Keep This QB Running
The NFL is not quite able to swallow this. Two years ago, Randall Cunningham was out of football, laying countertops in Las Vegas. This year, we've seen him on Monday Night Football, shredding the NFC-champion Green Bay Packers for 442 yards and four touchdowns. I believe it was during that game, as Cunningham lit up the Green Bay secondary, that I first heard what's become the leading explanation for his brilliant season: It's easy.
You see, the experts chuckle, the Vikings offense is so talent-rich it practically runs itself. Old Randall just has to let his massive line do the blocking, then heave the ball up where his All-Pro receivers can grab it.
It's hard to imagine anyone saying that about Troy Aikman or Drew Bledsoe. And it's not as if Cunningham has never done anything with a football before. He came off the bench last year to rally the Vikings past the Giants in the playoffs, then racked up 331 yards passing against the 49ers the week after that. In 115 career starts, he has passed for 24,657 yards and 170 touchdowns. He has been the league MVP, an All-Pro, the Comeback Player of the Year, and one of only two players--the other being Johnny Unitas--to have won the Bert Bell award for player of the year twice. He holds the career rushing record for a quarterback--4,626 yards and counting.
The best pass play I've ever seen, anywhere, happened in 1990 when Cunningham, trapped in his own end zone by most of the Buffalo Bills defensive line, twisted out of Bruce Smith's grasp and, on the run, heaved the ball clear out to midfield, where Fred Barnett gathered it in and took it the rest of the way for a 95-yard touchdown. And one of my favorite plays ever was, of all things, a Cunningham punt--a booming quick-kick he sprung on the Giants in 1989 that sailed a good 60 yards in the air then rolled inside the 10-yard line for a 91-yard net.
But Cunningham's problem isn't what he's done--it's how he did it, and, even more, who he is. Thirteen years ago, when Cunningham joined the Philadelphia Eagles, the prevailing wisdom in the NFL still held that African-Americans couldn't play quarterback; they lacked the composure and intellect to lead the offense. The young Cunningham could certainly lead the team, but he could also go solo, improvising plays on the fly--and if nothing else worked, he could tuck the ball under his arm and take off downfield like a tailback. To a league suspicious of African-Americans' abilities, this freewheeling style came across as a "black" way to play the position. (Never mind that John Elway was doing many of the same things for the Denver Broncos.) Cunningham was judged as a member of his race, according to the leading prejudices: If he was creative, he seemed undisciplined; if he was daring, it came off as recklessness. And when he did something well, he got credit for raw athleticism--his league-leading rushing yards for a quarterback just showed he couldn't play like a real signal caller. (Never mind that former Viking Fran Tarkenton was legendary for evading pass rushers.)
Such racial bias grows out of the NFL's greater institutional prejudices, the same forces that kept Doug Flutie in Canada. Pro-football coaches, with very few exceptions, want control, predictability, and standardization. Their aim is to purge the game of variability, to reduce it to a sort of arm-wrestling. So they want quarterbacks as much like the other quarterbacks as possible--say, 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, and from a top-25 college program. That they get Heath Shulers and David Klinglers as often as Troy Aikmans and Drew Bledsoes doesn't seem to bother them much.
Today, young black quarterbacks can fit into the system too. Where once only virtuosos such as Cunningham, Doug Williams, and Warren Moon could make it into the NFL, racial progress has now reached the point that there's room for mediocre African-American QBs--such as Rodney Peete, who took Cunningham's job in Philly--and even incompetent ones, such as Tony Banks of the Rams.
But how has Cunningham, the pioneer, been rewarded? Premature retirement, sudden obscurity, and now insults. Is he in a cushy job now in Minnesota, with three star wide receivers in Cris Carter, Jake Reed, and Randy Moss? Let the record show that in an often-successful decade in Philadelphia, he had a total of two top receivers: the aging Mike Quick and the young Carter, then battling substance abuse. Does the Vikings line cosset him? In 1986, he was sacked an NFL-record 72 times, including 11 in a single game.
So watch him play, here in his later years. His feet aren't what they used to be. He's slower and heavier. But his arm, which was always a cannon, is true. His timing is still sharp. If the experts cared to look, what they'd see is a quarterback.
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