News & Analysis

PFF tribute to Gunther Cunningham

By PFF Analysis Team
May 14, 2019

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Monday saw the news that Gunther Cunningham – former PFF colleague and one of the game’s greats – had passed away after a short illness.

Gunther’s work in the NFL is well documented, but what follows is a brief collection of thoughts from some of his friends and colleagues at PFF. We will miss him dearly.

Cris Collinsworth, CEO

Gunther will forever be a PFF legend. His story as a man who had to fight for everything he ever earned inspired us and everyone who ever played for him. But his belief in the PFF system, long before it was embraced by NFL and college teams, will forever endear Gunther to our PFF family. Gunther, thank you all you have done to inspire us and so many others, you will be dearly missed. May God bless you and your family.

Bryan Hall, VP of Business Development

I remember when I first met Gunther. He was with the Lions and we were at our second combine. Only a handful of NFL team clients at the time, and we were still very much seen as “those Brits grading players.” Even the teams we were working with hadn’t really fully grasped all PFF could do to help the coaching side of things. Gunther was already there, and then some. He was so excited about what we were doing and had so many ideas that we hadn’t even considered yet. I remember calling my wife on the drive home and emotionally recounting the meeting to her. It had been a watershed moment for me. A confirmation of everything that we at PFF had been working so hard for, and helped reaffirm our dreams of what was yet to come.

Josh Liskiewitz, High School Operations Manager

I only had one interaction with Gunther last year, when I asked him for scheme input/explanation for a piece I was writing (for The Athletic, IIRC). In just this very quick 10-minute interaction, I was struck by how obvious his love for football was and how much passion and enthusiasm he still had to give to the sport despite being in his 70s.

I’m not really sure how to wrap that up without being cheesy, but as someone who obviously wants to maintain a career in football for his entire life, I know that if I can maintain the level of enthusiasm for the game I have now throughout my life, as it’s clear Gunther did, I’ll have had a pretty damn good life.

Bobby Slowik, Offensive Assistant San Francisco 49ers

Gunther’s passion for football was evident the second he said hello. On a brief visit to the Detroit Lions, we sat in his office and talked football for hours despite never having met before. He showed clips and evidence of his thoughts and how our process (PFF) could be refined while infusing all of us in the room with his energy and excitement. That brief two-hour conversation began a relationship that lasted until the day of his passing. I owe him much more than I can convey with words. It was a pleasure to have been able to know such a man. My condolences are with his family and friends.

Sam Monson, Director of Content

Hearing Gunther talk about PFF’s grading and how closely the results were to his own study work was one of the defining moments of validation from inside NFL circles during my time working at PFF. What truly stood out about interacting with him though was how little he cared about our credentials or background. To him, we were just more people to talk football with and to dive into deeper and more complex pieces of data and information about the game he loved. While many of football’s old guard fight off any encroachment of analytics into their day to day lives, Gunther – at over 70 years of age – was embracing it as a chance to learn more about a game that predated us all and continue to evolve. He was a great man and will be a great loss to all who knew him, and to the game of football.

Ben Stockwell, Director of Analysis

I will always treasure the time I got to spend working with and learning from Gun in recent years. He earned a fearsome reputation as a coach but to speak to him, meet with him and pick his brain was always enlightening and a pleasure. His fire and passion for football never left. I went into every conversation with Gun eager and ready to learn from him but came away not only with fresh insights from him but also energized by his desire to learn and appraise new ways of thinking about football.

His passion for football was ever present, but his passion for people shone through as well, as seen in the outpouring of messages from former players and colleagues. He rarely finished a call or email conversation without asking after my family. That warmth and perspective on what truly mattered in life will stay with me as long as the lessons he taught me about football. My condolences to his family.

Neil Hornsby, PFF Founder & COO

Gun was never quite what I expected. I never met the volatile, roiling bundle of emotion you saw on the sideline on Sundays. Sure, the intensity was there. The deep, embedded addiction for the game. The vast quantities of tape he’d plow through leading to spreadsheets of information on draft picks that seemed to be on endless scroll. The need to compete as he’d gently chide me that by the time I began lifting at 5:45 am, his session was done and he was already busy at his desk.

Perhaps my most enduring memory of him came when he stayed at our house prior to a meeting we had in Cincinnati. A more endearing, humble gracious guest my wife Claire and I have never had. He was the epitome of charm to my family (who had absolutely no idea who he was), never mentioned football once but talked for hours on a myriad of other subjects, far more interested in our mundane lives than anything he could offer.

Whenever he and I talked, though, football was at the forefront. And what came through to me more than anything was just how much he loved his players and, in particular, those he saw as underappreciated. Few conversations went by without him reminding me of the crime committed in that Leslie O’Neal was not in the Hall of Fame, pointing out the lack of respect given to the play of his corner tandem in KC, Dale Carter and James Hasty or telling me what an unbelievable player Derrick Johnson was and how much he loved him. One Monday he phoned me up. “Did you see (Ndamukong) Suh against the Eagles yesterday?” I had. “It was like a man against boys, but those idiots just can’t see it” he complained in general reference to Suh’s poor reviews since joining Miami. Suh was another of “his guys” and, as with most things football related, Gun was right.

I last saw Gun face to face in late November last year. He alluded to his illness (without telling me anything concrete) but asked me not to tell anyone (“not even Claire”), and I kept my promise. At that time he re-iterated something that he had mentioned many times …. That we were brother Europeans, both coming to this country as immigrants and united by a love of football.

He was a kind, gracious man, and I will always remember him that way above all others.

Steve Palazzolo, Senior Analyst + Director of Video

When first meeting Gunther, you immediately get a sense for how much he just loves football. He loves the past, the present and learning about the future. Even after he had accomplished so much at the highest level of the game, he was still willing to work for PFF in order to contribute to the future of the game, all while learning a slightly different way to look at player evaluation. It spoke volumes about his passion. I learned something new in every conversation with Gunther, from a cornerback’s technique, to the evolution of the passing game, to how he would attack an offense led by Peyton Manning. His passion and love for the game will be missed.

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