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OK, forget the context, forget the stakes, forget that this was just another Eagles-Bills game being played in the cold, gathering shadows of a December afternoon in Buffalo. Forget all that and ask yourself: Is this the greatest individual play in NFL history?
"Fred Barnett 95 yard pass from Randall Cunningham" is how the box score puts it. "Randall Cunningham jukes Bruce Smith into Ontario and drops the prettiest pass you've ever seen into the arms of Fred Barnett, who is in another time zone" is another way to describe it. The play demanded every skill you'd want from a quarterback: the feel for the pocket and the feet to move around as it starts collapsing, then to hop backward out of the way of charging Cornelius Bennett, and the awareness and quickness and all-around whatever-the-fuck to immediately double up at the waist, to dip just beneath the sweeping left arm of Smith like a boxer bobbing beneath a hook, thus making the NFL's all-time sacks leader leave his underwear all over the end zone, and then the vision and the arm and the accuracy to hang a ball on a rainbow while moving to his left, big Leon Seals in his face, and put the thing in a receiver's hands some 60 yards away.
"Yes, I amaze myself sometimes," Cunningham said afterward. It was a line he'd used before, and it's hard to read the quote now, a couple decades on, and not hear a note of resignation in it, the sigh of an actor stuck in repertory.
He may have been uncommonly good, but he had the archetypal black quarterback experience. As a prospect at UNLV (where he was also an All-American punter), he could only be seen through the prism of the most prominent black quarterback of the era, even though the two were nothing alike. "He's a Doug Williams with a touch," Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys' VP for personnel development, told Sports Illustrated in 1984, which in football terms is the rough equivalent of saying Colin Kaepernick is a Jay Fiedler with a better arm. But even at that late date, a black quarterback could only be understood in the context of other black quarterbacks. A sort of redlining of the mind had taken place, and it was exceedingly rare for pundits to analogize the talents of a black athlete with those of a white one.
Cunningham went in for a lot worse, though. It was said he was too cocky, too selfish, too consumed by his own wish for celebrity, and many years later you could find echoes of his treatment in the criticism of Kaepernick and Cam Newton and RGIII. He was ripped for likening himself to Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, and Magic Johnson, and he was ripped for his Michael Jackson-like wardrobe and Jheri curl, and he was ripped for showing up at his first Eagles training camp in a T-shirt that read "IF YOU WANT TO TALK, CALL MY AGENT." The criticism of his personal style bled into a criticism of his play, which was deemed too flashy to be effective.
Was any of this racially motivated? Of course, but Cunningham himself could never say it. In 1991, he gave a lengthy interview to Sports Illustrated. For the most part, on questions about race, he hopped and dipped and chucked his answers 60 yards downfield. But in one exchange he let down his guard a little and summarized in a couple sentences the whole crazy-making experience of being an extraordinarily gifted black quarterback in a conservative sport at the shank end of an age of racial reaction.
SI: One of the things you said when you got injured was, "When I come back, I'm going to be myself. No more of that staying in the pocket when I should be scrambling." Were you in any way blaming [head coach] Rich Kotite?
RC: No, not at all. How can you blame the coach? He didn't tell somebody to go run into my knee. What I meant was—people have compared me to [Joe] Montana, who sits in the pocket and throws a two-yard slant or whatever, and it sort of put a complex on me. Like, maybe I should stay in the pocket and try to play like Montana?
Today, a polite consensus seems to have formed around his career: He was ahead of his time. He was built for a more kinetic era. He would've shredded NFL defenses had he worked out of the read-option. Randall Cunningham in the subjunctive, the argument seems to say, is the player Randall Cunningham never quite managed to be in reality. It's meant as a compliment, but ultimately it's just a nicer variation on the problem he faced for much of his time in the NFL: Because people spent so much time measuring the distance between him and their ideal of the moment, they forgot to appreciate Cunningham for what he actually did. His 407 yards in the Fog Bowl. The 91-yard punt. The broken leg in 1993 and his subsequent comeback. His 1998 season, when at 35 years old he led one of the most potent offenses in the history of the NFL to the brink of the Super Bowl. A career as a passer that looks a lot like Troy Aikman's, if you squint, and that's leaving aside everything Cunningham did with his legs. He could do things no one else could do and he did them.
Randall Cunningham | 1985-2001 | Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys, Baltimore Ravens
Drafted, 2nd round (37 overall) | 161 games (135 starts) | 29,979 yards passing | 207 passing TDs | 134 INTs | 56.6 comp. % | 81.5 QB rating | 4,289 yards rushing | 35 rushing TDs | 105 fumbles
"First of all, he's the best athlete to ever play the position. Sammy Baugh might be right there with him. I hope Randall can win like Sammy. But Randall could probably lead the league in punting. He's the best runner in the league, and if you can't see he can throw the football, I won't waste my time with you. I heard some of that black crap: 'Move him to wide receiver, move him to defensive back.' I don't hear those voices too much anymore. I go with what I know. I've been around professional football for 27 years. So I don't screw up too much."—Buddy Ryan, Eagles coach