned his way into the Hall of Fame Player. Randall was the best athlete on the field in almost every game. He could fling the football on a straight line forty yards down the field or scramble past the linemen, cruise past the linebackers, and jump over the secondary for a touchdown. He was a threat to score on every play, and to fully appreciate the wealth of talent that Cunningham had, you had to see him play. He was tall, strong-armed, and fast. His play under center defined the Philadelphia Eagles from the mid-eighties through the early nineties as he thrilled both home and opposing crowds with spectacularly athletic runs and high-velocity, fairly accurate passes. But, he failed to improve as a quarterback and never reached his full potential. With the immense set of natural ability that he possessed, he was expected to revolutionize his position. Because of the lack of development of his skills as a National Football League quarterback, Randall Cunningham was ultimately just an exciting player and not a great one. A few things contributed to Cunningham’s skills stagnating, including his head coach, his natural affinity for running, and his teammates. All three were pivotal in the idling of his maturation as a NFL quarterback.
Buddy Ryan, his first coach, was a defensive genius that believed in pounding the ball on offense and playing an attacking style of defense. For a young, impressionable rookie, the head coach is the most important factor in his maturation into a good NFL player. Effective coaching is even more pertinent for the quarterback position. Any talented NFL QB, already has the leadership skills and natural ability to play at the highest level, but they need direction, repetitions, and constant reminders of the finer points of signal calling. Randall Cunningham was deprived of the close observation and guidance that most rookie quarterbacks receive. Therefore he was ignorant of the subtle nuances of playing his position. Though he was he was never perceived as an inaccurate passer, his highest completion percentage in a season was 62%. Passing percentages were significantly lower in the eighties and early nineties because of looser interpretations of pass interference. In comparison, Joe Montana’s highest completion percentage was only 65%. Cunningham was a good quarterback, just not a great one. Buddy Ryan failed to teach him that the most important asset for a quarterback is his feet in the pocket. A quarterback has to have his feet set to deliver the football. Ryan, instead of using Randall’s elusiveness behind the line of scrimmage and allowing him to develop his sensational arm, chose to use his speed and quickness in his running attack. Thus, Randall never developed into a top tier quarterback and occasionally misfired on throws that he was capable of making. Buddy Ryan deprived Randall Cunningham of the natural progression passing that most QB’s are given.
Cunningham also hurt his own progress by running too soon on several passing plays. A combination of the play of his terrible offensive line and his happy feet caused many possible passes down field to never be attempted. He was the best athlete on his team and one of the best in the league, so he was often the team’s best running option. His maturation suffered more because he often was not given enough time to check down properly. The pass rush reached him within 1-2 seconds regularly. To be an effective NFL quarterback, every QB needs 3-4 seconds to read the defense and to deliver the football. Because the Eagles offensive line dissolved in the face of decent pass rushers, Cunningham never settled in the pocket. He learned to run at the first sign of trouble instead of shifting in the face of the pass rush to allow his receivers more time to get open down field. Cunningham regularly squandered opportunities to throw the ball by running for positive yardage too soon.
However, placing all of the blame for Cunningham never reaching his highest potential does not rest solely with him and his coach. Randall Cunningham never had great teammates. In fact, the vast majority of his teammates were average at best. The Philadelphia Eagles had no running game save Randall Cunningham improvising or running a quarterback sneak. They had a terrible offensive line to protect him. And, they had no wide receivers to catch the ball. Randall Cunningham was the offense. When he failed, the team failed. The running back, Keith Byars was the leading receiver for the Eagles during Cunningham’s tenure. That is a sure sign of a sub par passing attack. If a running back leads the team in receptions it is an indictment of a hideous receiving corp or a sign that you have a seminal talent in the backfield. Byars being the best passing option in the Eagles offense meant that the wide receivers were not talented and that the team did not make big plays down the field. Randall Cunningham lead his team in rushing at the quarterback position and is one of two players to lead his team in passing and rushing yards. This is a feat that even Michael Vick, the first and only quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season, did not accomplish. The fact that Byars did not lead the team in rushing is testament to both his talent level and the state of the Eagles on offense. Philadelphia had a stout defense, but had a mediocre offense and Cunningham suffered for it.
Randall Cunningham is an enigma. He was extraordinarily gifted, played well above the expectations of any average quarterback, and conversely and simultaneously well below what was expected of him. If he had the arm of Chad Pennington or Jeff Garcia, then he would be heralded as a great player that utilized all his talents. If he had the mobility of Dan Marino or Joe Namath, then he may have become one of the best pure passers in the league. Instead, he is seen as the guy who could not put it all together and never took his team to the big game. Cunningham posted Hall of Fame numbers over the course of his career, despite poor coaching, questionable offensive philosophy, and untalented teammates, but probably will never enter Canton as a member. Randall Cunningham had one of the most intriguing and frustrating careers in National Football League history. He is good enough to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but probably will never be enshrined in its halls.