Here I’ll discuss two of the greatest African American quarterbacks ever.
Along the way I’ll compare each of the two’s accomplishments, awards, comparisons and their statistical breakdowns. Keep in mind, I’m not listing each of the two as the two greatest African American quarterbacks ever, I’m simply pointing out what each of the two accomplished, had to offer, and who was the all-around better player.
Other African American quarterbacks have had respectable careers, some of which won Pro Bowls and Super Bowls. Doug Williams, Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick, Daunte Culpepper, and Steve “Air” McNair come to mind.
Ironically, during different periods of time, Moon and Cunningham shared a locker room with the same coach; the late Buddy Ryan. Ryan was Cunningham’s head coach from 1986-1990 and Moon’s Oilers’ defensive coordinator in 1993.
As I began my Eagles’ fandom around 2001-02, I obviously and unfortunately didn’t get the chance to watch Cunningham as an Eagle, the flashy player he was, or arguably in his prime as a Minnesota Viking a few-years prior to 2001.
Although he played for 16 seasons for four different teams (Philadelphia, Minnesota, Dallas and Baltimore), his Eagles’ career ended in 1995. In 1995, Eagles’ head coach Ray Rhodes benched Cunningham for the remaining 12 games of the season, due to completing only half of his pass attempts that year. His replacement was Rodney Peete, who was also African American. After the ’95 season, a free agent, Cunningham didn’t receive any offers and so he retired.
Cunningham had the rare ability as a quarterback of using both his legs and arm as a weapon; hence his nickname “the ultimate weapon (courtesy of Sports Illustrated).” After the 1990 season, the Pro Football Writers Association awarded him the NFL MVP trophy, after making the NFC Pro Bowl team that season and throwing for 30 touchdown passes.
Although he had a respectable career in Philadelphia, perhaps Cunningham’s signature season occurred a few seasons later, after reuniting with wide-out Cris Carter in Minnesota. Minnesota’s offense was stacked with talent- Pro Bowler Cris Carter, a young stud by the name of Randy Moss, and 1,000 yard rusher Robert Smith. All four of them made the 1999 NFC Pro Bowl roster, in addition to three of their offensive lineman.
For the second time in his career, after the 1998 season Cunningham won NFL MVP honors, after he went 13-1 with Minnesota, threw 34 touchdown passes, and led the league in passer rating (106).
With the two deep threats of Moss and Carter, who combined for 29 touchdown passes, Cunningham also made NFC first-team All-Pro honors and he ranked second in the NFC in touchdown passes. Motivated by the struggles in 1995 and his brief retirement in 1996, Cunningham took advantage of the talent around him and flourished.
In the early to mid ’90s Moon shined under the Oilers’ utilization of the run-and-shoot offense. The run and shoot scheme puts emphasis on wide receivers adjusting their routes and responding to different opposing defensive schemes. While the scheme was very flawed, as receivers could easily get jammed up at the line of scrimmage, it worked well enough for Moon. In Houston, Moon’s offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride brought the scheme with him after specializing in it in the Canadian Football League (as a quarterbacks and wide receivers coach there).
On three occasions Moon led the league in completions (1990-91 and 1995), he twice led the league in passing yards (1990-91) and threw for over 30 touchdown passes on two occasions (1990 and 1995). Although Moon had a rocket for an arm, stayed healthy for an extensive period of his career, and made the postseason seven times, he was often erratic.
Moon had longevity, unlike Daunte Culpepper, a better arm, and a longer period of consistent play. Moon’s football story is fascinating, he was a total dark-horse player. He played for the Huskies from 1975-77 and succeeded there, winning the Rose Bowl in his final season, he went undrafted in the 1978 NFL Draft.
After that May’s draft, he decided to take a crack at the Canadian Football League, playing for the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos from 1978-1983. His last two seasons there, he combined for 67 touchdown passes, including 36 of them in 1982, and won the CFL’s Grey Cup Most Valuable Player.
Cunningham was more explosive than Moon, although Moon had a bigger arm and was slightly more accurate. Cunningham’s health was a huge liability, mostly due to being outside the pocket and on the run.
Compared to the talent that Cunningham had around him with Minnesota (see above), Moon had a decent cast, too. Wide-out Ernest Givins was the standout of them all, catching 10 touchdown passes in 1995 and making the AFC Pro Bowl roster twice (1990 and 1992). Like Cunningham, Moon briefly excelled in Minnesota, too, during the 1995 season. Although the Vikings went 8-8 that year, Moon had a 91.5 quarterback rating and 33 touchdown passes. Carter caught 17 of them.
In both quarterbacks’ successful seasons in Minnesota (1995 and 1998), future Ravens’ Super-Bowl winning coach Brian Billick was their offensive coordinator.
Pros and Cons
Cunningham was a freakish athlete, a respectable player for arguably five-six seasons, had a cannon for an arm (he once threw a 95-yard touchdown pass to Fred Barnett in December of 1990 against Buffalo), and was versatile. He could pass, he could run and stretch the field, and he even once punted the ball for 91 yards in a December 1989 win at Giants Stadium. Side note: on a comedic yet serious note, he was also a great Tecmo Bowl player. Like Michael Vick (both of which played in Philadelphia), opposing defenses struggled to contain him outside of the pocket. He was very elusive.
Cunningham was known as a dual-threat quarterback; one who could both successfully run and pass the ball.
On the flip side, many football writers and/or analysts view Cunningham as a running back, who, because of his out-of-pocket play, had the propensity to get injured.
In week one of the 1991 season at Green Bay, after a hit by Packers’ linebacker Bryce Paup, Cunningham suffered a knee injury and missed the remainder of the season. Perhaps the hit limited his mobility, as the next season his carries decreased by over 26 percent and he averaged two fewer yards per carry.
In a 2001 ESPN The Magazine article by journalist David Fleming, NFL coaches and quarterbacks discussed the comparison of a running quarterback vs. a pocket-passing one. In the article, Cunningham’s former offensive coordinator Brian Billick went with the pocket passer over the scrambling one. While a scrambling quarterback like Cunningham can certainly flourish, those types of quarterbacks can incur major flaws; perhaps they don’t know what they’re doing, and they can sometimes break down their offense than help it.
Moon had a more consistent career, partially due to staying healthy (which, at times, Cunningham was unable to do). In six seasons in the CFL, Moon won five consecutive Grey Cups, he threw for almost 50,000 NFL passing yards (4,9325), and is the only player in football history to make both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
Despite his accomplishments and Hall of Fame inductions, Moon was definitely a gunslinger. That can be viewed as both a good and a bad thing. In this argument, it has major flaws. Twice he led the league in interceptions (in 1986 and 1991), on three occasions he threw 20 or more of them, and he ranks second worse in career fumbles (161, only behind Brett Favre’s 166). Moon’s run-and-shoot offense was also less effective in the red zone, as he had less room to maneuver around and a less chance to spread the ball around.
For example, during the 1997 season, in scenarios inside the 10-yard line, Moon completed only 28.6 percent of his passes (6/21) and only 41.1 percent of his passes within the 20 (23/56). Although he led the league that year in passing yards per game (245.2), he was ineffective within short-yardage attempts.
To prove that point, that season Moon was impressive on downs that were 7-10 yards or more to go, completing 71.8 percent of those attempts, while on pass attempts that required 0-6 yards to complete a first down, he completed only 10.6 percent of those 15 short-yardage attempts.
Point being, while Moon had six seasons with a pass completion of 80 or more yards, including an 87-yarder to Pro Bowler Haywood Jeffires in 1990, he struggled in short yardage. Although in 1995 with Minnesota, which Moon finished with 33 touchdown passes, he was way more effective in the red zone, as he completed 56.3 percent of his pass attempts and ranked second best in the league.
Accomplishments and Awards
Cunningham- two-time MVP (1990, 1998), two-time first-team All-Pro, two-time second team All-Pro, three-time Bert Bell Award winner, four-time Pro Bowler, NFL Comeback Player of The Year Award (1992), Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Fame
Moon- enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (2006), Canadian Football Hall of Fame (2001), NFL MVP Award winner (1990), first-team All-Pro (1990), two-time NFL passing yards leader (1990-91), Tennessee Titans # 1 jersey retired (2006), nine-time Pro Bowler
207 touchdown passes
29,979 passing yards
81.5 passer rating
82 career wins (61.2 winning percentage)
56.6 completion percentage
7 yards per pass attempt
21 fourth-quarter comebacks
26 game-winning drives
134 approximate value
4,928 rushing yards
3-6 playoff record
161 career games
291 touchdown passes
49,325 passing yards
80.9 passer rating
102 career wins (50.2 winning percentage)
58.4 completion percentage
7.2 yards per pass attempt
26 fourth-quarter comebacks
37 game-winning drives
166 approximate value
1,736 rushing yards
3-7 playoff record
208 career games
Hall of Fame
In 2001, Moon was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and was inducted into Canton, the site of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in 2006. Despite winning the 1990 NFL MVP award, making four career Pro-Bowl trips and throwing for over 200 career touchdown passes, Cunningham has yet to be enshrined there. He’s been on the Hall of Fame ballot for a decade now.
Who was better?
Due to a longer and healthier career than Cunningham, Moon had the advantage of accumulating more quarterback statistics- such as yards and touchdown passes. Moon was more accurate, and due to way more pass attempts, he always racked up a ton of passing yards. Based on stats, Cunningham clearly was the faster, and the dual-threat of the two.
Unlike Moon, Cunningham had a huge disadvantage in that he never truly had a great offensive coordinator in Philadelphia- which he spent the bulk of his career in. Cunningham’s coordinators in Philly, mainly Ted Plumb and Rich Kotite, were extremely ineffective. Although not known as a great football mind, Kevin Gilbride, Moon’s offensive coordinator from 1989-1993, was way more practical of a play-caller.
Let the debate begin.