CUNNINGHAM’S FUMBLE A MISTAKE OF INEXPERIENCE

PHILADELPHIA — It was as surprising to the players involved as it was to the fans who were watching Sunday. What was quarterback Randall Cunningham — who needed only to protect the ball to preserve an 11-10 Philadelphia victory
— doing scrambling for yardage, holding the ball like a pizza delivery?

“He’s young; he’s inexperienced,” Lions safety Demetrious Johnson said. “He tries to make things happen, even when he doesn’t need to.”

Johnson saw him coming around the right side on that second- and-13 play. Cunningham had been rolling out like that all game long, sometimes passing, sometimes keeping it and running. And with only 1:52 left in the game, Johnson decided to make his own thing happen.

“Turnover . . . turnover . . . ” he was thinking. Johnson’s role on the play was more correctly to cover a receiver, but when the Eagles quarterback began to cut upfield, Johnson came in and, going strictly for the ball, yanked on Cunningham’s arm, the ball came free, and linebacker Mike Cofer saw it rolling at his feet near the Eagles’ 37.

“I was shocked,” Cofer admitted. “But not too shocked to not fall on it.”

Cofer fell on it, the Lions took possession at the 37, and they ran the clock down to 17 seconds before attempting the field goal that won it, 13-11.

Had Cunningham not fumbled, the Eagles almost certainly would have run more time off the clock, and then, at worst, punted the ball to put Detroit deep in its own territory. Or possibly just held on for the victory. After all, Cunningham had enjoyed success running on the Detroit defense. He gained 113 yards.

“On that specific play, the coach wanted me to run the ball,” Cunningham said. “He told everyone else to hold onto the ball. I told everyone else to hold onto the ball . . . The guy (Johnson) just grabbed it from me.

“I could have run and just slid, but I was trying to gain more yards. I was trying to run the clock down.”

Too much effort. Wrong results. Clearly the play that turned the game around. In Philadelphia Sunday night, the newscasters were calling it “a nightmare.” But Johnson and Cofer and the rest of the Lions were sleeping on it, and dreaming sweet.

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