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Pro Football : Cunningham May Not Have Arrived, but He's Knocking on the Door

November 11, 1987|Bob Oates

Randall Cunningham of the Philadelphia Eagles has emerged this month as a candidate for pro football's best quarterback.

He probably isn't there yet, but he's closing in on Dan Marino, John Elway, Jay Schroeder, Bernie Kosar, Dan Fouts--when Fouts is healthy--and the one or two others on the short list of superior players at quarterback.

Cunningham appears to have succeeded Elway as the best athlete among the quarterbacks, demonstrating this again Sunday when he ran for 80 yards and passed for 286 as the Eagles upset the Washington Redskins, 31-27.

Cunningham's two-minute drill passes have rallied the Eagles to wins over St. Louis and Washington.

"We're a couple of drafts away from the (championship)," Eagle Coach Buddy Ryan said this week. "But we've got the quarterback."

Said Redskin Coach Joe Gibbs: "He's like a running back playing quarterback."

Most National Football League stars are specialists. Most of the country's great athletes are in the National Basketball Assn. The distinctive thing about Cunningham is that he is an NFL player with the athletic ability of an NBA star.

That is, he has the refined body movements of, say, a Julius Erving. When required, he is likely to come up with more than one move at the same time.

On a 45-yard scramble Sunday at Philadelphia, Cunningham, a second-round draft choice in 1985, made several Redskin tacklers miss. On pass plays he showed, as he did against the Raiders a year ago, that he's a passer, not just a thrower.

It's a long road, of course, from where Cunningham is to the top of the league, but at 24, he seems to be on it.

In the game of the week at Miami Sunday, it will be Dan Marino vs. Eric Dickerson, whose 138 yards for the Indianapolis Colts Sunday led all NFL rushers.

The Colts and Dolphins are two of the five teams tied at 4-4 for first, or last, in the AFC East. The others are the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and New England Patriots.

Marino, who honored the players' picket line during the recent strike, has otherwise started the last 55 Dolphin games. He is the only NFL quarterback who has started every game since 1984.

Coaches say it's because he's rarely sacked.

"Or even touched," Colt Coach Ron Meyer said. "The resurgence of the Colts will be marked by the day we beat Miami."

Since 1980, the Colts have lost 14 straight to the Dolphins. It's the longest ongoing losing streak in the NFL.

This is a transition year in pro football. There has been a changing of the guard:

--Up: the San Diego Chargers, Eagles, New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings.

--Down: the Raiders, Rams, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys.

The 4-3-1 Denver Broncos may be in trouble. The 5-3 Houston Oilers may be on the rise.

Ignoring strike dates, the Oilers and Vikings are 3-2 this year. The Chargers, Eagles and Vikings are each 4-1.

The Raiders are 2-3, the Rams 0-5.

The Chargers have a bigger lead in their division than any other NFL team, except the San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears.

Charger momentum has been sustained by several factors: the return of Fouts; improved defense and special-teams play; cancellation of the season's third game against the Seattle Seahawks; a 3-0 strike record for which the architect was a new front-office leader, former Raider Steve Ortmayer; the improbable Kosar interceptions last week, and Dickerson's goal-line fumble this week.

Before Sunday, the NFL's two islands of stability were the Redskins, who will probably rebound shortly, and the Bears, who may be in trouble.

In Jim McMahon's most recent miracle of the week, the Bears lost two of their Super Bowl defensive stars to knee injuries, Dan Hampton and Otis Wilson.

This week's was Hampton's seventh knee operation, the third on his left side.

Wilson, facing knee surgery for the first time and thinking of life after football, said: "I love the game, and I want to play--but I also want to walk, too."

The Bears' defense was in trouble before Hampton and Wilson went down, yielding an average 26 points each week since the strike against ordinary offenses.

"(Offensive teams) are using audibles to pick up our blitz," Coach Mike Ditka said. "We may have to audible back."

It may not be enough. The Bears have had a new defensive scheme since defensive coach Buddy Ryan left for Philadelphia, one that seems to heighten their vulnerability.

In Ryan's 46 defense, the Bears attacked and won with two linebackers hip to hip on one side. One of the league's best defensive ends, Richard Dent, was on the other. And when they all rushed the passer, one often burst free.

Ryan is using the 46 in Philadelphia, where it is still working because of his success in studying opposing personnel. The Bears, meanwhile, are back in conventional defenses, which aren't working.

Luckily for them, McMahon has been available.

The Raider offense has come apart this year mainly, it seems now, because of confusion in the line.

Al Davis' club is proving that it is perilous to break in a quarterback and new blockers at the same time.

Dick Steinberg, the Patriots' director of personnel, said: "The Raiders are the last club I'd ever criticize. They've done almost everything right for 25 years. But the truth is, their quarterback (Jim Plunkett) and their offensive line got old at the same time.

"Cohesion is more important in the offensive line than anywhere else on any team. It's almost impossible to handle an NFL defensive team's stunts and blitzes without a cohesive, experienced line.

"(Blockers) can't prepare for everything they might face, so you have to improvise out there with the game under way--you have to feel what the next guy is doing, and react accordingly. Young offensive linemen just can't do that--no matter how much talent they have."

The numerous lineup changes the Raiders have made this year in their blocking line--and continue to make--are indications of the turmoil at El Segundo.

Quarterback Rusty Hilger gets the blame. But in a team game, how would anyone really know?

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