Was Moss worth the headaches? His Hall of Fame numbers say yes

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Randy Moss should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. I believe this firmly, as a guy who watches an inordinate amount of football, who covers the game, and who does not have, deserve, or want a Hall of Fame vote. For most of the last 14 years, nobody could keep Moss out of the end zone. How can you keep him out of the Hall of Fame?

Yes, I absolutely think Moss should be inducted in his first year of eligibility. But I suspect he might have to wait. And on some level, that is fitting. In fact, I can't think of anything that would sum up Randy Moss's extraordinary career better than being denied first-ballot induction to the Hall of Fame.

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There have been a lot of controversial players on NFL Draft day -- every year brings a couple of new ones. It's part of the overdone drama of that overcooked event. Brady Quinn sat in the green room for so long that it turned brown. ESPN spent weeks dissecting Tim Tebow's game, leadership skills and 2036 presidential candidacy.

But we still haven't seen anything quite like the controversy surrounding Randy Moss in 1998. Nobody doubted his pure talent. Nobody said "Well, in the right system ... " or "If he can overcome his lack of ... " This was a 6-foot-4 receiver who was the fastest man on the field and caught pretty much everything.

No, the controversy was always about his character. The question was uttered a million times: Is he worth it?

He'd had an incident with a girlfriend in high school. Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz wanted him desperately, but Moss was denied admission -- that might have been the event that triggered Holtz's resignation. Florida State took Moss, but he got kicked out for smoking pot.

Moss ended up at Marshall, which wasn't even in Division I-A at the time. His career there felt like a cartoon -- the NCAA could have allowed cornerbacks to carry handcuffs and pepper spray and they wouldn't have stopped Moss. He became a Heisman finalist -- as a receiver from Marshall! -- and even managed to cause controversy there. He wore sunglasses to the indoor awards ceremony. The staid NFL averted its eyes. Is he worth it?

Moss famously fell to the 21st overall pick of that draft, to the Vikings.

This week, he retired with numbers that should make the draft-day argument seem silly: 954 catches, 14,858 yards, 153 touchdowns. But that's the strange thing about Randy Moss. The argument never ended. It just got louder.

In his rookie year, playing a position that is notoriously difficult for first-year players, Moss might have been the most valuable player in the whole league. He had no chance of winning the award, of course. But look: The year before, the Vikings averaged 22 points per game and finished 9-7. They had a new quarterback (35-year-old Randall Cunningham, instead of Brad Johnson) and added Moss. They suddenly had the best offense in league history and should have made the Super Bowl. (They lost to the Falcons in overtime in the NFC title game).

Moss was still considered a jerk, kept in line only by Carter and coach Dennis Green. Sometimes people tried to change the narrative about Moss -- he's matured, he's mellowed, he's not the guy you think he was.

But I don't think Moss ever really changed. He never stopped being moody. He never learned to trust the media. He always coasted when he didn't think a pass was coming his way -- and sometimes coasted when a pass did come his way.

When he had a decent team and quarterback, he was an All-Pro -- he probably changed as many defensive game plans as any receiver in history. When he didn't, like in Oakland, he was a lousy teammate.

Moss didn't change. But I think the sports world changed. The way we watch football changed. Across all sports, fans saw more highlights and became far more statistically savvy than they had ever been. After years of screaming about low-character guys, we looked more at performance. Fantasy football exploded, and there are no loafing deductions in fantasy football.

In April 2007, the Patriots acquired Moss from the Raiders for a fourth-round pick. He was only 30 years old. He was only one year removed from a 60-catch, 1,005-yard season for a Raiders team that had lousy offensive weapons. I think the average fan saw that trade and thought the Patriots got a steal. And yet: all the Raiders got for him was that fourth-round pick. NFL teams obviously still asked: Is he worth it?

Well, he caught 23 touchdown passes that year and helped the Patriots win 18 straight games. Two years later he was grumbling about his contract again. When he got traded back to the Vikings last year, he immediately started griping about game plans, lashing out at coaches and, in a widely reported incident, chewed out a caterer. The Vikings cut him.

Was he worth it? Moss starred on teams that finished 15-1 (the '98 Vikings) and 16-0 (those '07 Patriots), the two highest-scoring offenses in the Super Bowl era. He played for six playoff teams in 14 years. He has 15 more touchdown catches than Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress combined.

Every statistical measurement of Moss's career indicates that he is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But something tells me the old-school voters will make him wait. They will look at his history of taking plays off and looking out for himself and hold that against him.

Eventually, though, the Hall of Fame voters will have to accept what fans figured out and NFL teams reluctantly accepted: like him or hate him, Randy Moss was just too damn good. They made him wait until the 21st pick in 1998, but they will have to let him into the Hall of Fame. That should be a fascinating ceremony. Especially if he skips it.