If anyone in the history of professional football ran a go-route better than Randy Moss, the footage of this mystery receiver must be lost from daylight in a dusty NFL Films vault somewhere.
But beyond what football aficionados outside of the Sabol family have witnessed, however, there has never been another like Randy Gene Moss of Rand, West Virginia. When Moss was motivated and engaged — more on those caveats and complications in a moment — no cornerback, whether it was hapless Dallas blip Kevin Mathis, who had his Thanksgiving ruined during Moss’s transcendent three-touchdown performance during the receiver’s electrifying rookie season in ’98, or the great Darrelle Revis, whose hamstring was a casualty of running stride for stride with Moss during Week 2 last season, could do much to prevent the inevitable. Even when they usually suspected what was coming.
Today, though, his pattern wasn’t so predictable. Moss, 34, ran what seems to be one last go-route this afternoon, announcing his retirement from the NFL after 13 seasons, 954 receptions, 14,858 receiving yards, 154 total touchdowns, and one lasting but complex legacy.
Maybe we’ll hear an official explanation in the coming hours or day. Maybe this is just a savvy veteran’s way of dodging training camp. Maybe apparently self-designated Moss spokesman Cris Carter will share some real insight on what his former teammate is thinking — revealing that the Patriots offered him a one-year deal is a start. Or maybe Moss will disappear to his favorite West Virginia fishing hole and keep us guessing at the reasons until his day comes in Canton.
Make no mistake, the day of the mustard-colored jacked and the bronze bust that may or may not capture his likeness will come, and should in his first year of eligibility. Should you be one of those finicky, fickle sports writers whose delicate sensibilities were affected along with Joe Buck’s the day Moss fake-mooned the fans in Green Bay or pulled another immature stunt, maybe you’ll tweet or write or belch sometime today that Moss isn’t a Hall of Famer in your mind. But beware, ye of thousands of followers and little self-awareness. Such a suggestion would render your opinion a permanent confirmation of your lost perspective and credibility in subjective matters. Like so many Daunte Culpepper heaves, the Hall of Fame is incomplete without him.
Jerry Rice stands alone as the greatest player to catch an NFL pass, and no other receiver is within several strides. But Moss is in the argument as the second-best, and no one — not even Rice — played the position with such flair. Rice has 197 receiving touchdowns, 44 more than Moss, who is tied for second place with Terrell Owens. No knock on Rice, a gridiron surgeon who was justifiably named the greatest player of all time by the NFL Network. But I’d venture to guess Moss has a similar advantage in breathtaking highlights, whether he was hurdling a defender who suddenly found himself tackling a ghost or habitually catching the ball one handed, like a dad showing off to his 6-year-old while chucking around the Nerf. He accomplished many of his greatest highlights and feats, such as his 17-receiving-touchdown rookie season, still a record, while pointing flawed quarterbacks — first Randall Cunningham, then Jeff George and Culpepper — the way to the end zone.
Moss was infamous before he was football-famous, with off-the-field incidents (assault, marijuana charges) preventing him from attending Notre Dame, and then Florida State. He made his name at then-Division 1-AA Marshall . . .
. . . and mastered the art of hurdling defenders, but slipped all the way to 21st in the 1998 NFL Draft, two picks after the Patriots selected ill-fated running back Robert Edwards and a pick before selecting GPS-challenged defensive back Tebucky Jones. He was an instant star, a freakish 6-foot-4-inch deep threat who seemed to cover five yards a stride and appeared to jump so high that it you wondered if he could pluck the moon out of the sky on a whim. After seven productive, controversial seasons in Minnesota and two going through the motions with the perpetual hopeless cause in Oakland, Moss found redemption and rejuvenation with a 2007 trade to the Patriots.
The chemistry between Moss and Tom Brady was immediate. Moss caught nine passes for 151 yards in his Patriots debut, and such production was not the exception but the norm. He had eight multi-touchdown games, nine 100-yard games, and six scoring receptions of at least 40 yards. He finished the regular season with 98 catches for 1,493 yards and a record 23 touchdowns, while Brady set an NFL record with 50 TD passes as the Patriots finished the regular season 16-0. They were, for all intents and purposes, perfect.
The ending, of course, was not. Moss never played for a Super Bowl champion in New England, and the ending to his three-plus season run here came following Week 4 last season when he was dealt back to Minnesota following a zero-catch game against the Dolphins during which he reportedly accosted coach Bill O’Brien at halftime. His departure, fueled by a postgame soliloquy following a Week 1 win versus the Bengals in which he said he knew this was his last season with the Patriots, didn’t make sense until after the fact, when he continued to praise the team he forced to trade him. Only then was it obvious that Moss so desperately wanted to stay that he gave them no choice but to get rid of him.
From the Boston perspective, he was football’s Manny Ramirez. You wanted to like him unequivocally, and often did, but he didn’t always make it easy. He was moody, mercurial, unpredictable and enigmatic. He made football look so easy that his doubters couldn’t believe he worked at it, though there were countless testimonials that he did. His arms seemed to shrink a size when he went over the middle, and slights real or perceived could cause him to check out. You counted on him knowing there was a chance he would let you down and never offer an adequate explanation afterward. But you did so because the good times were so damn good, it was all worth it.
If Moss chose to retire today because the New York Jets signed Plaxico Burress instead, well, maybe that’s appropriate in a symmetrical sort of way. Patriots fans need no in-depth reminder that Burress was the hero of the Giants’ upset of the 18-0 Patriots in Super Bowl XLI. What’s sometimes lost in the complicated timeline of Moss’s time here is that it could have been him — he gave the Patriots a 14-10 lead with 2 minutes and 42 seconds remaining — and it was so close to being him again. In the Patriots’ final seconds of desperation, he nearly got behind the Giants defense, but Brady’s heave on fourth and 20 eluded his fingertips. He glided so effortlessly that you wondered if he had been going all-out, and c’mon, Randy, couldn’t you just leap a little higher or stretch those plastic-man arms to full extension or maybe dive, just to leave us with no doubts?
Yet you also knew that the list of receivers who could put themselves in position to even have a chance at making such a play probably included only the man who couldn’t quite do it. No one ran a go-route like Randy Moss, right up until today.
And who knows. With the havoc the abbreviated training camp could wreak on receivers’ hamstrings, the temptation some injury-addled team will have to check in with Moss during the season, and even the off-chance that Burress shoots himself in the other leg, maybe Randy Moss will have a comeback route in him yet.