What an athlete.
There has never been a quarterback in the history of the NFL who was able to single-handedly take over a football game like Cunningham could. Cunningham was blessed with a cannon arm, quick feet, and mobility that was unmatched until Michael Vick.
From 1987-'90, Cunningham literally was the offense for the Philadelphia Eagles. He had no weapons at wide receiver or running back, yet still managed to throw for 20 touchdowns every season while averaging over 3,000 passing yards per year.
He was also a whiz at running the ball, as he led his team in rushing all four seasons.
His best season came in 1990 when he threw for 3,466 yards and 30 touchdowns, while adding eight touchdowns on the ground. He set a new record for quarterbacks with 942 rushing yards.
Cunningham earned the league MVP award for his achievements. During those four years, Cunningham went to three Pro Bowls and took the Eagles to the playoffs three times.
The shame of it all is that Cunningham played for the Buddy Ryan-coached Eagles, in a time when Ryan paid no attention to his offense.
Buddy would tell Cunningham before the game to go out there and make five big plays and let the defense take care of the rest.
And Cunningham would always do so.
There was the 95-yard touchdown pass to Freddie Barnett when Cunningham eluded Bruce Smith in the end zone. There was the play against the Giants on Monday Night Football where Cunningham was hit by Carl Banks, fell to the ground, and still recovered to throw a touchdown pass.
He could create plays out of nothing with his feet. Eagles fans remember the play against the Cardinals where the play broke down and Cunningham took off running, gaining 60 yards on the play. Cunningham would sometimes punt the ball on third down to catch the defense off guard, such as the 91-yarder in 1989.
Oh sure, he wasn't perfect. He fumbled the ball way too much, leading the league three times. He was sacked at a greater rate than any quarterback in the history of the NFL. In just his second NFL season he was sacked a league record 72 times and only threw 209 passes.
He led the league in times sacked five times and total yards lost per sack six times. His tendency to run led to a frequent amount of injuries. He couldn't read a defense. He was brash and cocky. But all of these could have been fixed with the proper coaching.
If Buddy had taken the time to coach Cunningham into an elite quarterback, there's no telling how good he could have been. It's no surprise that the Eagles never won a playoff game with Cunningham. He simply wasn't good enough to beat a playoff team, especially since he was the only offense the team had.
If Cunningham had the fortune of playing in this era with offensive-minded Andy Reid as his coach, Cunningham could have been one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game. The fact that he was able to perform as well as he did with the Eagles is a testament to Cunningham's natural athletic ability.
Cunningham was finally let go from the Eagles after the '95 season because, simply put, after being undercoached for years in Buddy Ryan's offense, he wasn't able to master offensive coordinator Jon Gruden's complicated schemes.
He joined the Vikings after taking a year off from football, and in 1998 everything went right for Cunningham. He was surrounded by talent with which he had never before been associated: All-Pro wideout Cris Carter, rookie phenomenon Randy Moss, and Pro Bowl running back Robert Smith.
With offensive mastermind Brian Billick as his coordinator, Cunningham helped the Vikings to a 15-1 record, directing the most prolific offense in NFL history (at that point). The Vikings scored 556 points that season for an average of over 35 per game.
Cunningham passed for 34 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions. He settled down and became a classic dropback passer, running the ball only 32 times all season, which led to a new career-best in times sacked (20).
The season was proof that if given the right talent and coaching, Cunningham had the ability to be one of the best of all time.
I fully believe that if Cunningham had been paired with the guys that Troy Aikman had with the Cowboys in the early '90s (a Pro Bowl offensive line, running back, receivers, tight end, fullback, and a Hall of Fame coach) Cunningham too would have won three Super Bowls—maybe more.
And he would have done this by putting up better numbers than Aikman did.
It's a shame that Cunningham is mostly remembered for being a what-if? What if he had been surrounded by a coach who cared about his offense? What if he had had playmakers at wide receivers and running back? What if he hadn't gotten hurt during the '91 season?
It's disappointing that one of the greatest talents the game has ever known is kept out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame due to the lack of coaching and talent that surrounded him.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!