Defensive Coordinator/Assistant Head Coach, Detroit Lions
Cunningham is a 42-year coaching veteran on the college and pro levels, including the past 29 seasons in the NFL. He has been a defensive coordinator in the league for 12 seasons and a head coach (Kansas City, 1999-2000) for two. Cunningham has also worked with linebackers and defensive linemen for 16 of his seasons in the pros. As a coach in the NFL, Cunningham has earned the respect of both his peers and players for his intense and straightforward approach to coaching. He is known as a strong motivator who emphasizes the importance of an aggressive and hard-hitting defense. Additionally, Cunningham also brings the elements of being a talented defensive teacher and tactician.
LIONS COACHING HIGHLIGHTS:
The 2011 edition of the Detroit Lions defense excelled in two key areas: third down efficiency and takeaways.
- Detroit ranked at the top of the NFL in third-down efficiency. The Lions allowed 67 third-down conversions, which was tied for the fewest in the League (New Orleans), and held opponents to a third-down conversion percentage of 32.7 which was the third-best in the NFL.
- The Lions’ 34 takeaways were tied for third in the NFL in 2011.
- They were fifth in the NFL with 21 interceptions which was also the most by the team since it registered 25 in 2000.
- The defense tied for fourth in the League with 17 forced fumbles and was third with 13 recoveries – two of which were returned for touchdowns.
- On defense, the Lions scored 7 return touchdowns off interception and fumble returns which tied a single-season franchise record that was set in 1937.
- Five interception return touchdowns were the second-most in team history (6 in 1967), and the Lions tied for a League high.
- In 2010, the Lions had one of the most improved defenses in the NFL. Detroit was one of six teams to improve their overall total defense ranking by 11 spots (32 in 2009 to 21 in 2010), and they were one of just three teams to improve their pass defense by 16 (32 in 2009 to 16 in 2010).
- In the passing game, the defense was the most-improved unit in the NFL in 2010, allowing 751 less yards (46.9 yards per game) than in 2009.
- Detroit was also the most-improved defensive unit in the League in points allowed in 2010 with 125 points fewer (7.8/game) than the previous season.
- The Lions defense was the NFL’s fourth-most improved unit in regards to total yards allowed, giving up 777 yards less than in 2009, which equates to 48.6 less yards per game.
The Lions defense is being built around young playmakers and improved by quality veterans. Cunningham believes in putting tremendous pressure on opponents upfront, and the team's front four, led by 2010 Rookie of the Year and All-Pro DT Ndamukong Suh and 11-year veteran DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, is beginning to make its mark in the Leauge. That unit will lead the way for the Lions defense in the foreseeable future.
The success by a defense many times can be measured by pressure and turnovers. Cunningham's defense in 2010 registered 44 sacks – the sixth most in the NFL – and 25 takeaways. These elements continue to improve as the team adds talent to all three units on defense.
From, 2004-08, Cunningham served as the Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator during his second stint with the organization. In 2008, he also coached the team's linebackers as the Chiefs' defense began a transition with six new starters and endured numerous injuries throughout the season. From 2004-07, his imprint on the defense was prevalent in several areas.
In 2007, Cunningham's defense ranked in the top five in nine different defensive categories, including a league-high in third-down defense (30.2 pct.), negative plays forced (121) and 10+-play drives (1). The Chiefs ranked second in allowing touchdowns on defensive possessions (37.2 pct.) and in Red Zone defense (37.2 TD pct.). Kansas City was third in the league by allowing just 28 offensive touchdowns, the lowest tally for the team since 1997. The defense allowed 18.6 offensive points per game, the lowest for the Chiefs since 1999.
Overall, Kansas City's pass defense ranked fifth in the NFL in 2007 allowing only 188.9 yards per game. They also tied for fifth in three-and-outs forced (47) and first downs allowed (278).
After just two seasons following his return to Kansas City, Cunningham improved the Chiefs rushing defense that ranked 30th in the league in 2003 (146.5 yards allowed per game) to seventh in the NFL in 2005 (98.1 yards allowed per game). The 98.1 rushing yards allowed per game was the lowest the Chiefs yielded since 1997. In 2005, the Chiefs were ninth in Red Zone defense (46.7 TD pct.) after ranking 27th the previous season. They also tied for the second highest tally of forced fumbles that year with 33.
In 2004, Cunningham began the process of improving the team's defense as Kansas City tied for seventh in the NFL with 41.0 sacks, the club's best total since 2000, Cunningham's last year as Kansas City's head coach.
Cunningham coaches alongside Schwartz at Tennessee (2001-03) under Head Coach Jeff Fisher. Cunningham served as the Titans assistant head coach/linebackers. In those three seasons, the Titans defense helped the franchise earn two playoff berths. From 2001-03, the Titans led the league in rushing yards allowed (86.5 yards per game) and were third in opponent's third down percentage (33.6). In 2003, Tennessee's defense led the NFL in both rushing defense (80.9 yards per game) and opponent's third-down percentage (27.7). That year, LB Keith Bullock earned a spot in the Pro Bowl under Cunningham's tutelage as his position coach.
As head coach for the Kansas City Chiefs from 1999-00, Cunningham compiled a 16-16 (.500). In 1999, the Chiefs were 9-7 and tied with the Seattle Seahawks with the best record in the AFC West but lost out on a playoff tie-breaker. Cunningham became the first coach in Chiefs' history to claim nine wins in his first season as Chiefs' head coach. In 1999, the Chiefs led the NFL with a +21 turnover margin and set a team record by scoring nine defensive touchdowns. In his two seasons, his club was 4-0 against Denver and defeated the defending Super Bowl Champion St. Louis Rams October 20, 2000 54-34 in a high-scoring affair.
As defensive coordinator for the Chiefs from 1995-98, the defense was a key cog in Kansas City compiling a 42-22 (.656) record, including a 23-9 record (.719) against the AFC West. In those four seasons, the Chiefs allowed a NFL-low in offensive points (16.4 points per game), and led the league in scoring defense during the 1995 (15.1 points per game) and 1997 (14.5 points per game) seasons. Cunningham's defenses were critical in Kansas City producing an AFC-best +30 turnover margin from 1995-98, as they were responsible for 127 takeaways. They also scored 77 points on 10 touchdowns and four safeties. The Chiefs produced 172.0 sacks over those four years, a total which ranked third in the AFC and sixth in the NFL over that span.
The 232 points allowed by the Chiefs in 1997 was a franchise record for a 16-game season. That season, they set a NFL record, previously held by the 1934 Detroit Lions, by not permitting a second half touchdown in 10 consecutive games. They led the AFC in interceptions (21) and total takeaways (34), and ranked second among NFL team in opponents' third-down percentage (31.6). Kansas City's 54.0 sacks in '97 were the second-highest total in team history, leading the AFC and ranking third in the NFL.
In '95, Kansas City's defense was even better in terms of actual offensive points allowed as opposing offenses scored an average of just 12.9 point per game, and they were ranked second in the entire league by allowing just 284.3 yards per game. They also ranked third in rushing defense (82.9 yards per game). Additionally, the Chiefs led the league in scoring defense, turnover margin (+12), touchdowns allowed (23) and yards allowed per play (4.3).
Cunningham not only has compiled great defensive units, but he has coached and mentored several Pro Bowl and All-Pro players. He has shared a special bond as a mentor to the late, great nine-time Pro Bowl LB Derrick Thomas, who concluded his illustrious career as the all-time leading sack artist in Chiefs history with 126.5 QB takedowns. Cunningham served as Thomas’ position coach in ’97, helping him earn his final Pro Bowl invitation. He also coached DE Neil Smith (second in Chiefs history with 86.5 sacks) and DE Jared Allen, who earned his first spot in the Pro Bowl after the 2007 season when he lead the league in sacks with 15.5. Another defensive linemen who excelled under Cunningham was DT Dan Saleaumua. He was named to the Pro Bowl in 1995 after anchoring the team’s defensive front.
In the secondary, CB Dale Carter and CB James Hasty were the most formidable cornerback tandems in Chiefs history, as they combined for six Pro Bowl berth, and each intercepted 21 passes.
Prior to his arrival in Kansas City, Cunningham spent four seasons (1991-94) with the Los Angeles Raiders, as linebackers coach (1991), defensive coordinator (1992-93) and defensive line coach (1994). As the Raiders defensive coordinator, his defense ranked ninth in the NFL both seasons, and they allowed a NFL-low 11 touchdown passes in 1992.
Cunningham was the San Diego Chargers defensive line coach for six seasons (1985-90) after originally being hired by the team’s player personnel department. During those six seasons, the chargers led the AFC in sacks three times and garnered a club record 62.0 in 1986. As the defensive line coach, he developed DE Lee Williams and DE Leslie O’Neil into Pro Bowl players.
In 1982, Cunningham entered the NFL coaching ranks when he joined the Baltimore Colts coaching staff, learning from the late Bud Carson. He was the team's defensive line/linebackers from 1982-84. Before entering the NFL ranks, his previous pro coaching experience was with the defensive line/linebackers coach for the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1981 with head coach Frank Kush who also hired Cunningham in Baltimore.
As a college coach, Cunningham's last stop was at California. Cunningham coached the Bears defensive line from 1979-80, the linebackes in 1978 and secondary in 1977.
Prior his stop in Berkeley, Cunningham coached at the Stanford Cardinal from 1973-76. He was hired by Head Coach Jack Christensen, a Hall of Fame defensive back for the Detroit Lions in the 1950s and a member of the Lions 75th Season All-time Team. While at Stanford, he coached the defensive line from 1974-76 and was the assistant offensive line and freshmen coach during his first year in 1973.
Cunningham worked at the University of Arkansas in 1972 on a staff headed by Frank Broyles that included Joe Gibbs and Raymond Berry.
In 1969, Cunningham began his coaching career at the University of Oregon, his alma mater. He was with the Ducks program for three years from 1969-71 where he began his longtime relationship with another noted defensive coach, George Seifert. Cunningham was a graduate of Oregon and was a linebacker and kicker for the Ducks from 1966-68.
Cunningham played his prep football at Lompoc High School in Lompoc, California. He was then recruited to play at Allan Hancock College by Hall of Fame coach John Madden. Madden left the school prior to Cunningham's freshman year and was replaced as head coach by Ernie Zampese.
Cunningham, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen on April 6, 2010, is just one of four foreign-born individuals in league history to ever serve as an NFL head coach, joining Hugo Bezdek (Cleveland Rams, 1937-38), Jock Sutherland (Pittsburgh, 1946-47) and Al Saunders (San Diego, 1986-88). Born in Munich, Germany, he moved to Greenfield, Mass., at the age of 10 in 1956 with his mother Katharina and his adoptive father, Air Force Sergeant Garner Cunningham.
Cunningham and his wife, René, have two children, Natalie and Adam.