PHILADELPHIA -- Randall Cunningham is a jazz riff come to life. The rest of the National Football League pounds along to a head-banging, rock-and-roll beat. Cunningham skips and darts, stops and starts, goes up, down and all around. He is a ghost in the machine, the definition of improvisation. "Sometimes," Everson Walls was saying yesterday, "you can get mesmerized watching him."
The Philadelphia Eagles have him on their side, and, brother, are they fortunate. They are a bratty, mediocre lot given to making bold pronouncements that, if not for Cunningham, would never stand up on Sunday. He is the Most Valuable Player in the NFL. Period. Joe Montana may be more effective, Lawrence Taylor more dominating. But Cunningham transforms the Eagles. With him, they are a playoff team. Without him, their name wouldn't cross your lips.
Already this season, he has rescued two games with last-minute touchdown drives, and kept the Eagles alive in game after game when all others around him, including his coaches, were failing and falling. Yesterday, his jazz routine threw a big, messy splotch into the New York Giants' previously perfect season, leading the Eagles to a 31-13 victory at Veterans Stadium.
The players were crowing afterward about smash-mouth defense, strong blocking and run-pass balance -- all those button-down things about which football teams crow. They mentioned Cunningham, too, but almost as an afterthought, as in, "Oh yeah, Randall was great, too." Shame. They should understand by now. They wouldn't have a chest to pound if Cunningham wasn't at the peak of his myriad powers.
That was the NFL's best defense he tore apart, only it isn't really correct to say he tore it, because it was more subtle than that, a little rip here, a snip there, a nick here, another there. He spent the entire afternoon with the Giants breathing on his shoulder pads, surrounding him, one never more than an outstretched arm away. But they couldn't touch him. They reached out and went for the kill again and again, and, always, he was gone, off in another direction. A ghost in the machine.
There was an 80-yard drive in 16 plays. An 84-yard drive in 15 plays. Two long, perfect exhibitions of the magic of escape. On third-and-six, Cunningham scrambled for 7. On second-and-11, he threw for 9, then ran for 3. The Eagles faced 17 third-downs on the day and converted 11, a phenomenal statistic. The Giants were always close to stopping him, but just couldn't get the ball back. Just couldn't do it.
"At one point," Cunningham said, "I got the guys together on the sidelines and told them that, if we don't stop ourselves, they sure couldn't stop us. It was pretty clear that they didn't know what we were doing. Of course, half the time we don't know what we're doing, either."
They don't because Cunningham is off on another fanciful flight, making it up as he goes along, the NFL version of drawing plays in the schoolyard dirt. Coaches, who tend to be control freaks, can't bear the sight. Buddy Ryan sure couldn't. The Eagles' boss tried to rein in his star last year, force-feeding a staid running game. Something about balance winning Super Bowls. Then he installed a new offense this year.
The effect was that Cunningham was completely confused when the season began. His instincts were telling him to take off running at the first hint of trouble; something always developed. His coaches were telling him to stay in the pocket. It was not unlike stalling with Michael Jordan on the court. The Eagles were shutting down their best weapon. "When we went up to play the Giants in the first game of the year, I didn't know what I was doing," he said. "I made a lot of mistakes."
The Eagles lost that night, then lost again the next week to -- horrors -- Phoenix. Before the next game, Ryan took Cunningham aside and told him, in essence, to stop thinking so much. The idea, Ryan said, was "to let Randall be Randall." The Eagles have since won seven of nine, including the last five in a row. Cunningham leads the Eagles in rushing, and has passed for 21 touchdowns and almost 2,500 yards.
"He keeps the pressure on you the whole game," said Walls, a Giants cornerback. "No matter where you are on the field, and no matter what point it is in the game, you are threatened. He's so mobile, and he has a much better arm than most of the mobile quarterbacks. He isn't throwing ducks out there. He's throwing missiles."
He is the future running amok in the present, his game what quarterbacking will come to in a decade. It is interesting to consider the Eagles without him. Their defense isn't shabby, but yesterday's game was only the third this year in which it allowed fewer than 20 points. No, for the most part, the Eagles talk a better game than they play.
But then, in the middle of it all, there is Cunningham, never injured, always in control while out of it, flitting and fluttering about, an elusive, potent wisp. "I just love to watch him," said Fred Barnett, one of his receivers. You can almost hear the saxophone.