Scrambling for cover

Randall Cunningham wants to be a backup. Really. But the one thing he's never outrun is quarterback controversy.

Frankly, a lot of that had to do with Cunningham. He was, um, a bit unusual, and his style smacked of arrogance. (The man had gold-tipped shoelaces.) It seemed almost as if there were a direct correlation between the success and the negative attention, and the odd manner in which he handled both: The better he played, the more complaints were raised about his attitude and commitment to the team. The more people made a fuss over him, the more eccentric he became.

"Each year he'd reinvent himself," says Lyon, "and it would invariably be emblazoned on his baseball cap. One of my favorites, I think, was 'Let Randall be Randall.' Each July, he'd appear in his reincarnation."


The one man who got past all that and who protected him from prying media and fans was head coach Buddy Ryan. Ryan may have been born a southern boy, but in reality he couldn't have been more Philly. He was a no-nonsense, blue-collar, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-kick-someone's-ass kind of guy--which was exactly the way the deviants in Veterans Stadium's infamous 700 level (where the rowdiest fans occupy the cheapest seats) romantically pictured themselves. Cantankerous, feisty, fiery, whatever, the vast majority of Eagles fans couldn't get enough Big Bad Buddy. In '89, when Ryan allegedly put a bounty on turncoat placekicker Luis Zendejas, who had left for hated Dallas, well, the portly coach only increased his following.
Unlike Justin, Cunningham is not a pure drop-back, stay-in-the-pocket passer. In fact, Cunningham is the all-time rushing leader for quarterbacks.
Unlike Justin, Cunningham is not a pure drop-back, stay-in-the-pocket passer. In fact, Cunningham is the all-time rushing leader for quarterbacks.
New Cowboys head coach Dave Campo is confident Cunningham can still play. After looking at last year's game film, he says, "We felt very comfortable that he had not lost the skills we had seen in him before."
Gary Lawson
New Cowboys head coach Dave Campo is confident Cunningham can still play. After looking at last year's game film, he says, "We felt very comfortable that he had not lost the skills we had seen in him before."

Ryan's protection of Cunningham was important in that he deflected concerns from fans--and teammates. There was clamoring in the locker room then, where outspoken linebacker Seth Joyner voiced thinly veiled complaints about Cunningham. Ryan's clout defused as much of the ill will as possible. For a little while, anyway.

As with all things Philadelphian--good times there last about as long as the flavor in your gum--Ryan's ability to divert attention from his quarterback came to an abrupt, premature end. Following the 1990 season, Ryan, who was 43-35-1 with the Eagles including three consecutive trips to the playoffs, was axed as head coach.

"Everything was great until Buddy Ryan got fired," Cunningham says, staring blankly, possibly wondering, probably not for the first time, what might have been. "Buddy was my man. I still love Buddy. But everything happens for a reason."

Enter promoted offensive coordinator Rich Kotite, who had arrived a year earlier from the hapless New York Jets. Kotite had his way of doing things: strict, by the book, no frills, no thrills. With Ryan out of the way, Kotite tried to harness Cunningham, who had always succeeded most when freelancing, when making things up as he went along. The new coach promised mundane, safe play-calling. Where Ryan would ask Cunningham for the big play, Kotite routinely asked for the routine. It changed the team's dynamic almost immediately. It was kind of like trying to fix a Porsche that needed a fine-tuning--remember, the Eagles used to be good--with a blowtorch and a sledgehammer.

From there, it got worse for Cunningham. An injury in 1991 sidelined the quarterback for the final 15 games of the season. When he came back a year later, he was benched for parts of two games, replaced by veteran Jim McMahon, a move that created a quarterback controversy and distrust between Cunningham and Kotite. It wasn't his last benching or the last problem between player and coach. During the next three tension-filled years, something surely had to give.

"You know what, going into that last year [when Ray Rhodes had replaced Kotite as head coach], I worked myself as hard as I could work myself to get prepared for the season," he says simply, without a hint of contempt. "And then to get benched [in favor of Rodney Peete], it was kind of like I never had a chance. It was like it was preplanned. That's kind of how I felt last year [in Minnesota]. That's kind of like a sign that God says, 'I'm going to lead you somewhere else now.' But I didn't understand it back then [in Philly].

"I got tired of everything in 1995. That's why I started to, that's part of the reason why I left. I was tired of the game, tired of the fame, tired of the pain. Now, I understand why it's like that. But I think when you have a platform God will lift you up so people know you, so that He can use you. But I took it for granted, and that's when you go through that humbling process. That hurt. That's a hard thing. Anybody who gets humbled knows that."

His solution? Just go. Leave all the complications behind. Cunningham says it was all part of the Lord's plan, a subtle, covert message to get the disheartened quarterback to pack up and move along.

So he did what he does best. He ran.


Funny thing about running--sometimes you manage to find greener pastures. And sometimes you trip and fall face-first.

After the 1995 campaign, at the seasoned age (for a quarterback) of 32, he had decided not to pursue other places of employ, but to retire. Retracing his steps, Cunningham retreated to Las Vegas--Sin City, a curious destination for God to suggest, don't you think?--where he opened a custom marble and granite business. Every so often, if you were dedicated enough, you could find a blurb about Ran-doll(as he was labeled in Bowden's book) in the papers or catch a brief piece on myriad television reports. Basically, though, it was quiet. Unusually quiet, given the previously stormy five seasons.

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