There are a lot of long faces in New England today. The Patriots just dumped one of the most prolific receivers in the history of the game, trading Randy Moss to Minnesota for a third-round draft pick in 2011.
Admittedly, it's an odd fire-sale deal on the surface. Something happened behind the scenes that hasn't been made public yet, and maybe never will. But we'll leave the speculation to the talk-radio circuit, the factless blogosphere and the fervent fans, who, sadly, let their emotions cloud the crystalline wisdom of the Cold, Hard Football Facts.
And the Cold, Hard Football Facts are these: Wide receivers, even the all-time great wide receivers, are little more than shiny hood ornaments on NFL offenses. The best teams throughout history might have looked better with one of these glossy hood ornaments glistening in the Sunday sun, but they never needed them to run well.
We made this point in January, after the Patriots were embarrassed by Baltimore, 33-14, in the wild-card round. Now it seems New England management is in lock-step with the Cold, Hard Football Facts.
Consider the 1960s Packers. They won five titles and never had a 1,000-yard receiver, despite dominating the highest-scoring decade in NFL history. The 1970s Steelers won four Super Bowls with just a single 1,000-yard receiving season (John Stallworth in 1979). The 1990s Cowboys had Michael Irvin, but look at The Playmaker's numbers: He caught 10 TD passes just once in his career.
San Francisco Hall of Famer Jerry Rice was a classic example of a hood-ornament receiver. Best wideout in modern history? Sure. Won three Super Bowls. Played huge in big games. Owns every receiving record in the books. But he didn't make the 49ers great. He joined a dynasty in progress: he was drafted by the defending Super Bowl champs, a team that dominated the NFL with a 15-1 record in 1984. San Francisco's top wideout in that nearly perfect 1984 season? Dwight Clark, with 52 catches for 880 yards.
Moss is a classic example of a hood-ornament receiver, too. He is one of the best wideouts in history; and certainly one of the great downfield threats in history. His 151 TD receptions, second only to Rice, say it all. But the Patriots didn't need Moss to race across the finish line first three times from 2001 to 2004 and lose out on a photo finish in 2006. And they obviously never drove the distance with him, either.
At the end of the day, the Patriots were a better team without Moss. Or, at the very least, they were a much better playoff team, and a much better playoff offense, before Moss arrived on the scene.
Sacrilege, you say? No way.
In fact, there are no two sides to the argument; no way any rational person can look at the evidence, look at the Cold, Hard Football Facts, and conclude that the Tom Brady Era Patriots were a better team after they acquired Moss.
Sure, they were a better offense, at times, with Moss, especially in 2007. The Brady-Moss battery lit up the NFL and the record books in 2007, with a truly spectacular season for the ages. You know the story: Brady set a record with 50 TD passes; Moss set a record with 23 TD receptions; the Patriots set a record with 589 points while becoming the first 16-0 team in history. But the season ended in disaster: a 17-14 loss to the Giants -- the most spectacular statistical upset in NFL history.
The Tom Brady Era Patriots didn't suffer those kinds of playoff implosions in the days before Moss. They were a better and more consistent postseason offense, and a better playoff team, period, in the days before Moss. Not blaming Moss for the downfall. Maybe it's just coincidence. But you can't help but notice the difference.
The Tom Brady Era Patriots
• Went 12-2 in the playoffs before Moss• Went 2-2 in the playoffs with Moss
• Won three Super Bowls before Moss• Won zero Super Bowls with Moss
• Averaged 25.3 PPG in the playoffs before Moss• Averaged 20.8 PPG in the playoffs with Moss
So which was the better playoff team? The club that went 12-2, won three Super Bowls and averaged 25.3 PPG; or the club that went 2-2, won zero Super Bowls and averaged 20.8 PPG? The answer is obvious. The Patriots were a record-setting playoff team in the days before Moss. They were just an ordinary playoff team with Moss.
Brady was certainly a better postseason quarterback in the early days, too. Whether coincidence or not, we don't know. But we do know that one set of playoff data, one set of Cold, Hard Football Facts, is better than the other.
The numbers are rather shocking: Brady had a reputation as a dink-and-dunk kind of quarterback in his early days. The numbers support the reputation: his 6.6 YPA in the 14 pre-Moss playoff games was just below the leaguewide average of about 6.8 to 6.9 YPA.
But Brady also dink-and-dunked his way to 10 straight playoff wins at one point, three Super Bowl victories, a pair of Super Bowl MVP awards, a pair of last-second, game-winning Super Bowl drives, and a record 32 completions in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Considering the Patriots seemed to play half their postseason games in snow, rain or bone-chilling cold, the numbers are pretty decent. They were certainly good enough to win consistently.
But with Moss, the quarterback's numbers suffered badly: Brady was, at one point, the least-intercepted passer in postseason history. But he suffered not one but two three-pick playoff games with Moss as his battery mate (vs. San Diego in the 2007 AFC title game; vs. Baltimore in the 2009 wild-card round).
More amazingly, Brady and Moss simply could not get the ball down the field in the playoffs. Moss was supposed to be the greatest downfield threat in history. But Brady's 5.9 YPA average with Moss is incredibly poor, well below his very good career regular-season average of 7.3 YPA.
And Moss was a no-show. In four playoff games with the Patriots, he caught 12 passes for 142 yards and 1 TD. That was one day of work for Deion Branch in the playoffs -- back when New England was winning championships. Put another way: the explosive Brady-Moss battery of the regular season was a major-league dud in the postseason.
Two postseasons best illustrate the difference between the pre- and with-Moss Patriots:
Consider the 2004 postseason. The Patriots scored 437 points during the regular season. Then they walked into Pittsburgh for the AFC title game to face a raucous crowd, the bitter cold, the top-ranked scoring defense in football and a great Steelers team that went 15-1 in the regular season.
The Patriots destroyed Pittsburgh that night. They hung 41 points on the mighty Steelers (34 offensive points) in the greatest postseason offensive effort in franchise history. The effort was paced by a career performance from Branch, who torched the league's best defense for four catches, 116 yards, 29.0 YPC and one TD. Branch followed up that effort with 11 catches for 133 yards while earning Super Bowl MVP honors in a victory over a great Eagles team.
Now consider the 2007 Patriots. They went 16-0 and scored more points than any other team in history (589). But they struggled to move the ball in the AFC title game, eking out a 21-12 home victory over San Diego and its injured quarterback, Philip Rivers. Moss was a no-show: one catch for 18 yards, just weeks after finishing the regular-season with a record 23 TD receptions.
The Patriots offense followed that effort with arguably the greatest postseason choke job in history: after scoring 36.8 PPG in the regular season, they scored a meager 14 points against a Giants club that had gone just 10-6 in the regular season.
Moss made an impact, but hardly a big one for a player considered among the greatest receivers ever: he caught five passes for 62 yards and 1 TD (to his credit, a go-ahead TD late in the fourth quarter).
But at the end of the day, the offense failed to show up for the biggest game of the year, and the shiny hood ornament could do little to aid the team in its time of need.
Maybe you remember how the 2009 season ended, too: The Patriots were destroyed by the Ravens, 33-14, the team's first home playoff loss since 1978. The Brady-Moss battery was a dud ... again. Brady had the worst playoff game of his career (23-for-42, 54.8 percent, 154 yards, a dreadful 3.7 YPA, 2 TD, 3 INT, 49.1 passer rating).
Moss? Five catches, 48 yards, zero TD, zero impact on the outcome of a playoff game. Again.
We don't believe trading Moss makes the Patriots a better team. There's no way we can make that judgment at this point. But we do know this: The Patriots ran better and faster, and crossed the finish line first more often, especially in the playoffs, before they put the shiny chrome ornament on the hood of one of the great postseason teams in history.