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How Good Can Randy Moss Be?

Sept. 02, 2002
Sept. 02, 2002

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Sept. 2, 2002

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Photo Credits: Damian Strohmeyer

How Good Can Randy Moss Be?

The Vikings have set up their franchise receiver for a monster season, but they can only pray that he will control his anger and let his good side shine through

"You've got two questions, homey, maybe one and a half," Randy
Moss says as he sprints off the practice field, forcing me to
scramble after him like a rookie cornerback he's just burned on
a post pattern. Cue the Jeopardy! theme. Covering the distance
from the indoor field to the locker room at the Minnesota
Vikings' training facility takes about 30 seconds, and my head
is spinning the whole time. What happened to the 30 minutes that
coach Mike Tice had promised Moss would give me? Do I lob the
star wideout a softball question, perhaps musing about the
records he might set this season in the Vikings' revamped,
Randy-centric offense? Do I go Ted Koppel and grill him on his
infamous "I play when I want to play" comment—the one that made
him the poster child last season for all that is wrong with
professional sports? Or do I shoot for the Super Lotto Plus
jackpot and try to compel the recalcitrant receiver to bare his
soul and tap into his inner Kierkegaard?

This is an article from the Sept. 2, 2002 issue

Moss puts one foot on the bench in front of his locker and stares
at me. "O.K.," he says, "shoot."

I come with this convoluted question-and-a-half: You're a guy
who has said and done a lot of controversial things, and people
have formed some strong opinions. Are they getting the right
impression of you, and if they aren't, does that bother you?

"HAY-ell no," Moss booms in his West Virginia twang. "Why should
I worry about what people think? I've got everything I
need—everything I'll ever need. It's not my fault that people
don't know me. Look, I'm going to speak my mind, no matter what
the consequences are. The things I do speak might come out
different in terms of language, but when I say something, I
speak my mind." The interview lasts a half hour.

For all of the bedazzling deeds that have distinguished his
four-year NFL career, Moss is instead marked by his words. Seven
words, to be exact—I play when I want to play—a statement
uttered in an interview last November, in the midst of
Minnesota's 2-8 nosedive to finish the season, and repeated
later in the year. Not since George Carlin blurted out his
hilarious list of profanities unsuitable for television in the
early 1970s have seven words caused such a stir.

"When I heard Randy's words, I was angry, hurt, sick to my
stomach," says Vikings owner Red McCombs, who four months
earlier had given Moss an eight-year, $75 million contract
extension that included an $18 million signing bonus. "I knew
he'd get tagged with it forever, because that's the way it
works, and that's the way it should be. It will never go away,
and Randy understands that. He's paid for it, and he'll pay for
it the rest of his life."

Something had to give in Minnesota, and so much did. Longtime
coach Dennis Green was forced out with a week left in the
season, and a former Moss mentor, veteran wideout Cris Carter,
was not re-signed. Tice, a Vikings assistant for six seasons,
has hitched his offense and his coaching fortunes to the
25-year-old Moss, who has seemingly changed for the better,
improving his once spotty work habits and acting like a team
leader. Unlike in past years, Moss spent much of his spring and
summer in Minnesota, participating in the team's off-season
workout program and showing leadership on the practice field and
in the locker room. "Cris talked a lot in the huddle and on the
sideline, and now I've seen Randy doing more of that," says Matt
Birk, the Vikings' Pro Bowl center. "Ultimately, you have to
lead by example, but I've seen him working a lot harder in
training camp this year."

Meet the new Moss—same as the old Moss? Given that a year ago
Birk and several others were making similar comments about
Moss's newfound maturity, how do we know the Vikings won't get
fooled again?

Moss's career has been marked by sporadic childish behavior,
such as his squirting an official with a water bottle during
Minnesota's 1999 divisional playoff loss to the St. Louis Rams
and appearing to quit in the Vikings' 41-0 loss to the New York
Giants in the 2000 NFC Championship Game. Those seven words he
said last fall, however, transcended football. By flouting the
integrity of the game and insulting the paying customer to boot,
Moss became something other than quarterback Daunte Culpepper's
favorite target. He was castigated as a blight to his team, his
sport and his generation.

Carter scolded him publicly, as did luminaries around the league
such as Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre. Minnesota
state senator Dean Johnson wrote a letter to Vikings executive
vice president Mike Kelly stating that Moss's behavior had made
it "increasingly difficult for me to justify to my
constituents...my support of your team and the construction of a
new stadium."

It's one thing when a goody-goody like Rams quarterback Kurt
Warner takes a shot at you in his autobiography, but when one of
your fellow NFL bad boys chimes in, you've reached another level
entirely. "Some things should be kept to themselves, and a
comment like that will isolate you from your teammates," says
San Francisco 49ers wideout Terrell Owens, who like Moss often
obscures his supreme talent with vexing behavior. Then,
borrowing from the folk proverb, Owens adds, "It's better to be
thought of as a fool than to speak and remove all doubt."

Then there is Kyle Turley, the New Orleans Saints' All-Pro
tackle, who last November all but cemented his team's loss to
the New York Jets by ripping the helmet off safety Damien
Robinson's head and hurling it across the field. "As a player, I
like Randy Moss—he's got incredible talent, and I think he's
nasty," Turley says. "But if he was on my team and he pulled the
s--- he pulls, I'd walk up to him on the sideline and punch him
right in the f------ face."

Green's late-season departure was spurred not only by the team's
worst record (5-11) in 17 years but also by the coach's
inability to keep his star in check. There was even talk within
the organization of exposing Moss to the Houston Texans in the
expansion draft. Instead, out went Carter, the future Hall of
Famer whose relationship with Moss had eroded. In came Tice, who
as offensive line coach had forged a healthy connection with
Moss from the receiver's rookie season.

Selected with the 21st pick of the 1998 draft after off-field
transgressions had scared away teams that might have taken him in
the top 10, Moss reported to training camp that year feeling
stressed and insecure. "I ran out for my first practice," he
recalls, "and Tice called me over to give him five. He told me,
'Just keep doing things right, and you're going to be a player.'
I appreciated that."

The perception was that Tice, after one game as interim coach,
was given a three-year deal last January because he convinced
McCombs he could control Moss. "No," says Moss. "Mike Tice got
the job because he and Randy Moss can get along. Nobody controls
me but my mama and God."

One thing Tice can control is how often Moss gets the ball,
which seems to be the biggest factor in how the wideout
determines whether he wants to play on a given day. Consequently
the Vikings have been rebuilt around Moss. During interviews to
fill the offensive coordinator's job, Tice asked candidates to
demonstrate how they would design a game plan to utilize Moss.
The man Tice hired, Scott Linehan, devised a two-tight-end
scheme in which Moss will play all three receiver positions
(flanker, split end and slot) and be put in motion frequently.

Though he had a career-best 82 catches last season, Moss had his
least impressive campaign in terms of yards (1,233) and
touchdowns (10). He failed to make the Pro Bowl for the first
time, but that may have been part of the backlash against his
seven words. Now Tice is so excited about Moss's possibilities
that he speaks openly of an assault on three NFL single-season
receiving records: Herman Moore's 123 catches and Jerry Rice's
1,848 yards and 22 touchdowns.

To Tice, the most important number is the percentage of Minnesota
passes thrown in Moss's direction. Last year, Tice says, the
Vikings were 4-1 in games in which that figure was at least 40%
and 1-10 when it wasn't. Moss swears he's not as obsessed with
getting the ball as the rest of us think. "I just want to win,"
he insists. "But if it's early in the game and the team's not
doing well, I get frustrated when I don't get the ball, because I
think I can spark the team and get the crowd into it."

There are other misconceptions that Moss says he would like to
clear up—well, at least attempt to clear up. "I don't think
people get the meaning of 'I play when I want to play,'" he says.
"You think a guy like Randy Moss is going to blow off a game, as
much as I love football? Really, I'm just being smart. I'm not
going to go full speed every time when I don't need to. I'm
trying to set DBs up and to save myself for the 'six.'"

Does this mean he regrets having made the statement? "Hell, no,"
he says, "because I still play when I want to play. I do what I
want, homey."

It's a rainy day at Bethpage Black on Long Island, and Tiger
Woods is about to make the turn in the second round of the U.S.
Open when my cellphone rings. "Yo, it's Randy," Moss says in his
familiar twang. "You know that interview we did?"

"Uh-huh."

"I want to do it over."

I'm unsure whether to laugh or cry. During our half-hour
conversation at camp I'd scribbled madly the whole time and
gotten a wealth of information. A do-over might do me in. "Was
there anything specific you said that you're worried about?" I
ask.

"Nah, I don't even remember what the hell I said. Let's do it
again over the phone."

At times like this Moss projects a naivete that is startling yet
endearing. Sure, the guy goes clubbing with Culpepper, his
closest friend on the team since the sudden death last summer of
tackle Korey Stringer. But Moss, who grew up in Rand, W.Va.,
sounds convincing when he says, "I'm a country boy who hasn't
really been exposed to city living, and it throws me." Later,
when asked if he was prepared for the intrasquad dynamics he
encountered upon joining Minnesota, Moss replies, "Hell, no.
It's frustrating how political this damn game is."

A separate article could be devoted to analyzing the wrangling
within the Vikings' castle last season. For the purposes of this
story, realize that few NFL players of this era have been as
politically savvy as the 36-year-old Carter, who retired this
spring after shopping around the league for a free-agent
contract. After Moss emerged in 1998 with one of the NFL's most
dominant rookie seasons ever, Carter actively cultivated an
image as Moss's mentor and served as his de facto press liaison.
"I don't think Randy liked that," says Oakland Raiders wideout
Matthew Hatchette, who was Moss's road roommate with Minnesota
in '98. It's true that Moss benefited tangibly from Carter's
tutelage—they became off-season workout partners, for
example—but, says Tice, "I don't know that Cris necessarily
helped him with his media presence. You don't say under your
breath, 'Don't mess with those people,' if you really want to
help."

After the team's meltdown in the 2000 NFC title game, the bond
between Moss and Carter frayed. Sideline tirades by the two
became commonplace last year, and as the season dragged on Carter
tried to instill the discipline he felt had lapsed under Green.
(Green did not respond to SI's interview requests.) Several
Vikings, however, say they're glad to see Carter gone. Some claim
Carter sulked when the ball wasn't thrown his way, even after
Minnesota had driven for a touchdown.

"I know most people think we're upset that Cris is gone and that
Randy is a pain in the ass," says one Viking. "But the guys are
quite happy Randy's the one who's here. I can't find one guy in
this locker room to take up for Cris."

Other than acknowledging Carter's willingness to portray himself
as a mentor—"If he wants to claim the fame," Moss says, "I'll let
him claim it"—Moss makes a point of not discussing his former
teammate by name. Yet it's not hard to extrapolate when Moss
says, "We've had a lot of b.s. the last two seasons that messed
this team up and kept us from competing for a championship, and
we got rid of some of that b.s. over the off-season. I never
experienced anything like last year, and I can't imagine anything
worse."

Carter declined to comment on Moss but did say he's not surprised
that he's being portrayed as the villain. "What did they say
about Jerry Rice when he left San Francisco?" Carter says. "It's
the same type of situation with me. That's what we do in sport—we
sensationalize everything, and everyone who's gone is bad."

Perhaps it's not surprising that Moss's initial "I play when I
want to play" statement came in response to this question from
Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman: Does
Cris Carter get you fired up? Though this is a case where an
athlete might rightfully have claimed that his quote was deprived
of its full context, Moss declined to do so two weeks later
during a conference call with writers who cover the Tennessee
Titans, saying, "Hell, no. That s--- is what I said." Says
McCombs, "I had told him, 'You need to tell those guys you made a
mistake.' But he's got so much of that street macho that he
couldn't bring himself to do it."

Then Moss got nastier, saying that if fans hassled him, he'd
"lose thought of being Randy Moss the football player and go to
Randy Moss the street person." This came from a player who had
already been fined $15,000 by the Vikings for verbally abusing
sponsors aboard a team bus. (Last season the NFL also fined Moss
a total of $25,000 for three taunting-related incidents.)

Suddenly Moss was being booed at home games, and the league had a
public relations nightmare on its hands. "The NFL p.r. people
have to be cringing," says Carolina Panthers tackle Todd
Steussie, a former Vikings All-Pro. "When he said he plays when
he wants to play, it had all kinds of bad implications. I'm not
even going to say the word, but it starts with a g and ends with
an i-n-g. I mean, are we talking Las Vegas?"

Moss swears his passion for football is sincere. "I'm one of the
most competitive guys in the NFL," he says. "Believe me, nobody
wants it more than me." Friends still tease him about the
aftermath of his last high school game, a close loss in the state
semifinals, when, he says, "I cried on my mom's shoulder, because
I wanted to win it so bad." His list of NFL heroes might surprise
you: Walter Payton, Barry Sanders and Jerry Rice, all symbols of
hard work and valor. Moss is proud that despite various injuries,
including a chronically sore right ankle that has bothered him
since he entered the league, he has never missed a game.

Sometimes Moss lets his guard down and his sensitivity seeps
through. In August 2001, after Stringer collapsed and died of
heat-related complications, the receiver's tearful, despondent
reaction humanized him to many observers. Moss believes that the
team's subsequent collapse on the field was predictable given
the tragedy, and that critics, particularly in the media, seemed
all too gleeful in the face of the Vikings' demise. "I'm talking
about death," he says. "Write that down: D-E-A-T-H. You don't
bounce back from that in days. It takes years."

Near the end of our second interview, the subject turns to the
officials. "There's one ref that I want to kill, but I can't kill
him until I retire," Moss says matter-of-factly. "He made a bad
call that kept me from getting to the Super Bowl."

His words hang there before I decide to give him a do-over: "When
you say you want to kill this guy, you don't really mean that, do
you?"

"No," Moss says. "Not kill him literally."

Before the call ends, I revisit my original line of questioning
about what misconceptions people might have about him. "I guess
that I'm a bad guy, which I'm not," he says. "I know I have a
reputation to protect, and it's not just me--I'm also representing
a multimillion-dollar franchise and my family. So if sometimes I
say things I regret, I've got to pay for it."

The only question now is, Will the rest of the league pay?