PHILADELPHIA STORY: JOY

With a supremely confident Randall Cunningham at the controls, the once hapless Eagles seem playoff bound
December 05, 1988

In splashing to a 31-21 win over the Phoenix Cardinals in soggy Philadelphia on Sunday, the Eagles proved at least one of three things:

•That the Eagles are the best team in the NFC East, because their 8-5 record ties them for first place with the New York Giants, whom they have defeated twice this season. Nobody outside the immediate Eagle family really believes that, of course, but facts are facts. Philly coach Buddy Ryan even admits, "We have only about 25 good players." That leaves him, he figures, 10 to 15 short. This team is not the '78 Steelers.

•That the old axiom, You win with defense, is nonsense. The Eagles rank last in the NFL against the pass and last in total yardage allowed. They give up 365 yards per game; Phoenix got 369. Philadelphia has some fine defensive players—notably All-Pro end Reggie White and second-year tackle Jerome Brown—but the unit seems to be playing without a mission. It's not slow or hurt, just zestless. After Sunday's game, Ryan mocked his defensive linemen—with the exception of end Clyde Simmons—for being so out of shape that they were "sucking up air."

Not that the offensive line is much better, having allowed a league-leading 52 sacks. Against Phoenix, running back Keith Byars was Philly's leading rusher, with 42 yards. That speaks volumes about the line's run-blocking prowess.

•That the Eagles are the luckiest team in the NFL. Indeed, on Sunday, Philadelphia could easily have been behind 34-7 at the half instead of only 14-7. A 41-yard touchdown pass from the Cardinals' Cliff Stoudt to Roy Green was nullified by a holding penalty, and Phoenix blew another sure TD when fullback Earl Ferrell fumbled on first-and-goal at the Philly three. What's more, the Cardinals missed field goal attempts of 26 and 44 yards.

And consider this: Philadelphia has played Houston when the Oilers were without Warren Moon, Cleveland when the Browns were missing Bernie Kosar (but lost anyway), and the Cardinals when they didn't have Neil Lomax, who was out with a knee injury. And this: A fortnight ago Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor blocked an Eagle field goal try in overtime, but Simmons grabbed the ball and rambled 15 yards for the winning score.

What the Eagles do have for real is Randall Cunningham at quarterback. Justice will be served if he is named the league's MVP, for all he has done is carry Philadelphia—with precious little help—to more wins than it has had since 1981. He ranks second in the NFL in passing yardage (3,236), behind Dan Marino, and is among the conference's top 15 ground gainers, with 501 yards. That's far and away the highest total among the league's quarterbacks.

On Sunday he completed 17 of 35 passes for 214 yards, which, given the conditions, were pretty good numbers. More important, though, at precisely the right moment he stepped up and won the game. That's nothing new. Philadelphia has won four games this year in the final two minutes of play or in OT.

The key moment against the Cardinals came in the third quarter with the Eagles behind 14-10. The Philadelphia offense had struggled all day—Cunningham had completed only 10 of 27 throws for a paltry 90 yards—and the defense was playing down to its usual standard. Cunningham faced third-and-eight, not to mention wind and rain, on his own 48. He dodged his tormentors and somehow got the ball into the hands of wide-out Ron Johnson, who found a seam in the middle of the field for a 40-yard gain. Two plays later Cunningham passed eight yards to wideout Cris Carter to put Philadelphia in front 17-14.

What Cunningham's performance underscored was a sudden and unlikely coming together of quarterback and head coach. Ryan was born in rural Oklahoma, joined the Army when he was 16 and loves defense more than life. His tart tongue spares no one, and quarterbacks are known for believing that they require a tender approach. "That's a bunch of crap," says Ryan.

The son of a janitor, Cunningham grew up in the scruffier part of Santa Barbara, Calif., honing his quickness by darting across the highway next to the family house, and went to Nevada-Las Vegas primarily because no other school promised to let him play quarterback. Cunningham has a gentle, arty side. He recently sponsored and appeared in the First Annual Randall Cunningham Celebrity Fashion Blitz for the American Cancer Society.

While coach and quarterback seem as different as salt and pepper, they are united by dreams of excellence. Last Friday, Ryan sat at his desk—behind a sign that reads IF YOU AIN'T THE LEAD DOG, THE SCENERY NEVER CHANGES—and said, "We're not interested in winning division titles. Hell, the only thing we want is to win the Super Bowl."

He sees that same passion in Cunningham. "He doesn't want to be good," said Ryan. "He wants to be great. And he is willing to work to be thataway."

For his part, Cunningham says, "People tell me I could be the best person ever to play this position. That makes me feel good."

That judgment will await another day. After all, in the NFL's arcane system for rating quarterbacks, Johnny Unitas is 16th. Still, Cunningham's confidence knows no bounds. "In my third year of playing Pop Warner quarterback, I led our team to a championship," he says. "In my third year in high school I led my team to a [league] championship. In my third year in college I led my team to a [Pacific Coast Athletic Association] championship. So if I can play three solid years here, I can take this team to the Super Bowl."

He is in his second solid year, but Cunningham already places himself in starry company. "I'm an impact player," he says. "Impact. That is what separates guys like me, Michael [Jordan], Magic and Gretzky from the others. We control our teams. We are confident. It's a proud feeling."

Cunningham has obviously placed himself among the biggies before his record warrants it. The brother of former USC and New England Patriots running back Sam (Bam) Cunningham, Randall went to Philadelphia in 1985 as the 37th player chosen in the draft. He arrived at camp with long, curly hair and a T-shirt that read ANY QUESTIONS? CALL MY AGENT. His first start came in the second game, against the Los Angeles Rams, and he admits he "flunked the test" by throwing four interceptions. By the end of the '85 season he was second string and had done little to dispel the criticism that had been leveled against him: too sandlot, lacks discipline, not smart enough, comes from a second-rate college program.

But in '86, Ryan's first season with the Eagles, Cunningham started improving under the guidance of new quarterback coach Doug Scovil. Ryan even thought up the idea of putting Cunningham in only on third downs in relief of veteran Ron Jaworski. "It was good for him, " says Ryan, who gave Cunningham the starting job in Game 11. Whether getting sacked 72 times was good for him as well is debatable.

In March 1987, Ryan waived the 35-year-old Jaworski, saying the job belonged to Cunningham. "I came here to win the world championship," says Ryan. "I didn't know if the young guy could do it, but I knew the old guy couldn't."

Cunningham rose to the challenge. He got rid of his not-to-be-taken-seriously haircut, and he worked daily with Scovil in the off-season. In lifting the Eagles to a 7-5 record in 12 nonstrike games last season, he completed 55% of his passes for 2,786 yards and 23 touchdowns and led the team in rushing with 505 yards.

Cunningham is in the first year of a three-year, $4 million contract, and he has his spendthrift moments. For example, he is clearly over-carred. He owns a $40,000 Lincoln Continental limo, a $38,000 Mercedes and a $30,000 Porsche, not to mention a Bronco that was given to him. On the other hand, he invests his money primarily in jumbo ($100,000 each) certificates of deposit.

"I am not a risky guy," he says. He recently purchased a $350,000 home in Cherry Hill, N.J. It's modest, given his net worth. Problem is, because he commands about $2,500 for a one-hour appearance and figures his off-the-field income is about $200,000 a year, sometimes he gets the notion that he has too much money. Which prompts Cunningham to say, "We'll see what happens. I might retire after next season."

Surely he says that to rattle the Eagles' roost. But who knows? He points out that $1.8 mill drawing 8% interest produces about $140,000 a year. Says Cunningham, "If you can't live on $140,000 a year, your expenses are too high." Seems that having been sacked 198 times in his pro career has knocked some sense into him.

Cunningham doesn't like to discuss the black-quarterback issue, saying that a lot of people, black and white, have helped him. But he laughs when the talk turns to nicknames. "I kind of like Ranbo," he says, "but that easily could become Sambo." He prefers Rocket.

Just now he has Philadelphia in a final countdown for the playoffs.

THREE PHOTOSJOHN BIEVERCunningham (above) and Johnson (right), who had two TD receptions, burned Phoenix. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERRyan likes his quarterback's intense desire to be the best.
PHOTOJOHN BIEVERBrown is one of the few luminaries on Philadelphia's porous, wind-sucking defense. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERSplish-splash, Johnson took a bath on this pass, but he caught four others for 66 yards.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)