It's a familiar NFLtale: Fading star who dogged it or drugged it or talked his way out of one towngets reborn in another, earning one last chance to erase his past and showthat, really, he's been a winner all along. The latest protagonist is widereceiver Randy Moss, who, after two unproductive years with the woeful OaklandRaiders, has a new lease on life with the three-time champion New EnglandPatriots.
Moss can be a lot of things--petulant, defiant of authority, the first guy tojump off a sinking ship--but stupid he is not. He is 30 now, no longer the Hallof Fame-bound receiver he appeared to be in his first seven seasons, with theMinnesota Vikings. Everyone from Bar Harbor to Block Island will be monitoringhis behavior with the Pats, who acquired him for a fourth-round pick in thedraft two months ago. Every eye in his own locker room will be on him too."He knows if he blows this opportunity," says strong safety anddefensive leader Rodney Harrison, "no team's going to touch him."
Moss needed to showup in New England this spring and make a good impression. In his first sixweeks as a Patriot he has made a great one.
At 2 a.m. on April29 coach Bill Belichick called Moss in Houston and informed him that he wouldhave to accept a $6.25¬†million reduction in his $9.25¬†million basesalary and undergo a physical in Boston within 10 hours if he wanted to be aPatriot. Moss immediately agreed to the pay cut and hired a private plane torush him to New England. He also changed two weeks of personal plans for earlyMay so that he could attend the Pats' off-season program, though he was notordered to do so by Belichick. At New England's Organized TeamActivities--practices without pads that NFL teams hold each spring--Moss felthe was lagging in conditioning drills, so when the Patriots took the last weekof May off, he stayed in Foxborough for four days of aerobic work.
Last week, at thePatriots' minicamp, Moss snagged passes from quarterback Tom Brady before onepractice, bouncing around on the balls of his feet, simulating game action bycatching the ball and tucking it in while other receivers nonchalantly warmedup. "Juices startin' to flow!" he said to Brady. "Oh,yeah!"
The quarterback wasimpressed. "On the second day of OTAs," Brady said at the close ofminicamp, "Randy goes to run a crossing route. He sprints up the field andstarts to make his cut across the field when I throw it. I'm aiming for awindow between two linebackers, but it's not a perfect throw. It's going to bea tough catch to make. And here comes Randy, diving for the ball to come upwith the catch. Here's this 6' 4'', 210-pound guy in shorts and no pads, divingfor a ball in an OTA practice in the middle of May. Who does that? I'm standingback there thinking, Wow. This guy wants it."
That's not the guyOakland saw last year, when Moss cut his routes short, criticized the offenseand had just 42 catches and three touchdowns, both career lows. Thelosses--Oakland was an NFL-worst 6-26 in 2005 and '06--and a balky ankle andknee didn't help his spirits, nor did offensive coordinator Tom Walsh's system.Brought out of retirement by new coach Art Shell, Walsh installed a passingattack based largely on option routes, in which the receiver chooses one of twoor three predetermined patterns depending on the coverage. Every NFL team runssome of these, but because they take time to develop, their popularity hasdeclined precipitously in the face of pressure packages.
"We all knew itwas the wrong system for our team," says Mike Lombardi, the Oakland seniorpersonnel executive who was fired by the Raiders last month. Oakland was 31stin the NFL in passing offense, with seven TDs, fewest since Cincinnati's six in2000. "Running mostly option routes with a new quarterback like [Aaron]Brooks with a big windup, a big strider like Randy, who doesn't changedirections quickly, and a sieve of an offensive line--that's a lethalcombination," says retired wideout Cris Carter, Moss's former Vikingsteammate.
(Asked last week ifhis offense was outdated and detrimental to Moss, Walsh said, "That'spreposterous.")
Lombardi,Cleveland's pro personnel director during Belichick's tenure with the Browns inthe 1990s, was one of a few people the New England coach called whenfact-finding about Moss. Lombardi told him Moss would play hard and play well."This is a steal," Lombardi said last week, "a home run. Randy'snot about making his money. He's about trying to get his credibilityback."
Moss started with astrategically placed locker at Gillette Stadium--deep in the back, betweenBrady and nonroster veteran quarterback Vinny Testaverde. "That's wheresome butterflies came in," Moss says of the new environs. He was issuedjersey number 6--he wore 84 in Minnesota and 18 in Oakland--because there wasnothing in the 80s available when he arrived and because he truly doesn't carewhat's on his back. "Just give me a number," he told an equipment man."I'll make the number."
On the practicefield last week Moss lined up split wide left or right in a Patriots receivingcorps that is almost completely new. Free agent Donte' Stallworth, formerly ofthe New Orleans Saints and the Philadelphia Eagles, often lined up on theopposite side of Moss, with hard-nosed former Miami Dolphin Wes Welker,acquired in March for second- and seventh-round picks, in the slot. "That'sthe underrated acquisition right there," Harrison says of Welker. "Hegave us more problems than any player in our division. Quick, smart, fast,never dropped a ball. We couldn't single-cover him."
Says Moss, "Iam blessed to be in this offense."
So far, thePatriots are pleased with Moss's mobility and speed, and the receiver says hislegs feel fine. On one play during 11-on-11 work, free safety Eugene Wilsonlined up inches from Moss on the line, ready to jam him. At the snap Mosstwitched right, then left before sprinting right past a flat-footed Wilson andinto the open. "I can tell you Randy Moss is still Randy Moss," Wilsonsaid after that practice. "He definitely has not slowed down from the guyhe's been."
It's June, ofcourse, and there are no pads and no hitting. And no friction. Moss and thePats are in full honeymoon mode. The question no one can answer is: Will itlast?
The smart moneysays Moss will be the NFL bargain of '07. He's always performed well when he'sbeen healthy and his team has had a chance to win. He appears motivated toprove that the Oakland years were an aberration. He thrived with the Vikingsunder Dennis Green, indicating he can coexist with an authority figure likeBelichick. The key will be whether Moss gives a full effort on every play,especially those on which he's not the primary receiver. Brady might go to histhird or fourth read 10 times in a game, something Daunte Culpepper rarely didin Minnesota and Kerry Collins and Brooks did even less in Oakland. If Mossdogs it, he'll find himself on the wrong side of Belichick--and of Brady,who'll read any teammate the riot act. But if Moss sees the end zone enough,that shouldn't happen. "Touchdowns are paramount with Randy," Cartersays. "He definitely does not need to catch 90 balls."
Says Brady, "Sofar he's fit in as well as you'd ever expect in the locker room and inmeetings. It looks like we've got a hardworking group, very unselfish.Sometimes, in this offense, the important thing is to do stuff so other guyscan make catches. And the culture of our team has been very good that way. Whenyou put this uniform on, you don't care about catches or stats. All you careabout are Super Bowl rings. That's the standard we set."
Now, Moss has achance to prove he's a shut-up-and-play team guy. Whether he does will be oneof the most intriguing story lines of the 2007 season.
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Moss might not be the main target in a rebuilt wideout corps--but as long as hegoes all out, New England will be happy.
Brady (far left) was impressed with the energy that Moss (6) brought topractice.
The often outspoken Moss said all the right things to the horde at minicamp,but the scrutiny won't end there.