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A LOOK AT TWO OF SUNDAY'S RAM, RAIDER OPPONENTS : A SACK-RIFICE? : Talented Randall Cunningham Is Taking Spills With Thrills as Eagle Quarterback

November 29, 1986|BOB OATES | Times Staff Writer

Randall Cunningham is a good 6-feet 4-inches tall. He is wiry, slim-hipped and neatly packed. He isn't skinny, but there's no way he weighs 200 pounds. Somebody's basketball prodigy for sure?

Nope. Guessed wrong.

This is Randall Cunningham, quarterback, the man who has succeeded the injured Ron Jaworski as the field leader of the Philadelphia Eagles.

A second-year pro, Cunningham, 23, has opened a dandy lead in this year's race for the club's coveted triple crown. He is, to begin with, first in rushing. Since the departure of Jaworski, he is also first in passing. And, finally, he is first in sacks.

In truth, he leads not only the Eagles, but the league in getting sacked.

A Philadelphia spectator, vividly recalling Cunningham's record-smashing play at Seattle Sunday, reported: "It was touch and go there for a while. On a long scramble, Randall almost got back to the line of scrimmage but missed by inches. Technically, it was a sack."

And what a sack. This was the 73rd time an Eagle passer, usually Cunningham, had been trapped behind the line this year--a new all-time, single-season NFL record, with four games to go. No other team has been sacked 50 times.

Projecting the Eagles' 12-game average across the rest of the schedule, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Ron Reid predicted that they'll finish the season with 97 sacks.

"It may never be equaled," he said.

Cunningham has been caught 19 times in the last two weeks--10 by the Detroit Lions and 9 by the Seahawks.

Cunningham, who will be facing the Raider rush at the Coliseum Sunday, said: "I've been taking a lot of one-yard and two-yard sacks when I could have easily run the ball."

This is in accordance with Buddy Ryan's instructions. The new Eagle coach wants his new passer to stay back and eyeball the field--searching for the open receiver studiously instead of tucking the ball away and running off--even if it means a yard or two lost occasionally.

"At least 20 times this year, when we were sacked, Ron (Jaworski) or I could have (scrambled) if we'd wanted to," Cunningham said. "Take out those 20 (sacks), and it's a different (story)."

Scouts and coaches, not to mention Ryan, tend to support Cunningham in this judgment. They also support him when he says that, for years, he has been destined to become a star pro quarterback.

Cunningham, from Nevada Las Vegas and the youngest of four sons of a Santa Barbara janitor, grew up dreaming of USC, where in the 1970s his idol, brother Sam, had played and specialized in, among other things, the goal-line high dive.

But as a high school quarterback, Randall discovered that his talent was more like that of long-passer Terry Bradshaw than fullback Sam (Bam) Cunningham.

So, he began to cool on the Trojans.

"At SC, quarterbacks pitch the ball back to the tailback," Cunningham said. "At Las Vegas, quarterbacks throw it down the field, so I went to Las Vegas. They have a pro-type offense there, and I liked that."

In particular, he liked the life in football's most spotlighted position.

"I've always wanted to be the star of the team," he said. "I've always wanted to be the guy who leads the team."

At Philadelphia, he clearly is that, now. Even Jaworski concedes it.

"When you get to be my age (35), they start thinking of you as a backup," said Jaworski, who in the 1980 season led the Eagles to their only Super Bowl.

Now on injured reserve for the rest of the season with a finger problem, Jaworski added: "Randall's going to be a fine quarterback. There's no doubt about that."

Between the 1985 and '86 seasons, Ryan had made the same discovery in his Eagle film review after coming over from the Chicago Bears.

The veteran coach who had learned offense while perfecting the Bear defense--the celebrated 46--realized that he couldn't hasten Cunningham's maturing by playing him, say, one quarter a week and Jaworski three. Teams lose continuity doing that.

But in his film room one night, Ryan came up with an acceptable variation. He decided to use Cunningham as his third-down quarterback. His reasoning: Changing quarterbacks on third down wouldn't hurt the team, but it would obviously help Cunningham, requiring him to prepare every week as if he were the starter.

In the end, it helped the team, too, Ryan said.

"On third and 10, the conversion rate in this league (for all 28 offenses) is 12%," he said. "On third and 10, Randall (succeeded) 24% of the time--just double. As a mobile quarterback, he's a great one. Buying time is his bag."

On the field, that is.

Off the field, quiet, friendly and self-possessed, Cunningham uses his time in ways that are foreign to many football players.

During his day off last week, for instance, he was at a Philadelphia area high school making a speech to a schoolwide assembly of students.

"I didn't just mention drugs," Cunningham said. "Kids shouldn't just dwell on a negative. I always tell them to think positive. My real message is that every kid has some positive points. He should know what they are and take advantage of them."

Asked how often he has appeared at school assemblies this year, Cunningham, who gets one day off a week, said: "Every week."

He has yet to take his first day off in Philadelphia, a club spokesman said.

At a Philadelphia game earlier this season, when the Eagles called time out after Jaworski was injured, Cunningham went out and talked first to the receivers who would now be his.

Afterward, a Philadelphia reporter, Bill Lyon, asked him what he'd said.

"I told (them) you'd better get your routes together, because if you're not open, I'm running," Cunningham replied.

Reflecting a confidence far beyond his years, he added: "I'm not taking any of those long-distance sacks."

And he seldom has.

His passion is golf. He played once this week with brother Sam.

Said Sam: "As a golfer, Randall is a great football player."

One wonders if he carried his clubs in a bag. Or, more appropriately this year, in a sack.

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