Greatest play ever shows Cunningham ahead of his time

Randall Cunningham is humbled. When he thinks back, he sees only a big deficit on the scoreboard, 80,000 lunatics screaming at him and Bruce Smith on a mission to rip his head off.

Cunningham knew he couldn’t make a mistake.

And that he wasn’t keen on the idea of decapitation.

“I couldn’t hear a thing, it was so loud,” he said. “I couldn’t throw an interception, couldn’t let Bruce get to me and cause a fumble, couldn’t take a safety. We were down (24-9) at the time and needed to score pretty quick.

“I knew Freddie was down there somewhere, so I just launched the ball …”

What transpired was recently judged by Deadspin the greatest play in NFL history, a 95-yard pass from Cunningham to Fred Barnett in a game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Buffalo Bills in December 1990.

Philadelphia lost 30-23 in Buffalo that afternoon, but no one snap defines Cunningham’s career more and suggests how dominant the former UNLV star could have been in today’s game.

The play — which came on third-and-14 in the second quarter — was highlighted as part of Deadspin’s offering of “The Big Book of Black Quarterbacks,” a comprehensive look at every African-American to play the game’s most important position in the NFL.

The idea for the project came after Russell Wilson led Seattle to a rout of Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII, making the Seahawks player just the second black quarterback to start and win the game of Roman numerals. Doug Williams did so in 1988.

Funny. It wasn’t until a few days after Seattle’s victory that I even heard mention of Russell assuming his historic place alongside Williams. It wasn’t made a big deal of before or after the Super Bowl, and I don’t recall it being referred to once by national media.

If Williams’ own Super Bowl victory against the Broncos signified an important snapshot of social advancement, the fact that few talked about Russell’s quest is also notable.

Doug Williams was about progress.

Russell Wilson is about acceptance.

“The old saying about, ‘Well, he is an African-American quarterback and can’t get the job done,’ is a myth now,” Cunningham said. “Doug Williams shredded that myth. I think that’s why there wasn’t much made of (Wilson) winning. It had already been done. The two quarterbacks from (Auburn and Florida State) in the (Bowl Championship Series) national championship this year were African-American. It’s just not considered as big a deal now.”

This might be: Missouri defensive end and NFL prospect Michael Sam announced recently he is gay and plans to become the league’s first openly homosexual player. The story has led to countless opinions on how Smith’s draft status might be influenced and if today’s NFL locker room would welcome and support Sam.

Cunningham played 14 NFL seasons for four teams, and his post-football life has included becoming an ordained minister in 2004 and founding Remnant Ministries in Las Vegas. His Sundays are far more about preaching God’s word now than watching America’s favorite sport.

“I’m not going to be political in my response (about Sam),” Cunningham said. “Many will and have voiced their opinion on it. For me, I can only open the Bible and look at what it says. The young man felt a need to come out and say this, and that was a very bold thing to do.

“The NFL is a totally different place. Inside the locker room is a different place. It’s a tough spot for the young man to be in. A very difficult thing for him.”

There was no read-option when Cunningham played, certainly not in the manner we see the likes of Wilson and Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III execute it now. The Eagles traditionally carried only two quarterbacks on their active roster, meaning the fear of calling designed run plays for Cunningham and risking injury to their star outweighed the potential of him abusing defenses even more than he did.

But that one play said it all.

Cunningham took a five-step drop into his end zone and, moving right, almost stumbled over his own tackle. Smith, the Hall of Famer and the NFL’s career sacks leader, came at him from the left, but Cunningham ducked under the charge and left Smith helpless on his knees.

Cunningham then sprinted left and threw a pass, off the wrong foot, across his body, into the wind, 60 yards down field. Barnett outjumped a defender to grab the ball and easily raced the final 46 yards to the end zone.

The. Best. Play. Ever.

“We had a rule where if I threw it up there, our guys had to come down with it,” Cunningham said. “Freddie was a 7-2, 7-3 high jumper with world-class speed. Once he had the ball, they were never going to catch him. It’s humbling to think someone would rank that play in such a way.”

Cunningham is 50 now. If you haven’t seen it, Google the play.

And imagine him running an NFL offense today.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.