PHILADELPHIA -- The Most Dangerous Weapon in the National Football League went into orbit yesterday.
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham experienced liftoff at the Green Bay 4-yard line early last evening.
After a brief and partial eclipse of the Veterans Stadium lights, he experienced splashdown in the Green Bay end zone moments later. Packers cornerback Mark Lee, over whom Cunningham flew, may have been the only person in a crowd of 65,627 who missed the phenomenon. Lee had his head down.
In what will become another breath-taking clip to his personal montage of incredible plays, Cunningham hurdled the TTC 6-foot- 1/2 -inch Lee to complete a 17-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. It was the play that broke the Packers' backs, the leap that made memorable a drab and otherwise undistinguished 31-0 Eagles rout.
It was a small step for Cunningham, who is the NFL's MDW if not its MVP this season. But it was a giant step for the 8-6 Eagles, who secured a postseason playoff berth for the third straight year.
"He does that all the time," Eagles coach Buddy Ryan said of Cunningham's latest show-stopper. "He makes at least one of those a week. We had about 10 big plays and I guess he had all 10 of them."
"That's in his top five," running back Keith Byars said, reviewing his mental library of spectacular Cunningham plays.
"We've seen Randall do something amazing every week," said linebacker Seth Joyner. "Nothing he does any more surprises me."
That's easy for him to say. Cunningham conceded that whenever these kinds of plays unfold, he in fact surprises himself.
On a weekend when two prominent quarterbacks -- New York's Phil Simms and Buffalo's Jim Kelly -- were injured on freak plays in the pocket, Cunningham reminded us that the most difficult thing to hit is a moving target.
"I don't worry about getting hurt," he said. "I don't think about that. A couple of years ago, a lot of quarterbacks got hurt in the pocket. I said then I was going to get rid of the ball before the defense got there or run."
Cunningham's improvisational running is a subject the Eagles walk around gingerly. Everybody knows the danger, but nobody wants to think about the alternative.
"The way Randall is," said tackle Ron Heller, "if you try to pamper or baby him, he's not as effective. When he's at his best, we're at our best. I'm pleased when I see him do stuff like that."
Said Byars: "We don't like to talk about it too much. Just let Randall play. Don't tell him to stay on the ground. Don't tell him not to jump. You can get hurt in a freak accident, like Simms and Kelly. Injuries are a part of this game."
Except, it seems, when it comes to Cunningham. In six NFL seasons, he rarely has been hurt in a remarkable record of durability. Cunningham and Miami's Dan Marino are the only NFL quarterbacks to have started every game since the 1987 players' strike. That covers 59 games overall.
Slowly but steadily, Cunningham has been leaving his stamp on the league's record book. He already is the NFL's second all-time leading rusher among quarterbacks. He trails leader Fran Tarkenton, who played 18 seasons, by only 352 yards. He is second in Eagles' history in pass completions, third in passing yardage and TD passes.
Yesterday was a sampling of his finest pro season. He passed for 241 yards and rushed for 56 more. He threw for a touchdown and ran for one. All 13 of his completions went for first downs.
For the season, Cunningham has personally accounted for 72 percent of the club's offense. The NFC's leading passer coming into Week 15, he has thrown for 27 TDs and 3,150 yards, becoming the first Eagles passer to hit 3,000 yards in three consecutive seasons.
His contributions running the ball include 828 yards and five touchdowns, both team-highs. With two regular-season games left, a 1,000-yard rushing season is not out of the question.
"I think it's highly possible," he said. "I haven't made it a goal yet. But if in the next game I can rush for a good amount of yards and I think it's possible to get 1,000, I might shoot for it . . . But I've got to be careful not to get injured trying to gain 1,000 yards."
Cunningham was bold when presented with the run option yesterday. The Packers trailed 17-0 when Jeff Query fumbled an Eagles punt on the Green Bay 16. The Eagles' Mike Bellamy recovered on the 17. On first down, Cunningham dropped back into the pocket looking for Fred Barnett.
The pocket collapsed from the outside, but Cunningham squirted up the middle and then veered for the right corner. He outraced two Packers linebackers. Just inside the 5, with Lee approaching, Cunningham decided to go airborne.
"I knew I was going to dive," he said. "I didn't know if [Lee] would hit me and knock me on my shoulder. So I just said to myself, 'Go higher.' "
Cunningham, all 6-4 of him, cleared Lee with room to spare. He was knocked out of bounds by Mark Murphy, but not before he had broken the plane of the goal line.
There was no stopping the NFL's Most Dangerous Weapon in flight.