Cunningham eludes injury to keep Eagles in running

December 28, 1990|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Evening Sun Staff

Once, Randall Cunningham was criticized for running too much. Now the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback is praised for running just enough.

Once it was considered dangerous, if not downright foolish, to flee the passing pocket. Now, perhaps, it's becoming the thing to do.

Cunningham has elevated scrambling to another dimension, beyond that made famous by the likes of Fran Tarkenton, Tobin Rote, Greg Landry and Bobby Douglass. It's more than "Scrambler Inc.," the entrepreneurial name under which Cunningham conducts his endorsement and promotional business.

Cunningham scrambles to buy extra time for his receivers, to break down defenses, to pick up first downs. And sometimes he scrambles to stay out of harm's way. As his coach, Buddy Ryan, said two weeks ago, "We all know what happens when quarterbacks stay in the pocket . . . It's dangerous in there."

It's becoming more dangerous in there, too.

In the last two weeks, seven starting quarterbacks in the NFL have been knocked out of the lineup with an injury. An eighth quarterback, Kansas City's Steve DeBerg, dislocated the little finger on his left and non-throwing hand, and played last Sunday with a cast on the hand.

Some of those casualties were freak injuries. Buffalo offensive tackle Will Wolford rolled up the leg of his own quarterback, Jim Kelly, and Kelly suffered a sprained knee. In the same game, New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms went down untouched with a slight fracture in his ankle. When he actually hurt the foot is uncertain. Houston's Warren Moon banged his right thumb on the helmet of a charging defensive player last week, and the resulting dislocation may have knocked the Oilers out of the playoffs.

Then there were the more common injuries, the quarterbacks who were slammed to the turf and staggered away with separated shoulders. That was what happened to Dallas' Troy Aikman, Chicago's Jim Harbaugh, Atlanta's Chris Miller and Minnesota's Wade Wilson.

More testimony from Ryan: "When you have 295-pound guys who can run and they fall on you, it hurts."

Against that background you have Cunningham, a 6-foot-4, 203-pound gazelle whose long strides and lean body make it tough for a defensive player to get a clean shot, even when you run as much as Cunningham runs.

"It happened like this a couple years ago," Cunningham said of the rash of injuries. "You're in the pocket, you get slammed on your shoulder. Sometimes you have to go down [quicker], sometimes you have to get out of there."

Cunningham's durability -- he has started 60 consecutive games since the 1987 players strike -- is part of what sets him apart. It is also the reason the Eagles appear to have an edge with the NFL playoffs a week away. Cunningham is healthy. Among the NFC playoff teams, that is a rarity.

San Francisco's Joe Montana is nursing an abdominal strain, according to team reports. Simms is expected to miss everything except the Super Bowl, should the Giants somehow get there with Jeff Hostetler. With Harbaugh done for the season, the Bears have had to turn to Mike Tomczak. And the Cowboys probably forfeited their shot at the playoffs when Aikman went down in Philadelphia last week. They'll bid for their first playoff berth since 1985 Sunday in Atlanta with Babe Laufenberg at quarterback.

In the AFC, Buffalo hopes to have Kelly back for the divisional playoff round on the weekend of Jan. 12 and 13. Former Marylander Frank Reich moved his record as Kelly's stand-in to 4-0 with a big victory over Miami last week. Reich will start against the Washington Redskins Sunday, and, if things go according to plan, then step aside for Kelly.

Houston's chances of getting into the playoffs were greatly reduced with the injury to Moon. The Oilers will send Cody Carlson against Pittsburgh Sunday night in the Astrodome in a must-win situation.

Cunningham, meanwhile, continues to defy the odds as he puts together an MVP-type season. The Eagles face the Phoenix Cardinals tomorrow in an attempt to lock up the home-field advantage for their wild-card game against the Redskins. Ironically, Cunningham has two different rushing standards to shoot for.

One is the league's rushing record for quarterbacks, 968 yards ++ by the Bears' Douglass in 1972. With 882, Cunningham needs 87 yards to pass Douglass.

The second standard is the 1,000-yard mark, never achieved before in the NFL by a quarterback. Cunningham needs 118 yards to reach 1,000.

"If I have 75 at halftime, I'm going to go for it," Cunningham said.

He will if Ryan lets him. Ryan pulled Cunningham in the fourth quarter last week against Dallas for fear a cheap shot might KO his Super Bowl aspirations. Ryan knows where his bread is buttered.

With 3,377 career rushing yards, Cunningham trails Tarkenton, the NFL's all-time leader, by 297 yards.

"Randall takes what the defense gives him," said Eagles running back Keith Byars. "If they don't put anybody on him, he'll tuck it and go 10 or 15 yards. If they put a 'spy' on him, he'll pick them apart [with the passing game].

"Randall's broken the stereotype for a scrambler. He's shown he can throw in the pocket with the best of them. And he's shown he can run. Not much is written about his toughness, but he has it, both mentally and physically."

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