In January of 2003, the Eagles and Falcons played a playoff game. It was Donovan McNabb vs. Michael Vick. It really doesn't seem like that long ago.
In September of 1986, Eagles coach Buddy Ryan installed Randall Cunningham as his third-down specialist. It was an abomination in many ways -- not the least of which was the 104 sacks the team allowed that season, more than 70 by Cunningham himself, who only played about a third of the time. But the Ryan theory was that he had this great, raw, physical talent who a) wasn't ready to start in the NFL but who b) needed some incentive to keep his head in the playbook every week while learning as a backup. He came up with this scheme, literally a shotgun marriage between a player and a sport. And Cunningham ran around and made a hash of it all, but also was prepared to start the next season. The season after that, they were in the playoffs, and the Fog Bowl, and all the rest. And, no, it really doesn't seem like that long ago.
Anyway, Cunningham is coming back this weekend to be honored by the franchise and Vick is coming back to the NFL after 2 seasons of incarceration and McNabb might or might not be coming back from a broken rib (probably not). Back in 2003, I called up Randall and reminisced a little and talked about how it was his experience that helped to birth McNabb and Vick and the rest of the big, mobile quarterbacks who followed.
For whatever it's worth, here's the column. It talks about a lot of the same things we are talking about today:
It is McNabb vs. Vick, Vick vs. McNabb, all the talk, all the time, all the way until Saturday night and probably beyond. And on the telephone, the guy who birthed both of them - the player who opened all of our eyes to all of the breathtaking possibilities that Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick now offer as routine - said he understands the fixation.
"You have to realize that they just bring so much excitement to the game," Randall Cunningham was saying. "I mean, I love watching those guys play. Everybody does. They are what the NFL is turning to now. They're excitement.
"Dan Marino isn't in the league anymore. There's no John Elway, no Jim Kelly, no Troy Aikman, no Steve Young. They're the next wave of quarterbacks. It's a league looking for guys who can stand out and give excitement - and these are the guys who the NFL has turned to.
"That's what they bring: excitement. It's not stats, either. It's winning. It's excitement."
His home now is Las Vegas, but Cunningham seemed happy to be hearing from somebody in Philadelphia, especially this week. Because however you want to chart this thing, there is no escaping the fact that McNabb and Vick are Cunningham's direct descendants.
In 1985, Randall arrived in Philadelphia with Jeri curls on his head and jets in his shoes, and the NFL has never been the same. And if Cunningham was a much rougher product than either McNabb or Vick - more of a pure runner, less accomplished as a passer (especially early in his career), much less polished overall - the reality is that when people saw him play, he owned their eyes forever.
More than once, McNabb has paid tribute to the example Cunningham set. Vick has been quoted as saying that Cunningham and Young were his two football idols growing up. They are where they are, in part, because Cunningham was there first.
And now he watches them from afar, just like the rest of us, with his mouth open.
"Of the two of them, Donovan reminds me more of me," said Cunningham, who retired last summer at 39. "But that's later in my career; it changed over the course of my career. Early on, I was more like Vick. I didn't throw it as much, I just had a lot of fun. I look at Vick and I can just see the fun he's having. Yes, he's serious, but he's having fun. That's what really reminds me of me.
"But if you look around the league, the guy who really reminds me of me is Aaron Brooks (of the New Orleans Saints). He's tall, lanky. I see him and it's scary how much he looks like me. I put all three of them together - Brooks, Vick and Donovan. They're the future."
Vick, McNabb and Cunningham all shared the ability to salvage a dead play with their legs - to breathe life into something that had no business living, to steal the breath of the paying customers at the same time. But there were differences, too - some more subtle than others.
Vick and McNabb seem to be better students of the science of pocket passing and have had better coaching as young NFL players than Cunningham did. So there's that. There's also their style of running. Cunningham was this great, elegant, long-strider. Vick is quicksilver, a whippet, just so fast. McNabb is more of a runaway truck, a really imposing figure after about the second stride.
"Vick? He's shorter than me, so he looks faster - I'm kidding," Cunningham said. "Without a doubt, Vick is faster than I was. He'd easily beat me by a step, it isn't close. He's definitely faster. I was about the same as Donovan.
"When I ran, I jumped, I leaped. Vick doesn't seem to do nearly as much of that. I was a high jumper in high school, so I did that kind of thing. And I didn't care, I didn't try to protect my body. These guys are smarter than I was.
"When you look at the three of us," he said, "I was a gazelle. Donovan is a
cheetah. And Vick, that dude, he's a panther, man."
Cunningham says he likes the Eagles on Saturday against the Falcons because that's what his heart and his loyalties tell him. Other than that, he really wasn't doing much predicting. And when it came to trying to draw the lines into the future - to wonder who might end up having the better career, McNabb or Vick - Cunningham really wasn't into guessing.
"This league is built on what-have-you-done-for-me-lately," he said. "I mean, I stunk when I first started. I stunk for the first couple of years. Then I was good, then I got hurt. Then I was good again, then I got hurt again. Then I was better, then I got benched, then. . .
"Things happen. Careers in the NFL are up and down. The ones who are consistent have the best careers. But the thing about Donovan and Vick is, people are going to expect a lot."
Vick is faster than McNabb. McNabb is savvier than Vick. Vick is healthier
than McNabb. McNabb plays on a more complete team than Vick.
They never will be on the field at the same time Saturday night but, still, they will never be out of anyone's sight. And somewhere in Las Vegas, Randall Cunningham will be watching.
"I don't know how to say it," he said. "I'm not their father; I don't feel that way. But I guess I'm part of their development. I guess I helped allow them to be in a position where they could make it."