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Making an effort in trying times

Moss out to disprove lingering reputation

With just 10 catches over the last three games, critics of Randy Moss are questioning the wide receiver’s work ethic. With just 10 catches over the last three games, critics of Randy Moss are questioning the wide receiver’s work ethic. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / December 13, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - On an occasion like today, with his team teetering and his recent production wavering, Randy Moss confronts his most unshakable and longest-standing opponent, albeit one he shows little regard for. Moss cannot escape his reputation.

In his three seasons with the Patriots, Moss has played some of the best football and exhibited the most exemplary behavior of his career. He is a captain, and this season ranks second in the NFL in receiving yards and tied for third in touchdown catches.

With his dominance comes the queasy - and as yet unproven here - notion that all of it can unravel under trying conditions. “Everybody wants to talk about the great ones,’’ said Bob Pruett, Moss’s college coach at Marshall, and there was abun dant talk about Moss last week in New England.

Moss, by his towering standard, has slumped for the last three games, a stretch compounded when coach Bill Belichick sent Moss and three others home after they showed up late for a Wednesday morning meeting. The Patriots have lost three out of four for the first time in more than seven years, and the sour combination raises a troubling question: Will Moss, with times tougher now than at any point in his Patriots career, conform to his reputation as a malcontent and a loafer?

As the Patriots try to right their season today at Gillette Stadium against the Carolina Panthers, Moss will face not only the usual intense attention from the defense but also enhanced scrutiny from fans. But professional observers and those close to Moss believe neither his effort nor his response to Belichick’s discipline will become an issue.

“The people in New England don’t need to worry about Randy Moss,’’ said Pruett. “He likes it there and he’s proud to be there.

“Randy will be fine. He’s a great player. He’s a great person. He’s really matured. Things have been good for him in New England, and you don’t need to blow this thing out of proportion.’’

In the argument of whether Moss plays hard, he can be a victim of his own athletic grace. It is easy to sense hustle by Wes Welker, whose feet pump like the needles of a sewing machine. Moss’s loping strides can easily be mistaken for nonchalance. At Marshall, Pruett sometimes thought Moss was jogging during a play until he realized Moss was running past the entire secondary.

“You have to be careful with guys who are exceptional, because they make it look easy,’’ said Dennis Green, Moss’s first NFL coach with the Vikings. “I think all too often people look at Randy like he’s not working, but he really is. It’s a misconception. I’ve always felt that way. He makes it look so easy, how much he’s working is hard to tell.’’

Public perception may be unkind toward Moss’s work ethic, but within football circles, Moss is viewed differently. Moss’s reputation can create a self-fulfilling evaluation: If you look for him slacking, you will probably see it. But the same can be said for the vast majority of NFL players.

“He’s the consummate veteran player, the epitome of a pro,’’ said one AFC scout. “He knows how and when to take plays off. The difference is he catches a lot of [expletive] for it, where so many other guys don’t. He can see the difference from one play to the next, and when he can save it for the next rep. He’s tremendous. For all the big plays he makes, I don’t think a couple plays off should matter. A lot of guys take plays off.

“Yes, effort is an issue. Does he go [all] out on every play? No, he doesn’t. But to be fair, you’d better look at other guys. They just don’t have as big a name as Randy does.’’

Regardless of his effort, the Patriots have been unable to consistently involve Moss, their best deep threat and perhaps the best wide receiver in the NFL, in their offense for the past three weeks.

During that span, Tom Brady has attempted 22 passes to Moss. He has caught 10 of them for 167 yards. He has just five catches over the past two weeks, including no catches in the second half last Sunday against Miami. Two of the 22 passes resulted in interceptions and one led to offensive pass interference, which was necessary to prevent Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis from making an interception.

Of those 10 catches, only two have been longer than 13 yards, a 58-yard touchdown strike against the Dolphins and a 47-yard ball Moss hauled in to set up a score against the Saints. Moss also caught a 4-yard touchdown pass against the Jets.

Moss’s explosive plays have been rare, and they have also needed help - only the bomb against New Orleans happened without some element of trickery. Against the Jets, he scored the short touchdown when the Patriots snapped the ball quickly and Brady made a rapid throw that caught Revis off guard. Against the Dolphins, Moss scored on the first drive of the game on a fake end-around to Welker.

Two factors, the AFC scout said, have worked against Moss, both of which limit deep passes. Defenses have devoted a safety exclusively to Moss’s side of the field. If Moss beats one man, another is always there.

The safety provides a further challenge by allowing cornerbacks to play Moss more physically at the line of scrimmage. Miami rookie Vontae Davis battered Moss last Sunday.

“He’s pretty smooth with his release, but every now and again you see him run into that big, disruptive corner that can press, and mess him up,’’ the scout said. “And if he can’t get deep, then that’s a big part of their offense out the window.’’

In 2007, Pruett attended a Patriots-Jets game so he could watch Moss and then-Jets quarterback Chad Pennington, another former Marshall player. He sat behind an end zone, next to some Jets fans. Before one play, Pruett leaned toward them and said, “They’ll throw it deep to Moss.’’

On cue, Brady dropped back and heaved a long touchdown pass to Moss. One of the stunned fans asked Pruett, “How did you know that?’’

“Well,’’ Pruett replied, “they singled him.’’

Moss has had scant opportunities like that this year. Moss’s struggles lately have been, in part, a function of the Patriots’ unvaried passing attack. Safeties can lock in on Moss in part because the Patriots have so rarely utilized their tight ends. The Patriots have attempted 47 passes to tight ends this season, second fewest in the NFL.

The safety on Moss allows Welker, constantly single-teamed on underneath patterns, to rack up catches. But as prolific as Welker is, Moss remains the most potent and important threat.

“Miami chose to take him away after they burned him on the 58-yard TD,’’ Pruett said. “You can take away Moss or Welker. Welker can’t get it in the end zone. Do you want to give up touchdowns or first downs?’’

Along with stifling the offense, Moss’s relative lack of involvement may be disappointing him. Moss did not catch a pass in the final 50 minutes last Sunday, leading to concerns that he will shut down if he does not touch the ball more often.

“Guys like him can get frustrated if they don’t see the ball early, so I can see that as something you’d look at,’’ the scout said. “That kind of player, you might be able to get in his head, and that can impact his effort the rest of the game.

“But I think Randy’s changed. Just watching him, it seems like he’s really bought into Bill’s program. Every time I watch a game, I see him cheering his teammates, and into it on the sideline. You can tell he cares.’’

Albert R. Breer of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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