Donovan McNabb vs. Randall Cunningham: Stats Do Not Tell All | Eagles Addict
Randall Cunningham Donovan McNabb

Best stats or best player? Photo from www.biographyarchive.com

During this slow time of year, ESPN put together a list of the top QBs for every NFL franchise as voted by ESPN’s NFL Nation beat reporters as well as the fans.  The Eagles’ list, once again, has compelled me to revisit the good ole’ debate of Donovan McNabb vs. Randall Cunningham.

Who was the better Eagles QB?

Well, the results of ESPN’s survey put McNabb at No. 1 by both the reporters and fans alike.

The reporters’ top five are: McNabb, Ron Jaworski, Cunningham, Norm Van Brocklin and Michael Vick.  The fans’ top five are: McNabb, Cunningham, Jaworski, Van Brocklin, Sonny Jurgenson and Michael Vick (they listed 5 for reporters and 6 for fans).

 

McNabb being voted as the Eagles’ top QB in franchise history comes as no surprise.  He is, after all, the Eagles’ most accomplished QB as far as stats, wins and playoff appearances.

However, was McNabb really the better player as compared to Cunningham?

 

When comparing current players and/or players’ careers, most people look at stats and accomplishments in order to form their opinion about who they think is/was better.  That can be an effective argument, but stats don’t tell the full story.

But, let’s get them out of the way.  Below are their career stats while in Philly…

Randall –

During his 11 years in Philly he played in 122 games with 107 starts.  He posted a 63-43-1 record as a starter and had a 1-4 playoff record.  He completed 1,874 of 3,362 pass attempts for 22,877 yards, 150 TDs and 105 INTs.  His career completion percentage was 55.7 and had a 78.7 QB rating.  He averaged 6.6 yards on 677 rushes for 4,482 yards and scored 32 TDs.  He was voted to four pro bowls and was a one time first team All-Pro.

McNabb –

Also played in Philly for 11 yrs and participated in 148 games, starting 142.  He posted a 92-49-1 record as starter and had a 9-7 playoff record.  He completed 2,801 of 4,746 passes for 32,873 yards, 216 TDs and 100 INTs.  His career completion percentage was 59 and had an 86.5 QB rating.  He averaged 5.7 yards on 573 rushes for 3,249 yards and 28 TDs.  He was voted to six pro bowls.

As you can see, McNabb clearly wins the stat battle.  He’s the Eagles’ all-time leader in basically every major passing category.  Does that automatically make him the best Eagles’ QB?  Was McNabb clearly the better player?

Again, to me, stats aren’t the end-all-be-all.  Let’s take a look at the context, something that the above stats do not show…

Randall’s prime years with the Eagles as a starter were mainly six seasons from 1987 – 1992.  Unfortunately, he lost the 1991 season due to a knee injury in Week 1.  Fans of that era always wonder what could have been that year as that was the season the Gang Green defense became part of NFL history.

In looking at that time frame, though, the first thing that stands out is the level of competition within the division.  Randall played at a time when the NFC East earned the nickname “NFC Beast” because the Giants and Redskins were both very good and Dallas started entering their dynasty.

During those six seasons, the Super Bowl champion came from the NFC East four times.  Hell, if we go back one year to 1986 (Randall wasn’t a full time starter yet), the NFC East had a run of five Super Bowl champs in seven years.

Cunningham’s Eagles had to face three Hall of Fame head coaches in Bill Parcells, Tom Landry and Joe Gibbs, then the early part of the Dallas dynasty built by Jimmy Johnson.

The Redskins, Cowboys and Giants had some extremely tough teams back then.  Hell, that’s when the Cardinals were in the division and even they were tough at times.

Just think of some of the great players the Eagles had to face in their own division back then…

Redskins: Doug Williams, Mark Rypien, Darrell Green, Dexter Manley, Charles Mann, “the Hogs” (offensive line), and “the Fun Bunch (WR corps also nicknamed “the Smurfs”)

Giants: Phil Simms, Mark Bavaro, Harry Carson, Lawrence Taylor, Carl Banks, Pepper Johnson, Dave Meggett, Jumbo Elliot and seemingly plug-n-play running backs like Joe Morris and Ottis Anderson

Dallas: Tony Dorsett, Herschel Walker, Danny White, Bill Bates, “Too Tall” Jones, Randy White, Ken Norton, Troy Aikman, Daryl Johnston, Michael Irvin, Emmit Smith, Jay Novacek and a killer offensive line

Hell, even the Cardinals had some pretty damn good players back then such as Neil Lomax, Stump Mitchell, Roy Green, Freddie Jo Nunn, Ken Harvey, Eric Swann and Vai Sikahema.

The Cards were never any good back then, but they were always good enough to give their divisional foes a lot of trouble.

The point is, Randall Cunningham’s Eagles came up during a time of NFC East dominance and were able to compete against Super Bowl caliber teams within their own division.  During those six seasons, they won the East once and made the playoffs four times.

When considering who they had to compete with, that’s not too bad.

Now, when you consider the competition for McNabb’s Eagles, things look a little different…

McNabb’s prime years were 2000 – 2005, another six-year window we’ll look at like Cunningham’s.  Of course, there was the 2008 anomaly, but for now we’ll just look at the bulk of McNabb’s prime years of competition…

He primarily faced head coaches such as Norv Turner, Steve Spurrier, Jim Fassel and Dave Campo.  They were the Hall of Lame head coaching class.

There were no Super Bowl champs from the division during that span.  The Giants made it there in 2000 but lost.  The Redskins and Cowboys took a nose dive and the Giants were up and down like a yo-yo (and a shell of the teams Cunningham faced).

The other quarterbacks in the division were the likes of Quincy Carter, Chad Hutchinson, Patrick Ramsey, Tony Banks and Kerry Collins.  Can you say…weak?  I’d take Nick Foles over any of those guys!

Sure, there were some good players within the division such as Michael Strahan, Tiki Barber, Emmit Smith, Darren Woodson, Dexter Coakley, Greg Ellis, Stephen Davis, Champ Bailey, and LaVarr Arrington.  But, as a whole, they paled in comparison to the players Cunningham faced.

Therefore, there is absolutely no question that Cunningham’s Eagles faced far tougher divisional competition than did McNabb’s.

Other factors to consider when looking at McNabb and Cunningham are supporting cast and head coaches…

Cunningham had a head coach in Buddy Ryan that didn’t know anything about offense and basically didn’t care.  There was no nurturing of the quarterback and the key phrase was “let Randall be Randall”.  Ryan told him to just go make four or five big plays and the defense will take care of the rest.

Cunningham was pretty much left to his own devices.  He had little, if any, structure as far as offensive game-planning and expectations of how to run the offense on the field.  In other words, the coach just said “go make plays”.

His best skill players during his prime were an injury-riddled version of Mike Quick, Keith Byars, Keith Jackson and Fred Barnett.  He also did not have any offensive linemen of note and his protection was average, at best.

The best thing Cunningham had going for him was one of the best defenses in NFL history.  Unfortunately, the year that unit made the NFL record books (1991), it was the year he was injured in the first week and missed the season.

During McNabb’s prime, he didn’t have much for skill players either.  His best were Duce Staley, Chad Lewis, Brian Westbrook and for two seasons, Terrell Owens.  Compared to Cunningham’s, I’d call this a draw.

However, McNabb had two huge benefits that Cunningham did not: coaching and offensive line.

Andy Reid was an offensive-minded coach and QB guru who had a plan.  He ran a QB-friendly kind of offense which is why McNabb was able to succeed even without much help from the WR position.

Reid gave McNabb structure and nurtured him along carefully.  He also gave him a pretty damn good offensive line during that time frame.

He had excellent book-ends at the tackle position in perennial pro-bowler Tra Thomas and the rock-solid Jon Runyan.  He also had Jermaine Mayberry at guard who had a pro bowl year as well.  John Welbourne and Hank Fraley weren’t too shabby either.

In other words, McNabb had a good, stable offensive line to work behind.

And though he didn’t have “Gang Green”, McNabb did have the support of some pretty good Jim Johnson defenses.

I was lucky enough to have witnessed both quarterbacks’ prime with the Eagles.  I was younger and not into “analysis mode” back when Cunningham played, but I certainly was able to analyze McNabb’s career.

I just remember Cunningham being the more exciting player overall.  McNabb made some great plays himself, but Cunningham was special.

Both players were good athletes, but Cunningham was better.  Both guys were great runners, but Cunningham was more elusive.  Both had great arms, probably a draw there.  Neither were incredibly accurate, I’d say a draw there too.

Both guys had their memorable plays as well.

McNabb had the 14-second scramble before the bomb to Freddie Mitchell.  He had “4th and 26”.  He also played an entire game on a broken ankle (very impressive).

Cunningham had the 95-yard TD pass on a scramble in the end zone before a long bomb.  He had the rubbery-like tackle-evasion of Carl Banks before firing a TD pass against the Giants on Monday Night Football.  He also had the 91-yard punt.

If you’d like to check out highlights of each player’s career and compare, check here for McNabb and here for Cunningham.

Ultimately, both players were great Eagles and both deserve their place in Eagles history.

However, based on all of the above, I’d rate Cunningham over McNabb because I believe he was the better player and therefore the best player at the QB position in Eagles’ franchise history.

I’ll admit I could be a little biased since I hold the Buddy Ryan/Cunningham era in such high regard in my memory banks.  It was just a special era with special players that took place during a time in football where NFC East rivalries were at its peak.

Beating Dallas, New York and Washington meant more to the fans back then than it does now.

McNabb was a great player, but I’m tainted by his perpetual “worm burner” passes, his awkward personality and relationship with the fans as well as his goofy smiles and “aw shucks” demeanor when things weren’t going well.

 

Cunningham wasn’t perfect and had an inflated ego while in Philadelphia as he became the “Perfect Weapon” as dubbed by Sports Illustrated.  If he had the support structure that McNabb had and played in a weak NFC East, there’s a decent chance Cunningham would be the “no-brainer” number one QB in Eagles history.

*Disclosure: I originally wrote the base of this article 4 years ago but with the recent ESPN article, I thought it would be fun to revisit the debate.


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