There are many Sundays when it's better to cover the NFL from home. Pre-game shows, Red Zone Channel, reliable Internet. Keep up with everything and then hit the road to interview live bodies during the week. Seriously. Last Sunday, however, was not one of those days, because you definitely wanted to be in Foxborough for the Randy Show.
The Patriots carved up the Bengals. The game itself was unequivocal: The Patriots looked great and the Bengals looked terrible (not buying anything that happens after you're down, 31-3). Both of these occurrences were more than a little bit surprising, because before the game was played a lot of reasonably smart people thought that the Bengals might be a very good team in 2010 and that the Patriots might be a dynasty in decline that would struggle to make the playoffs. (The former might still happen; I would bet heavily against the latter, even after just one week).
Postgame routine in the belly of Gillette Stadium: Listen to Bill Belichick at the podium, check the New England locker room, listen to Tom Brady at the podium, check the Cincinnati locker room, listen to Wes Welker at the podium. Something like that. It can get a little hectic. I was standing and waiting for Chad Ochocinco as he meticulously applied four handfuls of lotion to his face and head, when I decided to check on Welker at the podium. Down the hall, into the room and just arriving at the microphone is not Welker, but Randy Moss.
As I wrote in my Sports Illustrated story for this week, Moss opened with a 551-word soliloquy. (I later became curious: Hamlet's To be or not to be speech is 275 words; the Gettysburg Address is 246 words; Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech comes in at 1,570). Moss subsequently answered 19 questions in a session that lasted just under 16 minutes. (The background is well-known; Moss is in the final year of his contract with the Patriots).
The contents of that interview have been widely disseminated, and it contained no shortage of killer sound bites. Like this one, from Moss's opening speech: "If you do a good job and think that you're doing a good job, you want to be appreciated. I really don't think that, me personally, I'm appreciated. I don't want you all to take anything out of context that I'm saying because I am a man and this is a job. I take my job very seriously, to heart. I want to let you all know and I want to let the fans, the real fans of the New England Patriots know, I'm not here to start any trouble.
"I'm here to play my last year out of my contract," Moss continued. "And I've said time and time again, before I signed my first contract here, I want to be here in New England ... I love being here ... But I just think from a business standpoint, this probably will be my last year here as a Patriot. And I'm not retiring. I'm still going to play some football."
OK. This is old news at this point. And I'll move on. But when Moss was standing at the podium on Sunday (with Welker seated off to the side, awaiting his turn, until he finally walked out of the room, and was later brought back), it was absolutely surreal.
It's true that Moss had not spoken to the media in any significant way since the end of the 2009 season. It's true that Moss had said, earlier in the week in an interview with CBSSports.com that he was "unhappy" with his contract. It's true that he would say this week (Tuesday morning in a phoner with ESPN SportsCenter, "I wanted to get it off my chest until waiting until Week 12, Week 13, on down the road to where it really could become a distraction to our team ..."
Still, the timing of his impromptu presser was almost historically bad. The Patriots had just won impressively. Brady had looked more like the pre-injury Brady with the 18-0 2007 Patriots than the still-rehabbing Brady of last year. The defense, such a concern, had looked young and fast and aggressive (and Belichick presumably hasn't gotten stupid). It was a big day at home and Moss dropped a steaming pile of Me on the whole thing. Horrible.
I walked out of the stadium Sunday night thinking that this was going to be a huge problem for New England, not only Sunday when the Patriots play the suddenly-not-so-hot Jets at the new Meadowlands, but going forward. Classic distraction. Given two days to think about it, I'm not so sure anymore. In fact, I'm leaning the other way. Two reasons: Something Moss said in the press conference and something the late John Matuszak said while playing a character in a movie 31 years ago.
First Moss. It's important to say that while some have taken great pains to describe Moss' attire during his presser -- SF Giants hat over a red do-rag, Dr. Dre headphones around his neck, etc. -- it was nothing out of the ordinary for Moss, or for many players. Also, Moss was not screaming and yelling or going all Denny Green up there. He was measured. (It was still nuts, but Moss wasn't foaming at the mouth). In his second-to-last response, he said this: "This is a business. If you understand the business, then you'll understand where I'm coming from ... This is not football. Football leaves you in college and high school. This is a job."
(When I got back upstairs to the Gillette Stadium press box on Sunday, I ran into old friend Ron Borges of the Boston Herald. Borges referred to Moss as "The last honest man in sports," which I thought was a terrifically insightful description, especially in light of Moss' comments).
Now to Matuszak. In the underrated, borderline-great and highly subsversive 1979 movie, North Dallas Forty the legendary Tooz played an offensive lineman for the North Dallas Bulls named O.W. Shadduck. In the locker room, after a crushing late-season loss to "Chicago," Matuszak confronts an assistant coach played by Charles Durning. (Tooz's big scene comes at 3:45 and runs for about a minute.)
Durning: "This ain't no high school. You don't have to love each to play."
Matuszak: "That's just what I mean, you b------. Every time I call it a game, you call it a business. Every time I call it a business, you call it a game."
In a sense, Moss was channeling Matuszak on Sunday afternoon (although I'm guessing he's never seen North Dallas Forty). Moss' rant, following a huge win on the opening weekend of the season, could not havbe been more poorly-timed. (From a PR standpoint alone, if Moss had waited until Wednesday, he could have owned the news cycle). But the substance of what he was saying about the nature of the game could not have been more true. And that's why the Patriots will be just fine.
On Monday morning, Brady made his contracted weekly appearance on Boston radio station WEEI. This is what he said about Moss: "I'm telling you, every quarterback in the league would want him on your team."
Shortly thereafter, Belichick addressed Moss' comments at his own Monday news conference at the stadium. "I feel the same way as I've felt about Randy for the last three years," said Belichick. "He's a good football player. I'm glad he's on our team. I think he adds a lot to our football team. He has good energy. Everybody likes him and he's fun to have on the team. He's a good player."
The NFL is a divided league (a notion that forms the basis of my story in SI), and I'm not talking about labor issues. There are a teams that do business in the old-school, black-suit-and-wingtips fashion. And there are teams that have decided that loud self-promotion is the way to go. The Patriots are old-school. The Jets are noisy.
This is one of the reasons that Moss' Sunday speech was so discordant. But everything that's happened since -- Brady's support, Belichick's support, Moss' backpedaling on Tuesday -- is classic New England. It's one place in the NFL where a guy like Moss literally can't be a distraction, because the organization is stronger than any individual (except Brady).
But even more important, the Patriots like Moss. Look at the Patriots' postgame celebration after the Bengals win. Moss is not just participating, he's leading. Now this was before his press conference, but nonetheless, there's affection here that's not easily faked.
They like him on the field, too. At age 33, Moss is not the devastating downfield threat that he was five years ago. But as he said Sunday, "My role is to take the ball deep and take the top off the defense." That doesn't mean he has to catch deep ball, he just to be covered running deep route, which helps clear the underneath areas for Welker and the Patriots' deep stable of tight ends. That he can still do.
None of this means Moss will play in New England beyond this year. The Patriots are smart, which means they will not dig excessively deep to sign a 33-year-old wideout who is less explosive by the year. But that's next year. This year Moss will play and the Patriots will be happy to have him. Because it's good business.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Tim Layden's book, "Blood, Sweat and Chalk; The Ultimate Football Playbook; How the Great Coaches Built Today's Game,'' examines the roots of many of football's most iconic offensive and defensive systems. It can be ordered here.