PHILADELPHIA -- Invariably when Randall Cunningham's place among NFL quarterbacks is discussed, a coach, player or media member will say, "he's the best athlete in the league."

The inference is that despite Cunningham's versatility as a scrambler and passer, he's not often ranked with the likes of Joe Montana, Dan Marino, John Elway or Phil Simms.

That annoys Cunningham, who despite the Philadelphia Eagles' slow start entered Monday night's game against the Washington Redskins performing with the most consistency of his 5 1/2-year career.

"I'm playing consistently because I knew that was what I was expected to do," Cunningham said coming off a game in which he became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw four touchdown passes and gain more than 100 yards (124) in a single game, a 48-20 victory over New England that moved the club to 4-4, a game behind Washington.

"I knew that each week I had to do my job for the team to win," he said as he prepared for the Redskins, who beat the Eagles, 13-7, in Washington last month.

"It's a pressure year and I'm handling the pressure the way I need to," he said, noting the Eagles have been among the top 10 teams offensively all season -- No. 2 after eight games.

"I don't know," he said, "how much better we can get."

Cunningham, sacked five times in the first Washington game, feels he's just about grasped the offense introduced by new offensive coordinator Richie Kotite. The idea of the system was to improve Cunningham's completion percentage, but not detract from the ability of the most productive scrambling quarterback since Fran Tarkenton at Minnesota and Tobin Rote at Green Bay. He has rushed for 2,977 career yards, only 152 behind Rote, runner-up to Tarkenton's 3,674 on the all-time quarterback rushing list.

The system through eight games accomplished its purpose. Cunningham's 58.7 completion percentage is five points better than his career average through five seasons. Over almost four games he completed 123 passes without an interception.

"I'd rather throw for 250 yards every game and a couple of touchdown passes, than 500 for one game and then a hundred and something," Cunningham said.

Cunningham credits his success to Kotite, who shouldered early criticism for the lack of offensive productivity while the team learned the system.

"Richie kept me in the pocket, worked to get my mechanics right, like shifting my feet around and stepping up in the pocket." Cunningham said. "He worked on all the different little things."

Early in the season Cunningham's scrambling was restricted by unfamiliarity with the offense. He looked like a guy straining at the bars of a prison cell. His face was lined with concern. His words were filled with doubt.

But before the game against the Los Angeles Rams, Coach Buddy Ryan and Kotite loosened the reins. They told Cunnigham to run, run, run when he felt the situation was ripe.

Cunningham responded with a scrambling performance as the Eagles beat the Rams in Los Angeles. Since then, the old Randall Cunningham emerged, and with a touch of the new structure, is headed for his best season.

"I knew I could go out and be myself and run the ball -- ad lib like I need to do," Cunningham said.

Cunningham said his early season experience as mostly a pocket quarterback was invaluable.

"But that's not how this team wins," he added.

Something was missing, but having to concentrate on plays and know what everyone had to do has made him a better quarterback, Cunningham said. He intimates that maybe now people will consider him as one of the best quarterbacks, not just the best athlete in the league.

The Eagles' problem this year hasn't been Cunningham or the offense, but Ryan's much-heralded defense. True, the defense is eighth in the league, but as Ryan is prone to say, statistics aren't always an indicator of performance.

Philadelphia led the league last year in total takeaways, interceptions, fumbles recovered. The Eagles in 1989 were a plus-24 in takeaways, but had given up two more than their opponents through the first half of the season.