Randall Cunningham’s defining moments

In 1985, the Philadelphia Eagles used a second-round pick on UNLV’s Randall Cunningham. Despite signing with the USFL’s Tampa Bay Bandits that spring, Cunningham eventually landed in Philadelphia and embarked on a 16-year NFL career. With the former signal-caller turning 50 on Wednesday, we take a look at the defining moments of one of the most exciting players in NFL history.

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Ready for Primetime

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On Oct. 10, 1988, the Eagles were on “Monday Night Football” for the first time in seven years. Their opponent that night at the Vet were the division-rival New York Giants, a team that had won the last six meetings with Philadelphia. With the Eagles trailing by three in the second quarter, Cunningham rolled right on third and goal from the five. Linebacker Carl Banks dove low at the athletic quarterback who went down and landed on his left hand before popping up to toss a strike to tight end Jimmie Giles in the end zone.

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The Ultimate Weapon

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The Ultimate Weapon SI cover

Entering the 1989 season, Sports Illustrated featured Cunningham on its NFL preview issue under the headline “The Ultimate Weapon. Philadelphia’s Randall Cunningham: The Quarterback for the ’90s”. In his third full season as an NFL starter, Cunningham led the Eagles to an 11-5 record and a trip to the playoffs.

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Career day in DC

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On the morning of a 1989 Week 2 matchup with the Washington Redskins, Cunningham signed a then-record five-year, $14-million contract. To celebrate the occasion, Cunningham rallied the Eagles back from a 27-7 second-quarter deficit, throwing for a career-high 447 yards and five touchdowns for a stunning 42-37 victory at RFK Stadium.

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91-yard punt (video)

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Cunningham was an All-American punter at UNLV and in a 1989 game at the Meadowlands against the Giants, the Eagles decided to utilize those talents. With the score tied and the Eagles set to punt from deep in their territory, Buddy Ryan decided to use Cunningham over punter Max Runager. The QB received the snap with his heels in the back of the end zone and launched a kick that landed nearly 70 yards away at the Giants’ 39-yard line. It skipped past return man Dave Meggett and all the way to the seven, good for the third longest punt in NFL history. To put the kick in context, Runager had three punts that day for a TOTAL of 83 yards. Cunningham punted 20 times during his career with an average of 44.7 yards.

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1990 season

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RANDALL

Randall flying high like an eagle.

Cunningham opened the decade of the ‘90s with the best statistical season of his career to date, completing more than 58 percent of his passes and throwing 30 touchdown passes with only 13 interceptions. On the ground, he amassed 942 yards, at the time the second most ever by a quarterback. He lead the league with 8.0 yards per carry and scored five touchdowns of his own. As a team, the Eagles ran for 2,556 yards, the most of any team in the 1990s. Philadelphia would win eight of its final 10 regular-season games to qualify for the postseason for the third consecutive year. Cunningham would finish second to Joe Montana in the AP NFL MVP Award voting.

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How’d he do that? (video)

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On Dec. 2, 1990 in Buffalo, the Eagles faced 3rd and 14 from their own 5-yard line. Cunningham dropped back to pass and somehow eluded the NFL’s all-time sack leader Bruce Smith before rolling left and launching a moon shot 60 yards in the air to Fred Barnett. The rookie wide out made the catch over Bills DB James Williams and scampered to the end zone for a 95-yard TD, the second-longest pass play in Eagles history. As CBS analyst Dan Fouts noted on the game broadcast, “This type of play just defies description … (Cunningham) just makes a play that only he can make.”

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Buddy Ball

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(Gillian Allen/Associated Press)

(Gillian Allen/Associated Press)

Cunningham credits Ryan for turning him from a scrambling QB to a running quarterback. Ryan was so disinterested in offense that he used to tell Cunningham to just go make three or four plays a game and the defense will win it. In each of Ryan’s last two years in Philadelphia, Cunningham led the NFL in yards per carry. When he first took over as coach in Philly, Ryan would even put Cunningham in the game on third-and-long situations, replacing Ron Jaworski.

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Playoff failures

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(Rob Kozloff/Associated Press)

(Rob Kozloff/Associated Press)

Under Ryan, the Eagles qualified for the postseason in three consecutive years from 1988 to 1990. In 1988, Philadelphia lost the Fog Bowl in Chicago and the following year at home to the Los Angeles Rams. Cunningham had a dominant statistical season in 1990, but was then benched in a wild-card loss to the Redskins. In the three games, Cunningham had no touchdown passes and five interceptions with a 58.7 passer rating while leading the team to only one touchdown. He would finish his NFL career 3-6 as a playoff starter with 12 TDs and 8 INTs.

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Pauped

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Expectations were sky high for the 1991 Eagles, but a hit on Cunningham from Packers LB Bryce Paup in the season opener at Lambeau Field ended the year for Cunningham as well as Philly’s Super Bowl hopes.  The QB suffered a torn MCL and PCL in his left knee, forcing Philadelphia to use four different starters the rest of the season. Despite a defense that finished No. 1 against the run, pass and overall, the Eagles finished out of the playoffs with a 10-6 record. Cunningham’s slogan during his rehab became “I’ll be back scramblin’.”

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Let Me Be Me 

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(Donna Bagby/Associated Press)

(Donna Bagby/Associated Press)

Rich Kotite took over as Eagles head coach in 1991, replacing Ryan. After Cunningham was lost for the season in the opener, Kotite wanted to keep the quarterback in the pocket and healthy the following year.  Cunningham was none too pleased with the new style and even went as far as to wear a “Let Me Be Me” hat during the season. In 1993, Kotite turned the offense over to quarterbacks coach Zeke Bratkowski, who allowed Cunningham to return to his free-wheeling style. Alas, Cunningham suffered a broken left fibula in Week 4 against the New York Jets.

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Sacked

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(Amy Sancetta/Associated Press)

(Amy Sancetta/Associated Press)

Despite his elusiveness, Cunningham was the fourth-most sacked quarterback of all time, including a then-record 72 times in 1986. What’s even more amazing about that total is the fact that despite appearing in 15 games, Cunningham had only five starts that season. In the six full seasons he played from 1986-92, Cunningham was the league’s most-sacked quarterback five times.

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Retirement

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Randall was benched in favor of Rodney Peete after four starts in 1995. After the season, he retired and returned home to Las Vegas at age 32 to start a marble business.

The 1995 season was a struggle for Cunningham. With new coach Ray Rhodes and offensive coordinator Jon Gruden implementing the West Coast offense, Cunningham was benched in favor of journeyman Rodney Peete after four starts. In the divisional playoffs against the Dallas Cowboys, Peete suffered a concussion and Cunningham was forced to play after spending most of the week with his wife, who was expecting their first child. Cunningham was ineffective in relief, the Eagles lost, and his days in Philly were over.

Cunningham retired, returned home to Las Vegas at age 32 to begin working in the marble and granite business. In 1997, he returned to football with the Minnesota Vikings.

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 Return to Prominence

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viking

Associated Press

After appearing in six games as a backup to Brad Johnson in 1997, Cunningham took over the starting role in Minnesota in 1998. Teaming with rookie Randy Moss and ex-Eagles teammate Cris Carter, Cunningham tossed a career-high 34 touchdowns and led the Vikings to a 15-1 record. The offense racked up a then-record 556 points and the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

The lasting image of the Vikings’ regular season run might well have been the Thanksgiving Day game in Dallas. Minnesota entered at 10-1 while Dallas was 8-3. Riding Cunningham’s 359 yards and four touchdowns, the Vikings emerged with a 46-36 victory. Three of Cunningham’s TD strikes went to Moss, who finished with three catches for 163 yards (54.3 avg) and three scores.

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1998 NFC Championship Game

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Cunningham fell short of a Super Bowl berth as a member of the Vikings.

Cunningham seemed destined to reach his first career Super Bowl as Minnesota entered the NFC title game against the Atlanta Falcons as heavy favorites. Randall had a strong game with 266 pass yards and three total touchdowns, but the game will forever be remembered for Gary Anderson’s missed 38-yard field goal attempt. Cunningham had driven the Vikings 54 yards on 11 plays to set up the fateful try, only to see his best shot at a Super Bowl dashed. Ironically, the veteran kicker had made all 39 of his previous attempts that season, and this shot would have put Minnesota up by 10 with just over two minutes to play. The Falcons took the ensuing possession and tied the game with 49 seconds remaining. Eventually, the Vikings fell short in overtime of the last playoff game Cunningham would ever start.

-Bill Sudell @sudsysudell

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