Analysis  

 

Randall Cunningham at 50: Reflections on career, new QBs, more

LAS VEGAS -- On a few occasions over the years, when former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham would arrive at the youth football practices where he served as a coach, one of his players would hand him a phone cued to a YouTube video.

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The kids would point to the guy wearing the green No. 12 jersey, the one who looked like he belonged in a video game, and they'd ask the same ridiculous question: "Is that really you?!"

But maybe the question wasn't so ridiculous after all.

"I don't know how I did the things I did," said Cunningham, who would nonetheless confirm to those kids that, yes, that really was him.

These days, the high-top fade has faded and the top-end speed has slowed. Yet, with Cunningham celebrating his 50th birthday Wednesday as a pastor of a 1,200-member church a few short miles from the Las Vegas strip, perhaps it's time we remind everyone that before there was RG3, the NFL had RC1.

So take a seat, kids. Put down your phones and listen up: A few decades ago, there played a quarterback who never made it to a Super Bowl and never made it to the Hall of Fame -- but whose ability as a dual-threat signal-caller foreshadowed the trends shaping today's game. His fingerprints are everywhere.

Sure, Roger Staubach was an amazing athlete as a quarterback. Yes, Bobby Douglass set a long-standing record for a running QB, notching 968 yards on the ground in 1972. True, Steve Young had legs that merited the respect of defenders.

Cunningham's 4,928 career rushing yards stood as an NFL record for QBs until 2011, when Michael Vick eclipsed it.
Cunningham's 4,928 career rushing yards stood as an NFL record for QBs until 2011, when Michael Vick eclipsed it. (Shayna Brennan/Associated Press)

But Cunningham ... Cunningham was different. And today's quarterbacks know it.

"My dad loved watching Cunningham, so when I decided to play football, all we did was watch his highlights," Robert Griffin III said Tuesday. "We'd watch how well he moved in the pocket to avoid defenders and make plays -- not just with his legs, but with his arm. He was one of the first true game-changers the league saw."

The Godfather?

These days, Cunningham doesn't watch much football. His Sundays are tied up. As a pastor at Remnant Ministries in Las Vegas, near where Cunningham attended college at UNLV, the former quarterback's focus remains squarely on church and family.

But he is most certainly still paying attention to football's latest trend. How could he not notice? How could he not recognize the similarities -- 28 years after his own rookie season -- between his own style and that of Colin Kaepernick and Griffin?

"I'm so proud to see that I went through an era when it wasn't popular to be an African-American quarterback," Cunningham said. "Then, to see how things have turned around. It's not about the African-American quarterback. It's about the quarterback who has an ability to do everything."

Seated on a chair inside his church last week, Cunningham began rattling off examples. Griffin. Kaepernick. Cam Newton. But this list wasn't specific to race. Andrew Luck got a plug, too.

"And Luck," Cunningham said. "Come on, man. He's the guy that sits in the pocket that nobody thinks can run, but that brother will tear you up on the ground if he wants to. Some of these kids nowadays could be in the Olympics for track and field or the NBA playing basketball. They are that talented."

Although Cunningham said he isn't the "Godfather" of these dual-threat quarterbacks, he certainly hopes to eventually develop relationships with them. He spoke to Griffin on the phone once while Griffin was training for the NFL Scouting Combine last year, and he also met Newton a few years ago. But mostly, Cunningham is content to watch proudly from a distance.

"Their work ethic is like none other, and it shows," Cunningham said. "I just applaud these young guys."

Same Old Stuff

When Cunningham first played against the Los Angeles Raiders in the 1980s, Hall of Fame defensive end Howie Long approached the quarterback between plays to offer a sincere word of caution.

Cunningham led the Vikings to a 15-1 record in 1998, throwing a career-best 34 TD passes.
Cunningham led the Vikings to a 15-1 record in 1998, throwing a career-best 34 TD passes. (John Dunn/Associated Press)

"I still remember it to this day," Cunningham said. "I ran out of the pocket, and Howie said, 'Stop running, man! I don't want you to get hurt!' I told him, 'Howie, man, you're just trying to get a sack.' But I think he really did genuinely care."

Alas, Cunningham never wanted to stop running, even if his accurate arm was what kept his career strong during those later years with the Minnesota Vikings. In 1998, Cunningham had the league's best passer rating and threw for 34 touchdowns with just 10 interceptions, recording the best season of his career as a passer.

But during his earlier days with the Philadelphia Eagles, when his style of running was transcendent, he heard all of the same concerns Griffin hears today: You can't run like that for long.

So, were those concerns merited? Not exactly, he said. But Cunningham does have advice.

"I would tell them, 'The sideline is your friend,' " Cunningham said. "I wouldn't say sliding is your friend. I wasn't a sliding type of guy. I was a guy who went head-first. Not just to get the extra yard, but to get my body in a position where I couldn't get hit hard. I would shake them so they'd be off balance when I jumped into the air.

"Then, I could find a soft spot. Just make sure you find an open spot. Emmitt Smith was the greatest at doing that. He'd run through a hole, and they'd get ready to knock him out, but he'd find a nice soft spot, and they'd go right over the top of him."

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Cunningham said he also always wore whatever protective gear he could get his hands on -- whether it was intended to protect his knees or his ribs. Longevity, he said, is critical. And he believes that, with the proper approach, Griffin will be among those mobile quarterbacks who manage to stick around for a while.

"Do I worry about him?" Cunningham said. "No. When I watch (Griffin) play, I see a young kid who is very talented, but he's finding his niche in the NFL. He can't just run like he did in college ... But I think he can have a long career."

New Kid On The Block

As Cunningham continues to enjoy watching today's NFL quarterbacks succeed with their legs and their arms, he's also looking forward to watching tomorrow's quarterback. Specifically, his son, Randall Cunningham II.

Yes, that's right: There's another Randall Cunningham, whom the coaches at Baylor -- in their attempt to recruit the Cunningham kin -- have already dubbed "RCII." The father said LSU and UCLA have also offered football scholarships.

"My oldest son, Randall II, my God, he looks exactly like me when I was younger," Cunningham said. "It's like a spitting image. Like, he's my little twin. He's 6-6, 180 pounds."

As he completes his junior year at Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, Cunningham II has already had to fend off attempts to switch him to wide receiver, choosing instead to focus on a career as a quarterback. He's also an elite high jumper. And speedy, too.

In other words, yes, he's worth keeping an eye on. Of course, as a potential successor to Griffin at Baylor who also happens to share the name of a four-time Pro Bowl quarterback, he's facing massive amounts of pressure.

"That's good pressure," Cunningham said. "He's used to that.

The father is specifically interested in the possibilities at Baylor.

"I'm really excited about it because they know what they're doing at Baylor," he said. "A great head coach. They are people, I believe, if my son was at a school like that, they would take care of him. Thank God he has some choices. He could also run track at LSU, because he really does want to run track."

The Next Generation

Three years after a tragic drowning accident that led to the death of his 2-year-old son, Christian, Cunningham's family is closer than ever. The former quarterback's life revolves around his wife and three children.

He loves attending track meets for his daughter Vashti, a high school freshman who, like Randall II, is an elite high jumper. The elder Cunningham said another daughter, Grace, is also a budding track star -- but she wants only to focus on ballet.

Of course, one of his favorite activities still has something to do with football. Although Cunningham doesn't get to watch NFL games often, Randall II still shouts for him to come to the television set whenever Griffin takes the field.

NFL Exposure

Cunningham through the years

Take a look back at Cunningham's career.

"My son and I, we just love these quarterbacks," Cunningham said. "He'll yell, 'Dad, RG3 is on! Come on!' My favorite quarterback of all time is still Steve Young. But these quarterbacks today are great kids in society, and they care about their trade, which I really respect."

And so, just as Griffin and his father once gathered around their own television to watch Cunningham play, Cunningham and his son -- also destined for football success -- now do the same to watch Griffin.

The torch has been passed, and Cunningham knows it. He doesn't wear that high-top fade anymore. He doesn't wear that green No. 12 jersey. And he doesn't dart around a field while driving defenders crazy.

But as he watches today's quarterbacks play the game, somewhere in the back of his mind, he still knows the truth: Before RG3, before Kaepernick or Newton or even Michael Vick, before Randall Cunningham II, one quarterback ruled the field with his arm and with his feet.

Yes, his fingerprints are all over this game.

And so, too, are his footprints.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington. And watch Darlington discuss Randall Cunningham on NFL Network's "NFL Total Access" Wednesday night at 7 p.m. ET

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