Friday May 13th, 2005

Randy Moss may go down in history as the greatest wide receiver ever to play in the NFL.

Looks funny in print, eh? Kind of makes your skin crawl. And yes, it is a very premature statement. But there's reason to be scared, because someday it might be true.

Right now, the title of best receiver of all time belongs to Jerry Rice. The receivers section of the NFL record book is an homage to him. You could argue Packers legend Don Hutson was more dominant in his era, but he played in the 1930s and '40s, when receivers had less impact on the game.

Early in Moss' career, he and Rice often were mentioned in the same breath. The league never had seen a display by a rookie receiver like the season Moss put together in '98. He caught 69 passes for 1,313 yards, with a league-high 17 touchdowns -- many of which were spectacular.

But the last few years haven't been kind to Moss' reputation. In addition to plenty of off-the-field problems, Moss said in 2001 that he took some plays off, and his status in the public's eye plummeted. Since that time, the Vikings have fallen from an elite team to a middle-of-the-road one.

When you look at the numbers, however, Moss really hasn't fallen at all. When healthy (he battled a hamstring injury last season), Moss has maintained a statistical level of excellence that is rivaled only by Rice. Moss joins the Raiders for his eighth NFL season with 9,142 receiving yards and 90 TDs, nearly identical to Rice's 9,072 receiving yards and 93 TDs at that point in his career.

But even if Moss sustains that production, there are a few reasons most observers never will declare he is better. First, Rice's Super Bowl performances are in a class by themselves. He captured the MVP in Super Bowl XXIV and was equally brilliant for the Niners in two other Super Bowls. Moss' Vikings fell short of the Super Bowl in '98 and never came close again. And even with Moss aboard, the Raiders don't appear destined to play in the big game any soon.

Secondly, Rice (who we're assuming will retire this offseason) maintained a Hank Aaron-like consistency deep into his career, in large part because of his fitness and ability to avoid serious injuries. Can you see Moss playing into his 40s? Although Moss is a workout freak, he doesn't seem to have that kind of passion.

In the end, the biggest reason Moss will never rival Rice in most experts' eyes is the character issue. In addition to Moss' legal troubles, there isn't a reporter who has covered him, nor a team or league official who has been around him, who doesn't have at least one story about how antisocial Moss can be.

But history's not going to care about Moss' antics. After all the reporters who dislike him (they do, even if they won't admit it) leave the business, all that will remain is the record book and the NFL Films highlights, where Moss does things no other receiver can dream of.

If people could separate the player from the person, it'd be easier to appreciate Moss' place in history. Even in an era in which passing records seem to fall every season and several receivers are on their way toward surpassing the numbers of past generations, Moss stands above the rest. Check out his numbers through seven years, compared to today's most productive receivers:

Although Terrell Owens claims he's as good as Moss, the numbers don't support that argument. The player closest to Moss' overall production is Torry Holt. But Holt doesn't get into the end zone like Moss does. In fact, no one catches touchdowns like Moss. The all-time record-holder, Rice, caught 197 in 20 years. Moss is almost halfway there in seven years -- good enough to make him eighth on the all-time list.

Any argument about a receiver's merit has to include a look at the system in which he played. Rice was part of one of the most prolific attacks in NFL history, which contributed to his success because opposing defenses had other things to worry about. The other side of that coin is that Rice had to share the ball with players such as John Taylor, Roger Craig and Owens.

It's also worth noting that as a rookie, Rice joined an offensive juggernaut that was coming off a steamrolling of Miami in Super Bowl XIX. Conversely, Moss' presence on offense made an immediate impact: Dennis Green's Vikes set a league record by scoring 556 points in Moss' rookie season, an eye-popping 202 more than they did the previous year.

Despite some of the negative comments from Daunte Culpepper about Moss this offseason, there's no better friend to a quarterback than No. 18 (Moss switched his jersey number because Jerry Porter has No. 84 in Oakland). Both Randall Cunningham and Jeff George experienced miraculous comebacks with the Vikings, and Culpepper wasn't the same QB last season after Moss got hurt in Week 7.

If you throw the numbers out and just go by what you see on the field, Moss has to be considered the best WR today. He's big and physical, like Owens, but has speed closer to a Marvin Harrison or Holt. No one can catch the deep ball like Moss, and he's as good in a crowd as anyone in history -- especially if the ball is up in the air.

When draft experts looked at the Vikings' No. 7 spot and talked about finding Moss' replacement, they were kidding themselves. There isn't another receiver who can do the things Moss can. There may be a couple of young guys with that kind of speed and size -- Detroit's Roy Williams, Houston's Andre Johnson, maybe rookies Braylon Edwards (Cleveland) or Troy Williamson (Minnesota) -- but those measurements don't translate to playmaking ability.

There are plenty of questions about Moss' future. Can he remain focused and thrive in Oakland? Was last season the beginning of a series of injuries? What will he do next to get in trouble off the field?

It's not always easy, but let's take a positive spin on Moss and assume the rest of his career will be fruitful. Twenty years after he retires, no one's going to remember the unpleasant details -- the chaotic college days, the failed drug tests, the arrest, the rude comments. All that will remain are the numbers and the highlights. And those are going to be pretty good. Maybe the best of all time.

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