When the news came down, everyone stopped.
ESPN broke into its programming. Ditto for the NFL Network, which, in a surreal touch straight out of a Stanley Kubrick movie, had broadcaster Randy Moss delivering the news about a trade of Randy Moss. “Randy Moss” was a trending topic on Twitter. It was the latest reminder that, no matter the environment, even in his 13th season, you cannot help but pay attention to Randy Moss.
Moss, who was officially dealt to the Vikings yesterday along with a seventh-round pick in 2012 for a third-round selection in 2011, ends his three-plus seasons in New England as one of the finest receivers ever to put on a Patriots uniform. He caught 50 touchdown passes in 51 regular-season games in New England, including an NFL-record 23 in 2007. He was an unparalleled vertical threat, and a big reason the Patriots stood on the cusp of history that February night in the desert two years ago.
The sendoff from coach Bill Belichick was befitting a player who had spent his entire career in New England.
“Over the course of the past several months, I have spoken with Randy and his representative about Randy’s place on our team and his future in football,” the coach said in a statement issued by the team. “Consistent with my dealings with Randy from the day we acquired him through our conversation this morning, it has been honest, thoughtful and with great mutual respect.
“While I will keep private the details of internal conversations with players and staff, suffice it to say that many things were taken into consideration before making the trade. In this business, there are complex and often difficult decisions, but it is my responsibility to make them based on what I feel is best for our football team, in both the short term and long term. I am grateful for the opportunity to have coached Randy Moss and aside from facing him as an opponent, I wish him the very best for the remainder of his Hall of Fame career.”
Few athletes in the history of New England sports have commanded the spotlight like Moss. Even though he wasn’t the same receiver statistically the last two seasons, you never took your eyes off him. No matter his situation, if you were a defensive coordinator facing the Patriots, you always worried about him. Whether it was because of the threat of the deep ball or his ability to draw the secondary, his every move commanded attention. It was impossible not to pay attention to Moss. Ever.
However, when it comes to assessing Moss’s place in Patriots’ history, it isn’t that easy. While the astounding numbers cannot be denied — 3,904 yards and the 50 touchdown receptions in three-plus years — with Moss, it’s always been complicated.
He was jaw-droppingly great — for coaches and players who saw him every day in practice, the incredible became mundane when talking about the wideout. After his astounding one-handed touchdown grab against Darrell Revis earlier this season, Belichick practically yawned, saying, “It was a terrific catch, but we’ve seen that play in practice probably a dozen times.”
However, he was never easy to understand. A complex character, he was a bundle of contradictions. His teammates — on and off the record — raved about him, his football knowledge and how well he knew the game, about how he was like an extra coach on the field, and worked with rookies after practice. At the same time, there were also contradictory incidents like LateGate that left his biggest supporters shaking their heads. He talked about loving the Patriots, but then delivered an ill-timed soliloquy about his contract situation moments after the season opener. And now, there are reports of difficult behavior in the final days of his Patriots career, which included an in-game confrontation with quarterbacks coach Bill O’Brien.
His on-field performance will be remembered as one of the great three-year stretches for any wide receiver in the history of the NFL. Check out this paragraph from colleague Kirk Minihane after the Week 1 win over the Bengals: “Moss' 47 TD grabs are 12 more than any other player in the league over the last three years (Larry Fitzgerald has 35, and he's the only other player in the league with more than 30 over that span). It's more than Jerry Rice ever put up in three straight seasons. It's four more than the Buffalo Bills have thrown over the last three seasons. Actually the Jets are the only AFC East team (not counting the Pats, of course) to throw more TDs than Moss has caught since 2007 — and they are ahead by two. The Dolphins and Moss are tied at 47.”
But as it has always been with Moss, the answer to the question, “What’s his legacy?” isn’t that simple. When it comes to Moss and the Patriots, it’s never been simple.
"I think history will remember Moss in New England as a guy the Patriots rented for a few years to try and sustain their championship run,” said Mike Tanier of the analytical web site Football Outsiders. “He may even get blamed for things that were beyond his control, like the Super Bowl loss or the year without Brady. That's a little unfair, but unfortunately, that's the kind of legacy a guy like Moss brings on himself."
Here are two other things we learned during a remarkable 24 hours in Patriots history:
THE DEPARTURE OF MOSS MARKS THE END OF AN ERA IN THE PATRIOTS LOCKER ROOM
The positive locker room infrastructure that was created in the early days of the 21st century meant New England could take a chance on someone with some baggage. Like the 49ers of the previous generation (who brought in players like the occasionally combustible Rickey Watters or Deion Sanders), the Patriots were able to take a chance on questionable veterans because of the solid locker room framework they had in place.
The Patriots could afford to make questionable personnel decisions — decisions that would hamstring other teams — because of the respect and stature garnered by their locker room leaders. Those chances paid off when Corey Dillon had a career year in 2004, and Moss did the same in 2007. But with the passage of time, the culture of the New England locker room has started to change. Because so many of those respected pillars have transitioned out of the franchise over the last few seasons, it’s simply no longer the sort of place that can support a player like Moss.
For what it’s worth, there are still players who commanded respect from the receiver, including Brady and Kevin Faulk and Vince Wilfork, but even those respected veterans were unable to publicly silence Moss’s simmering discontent over his contract situation, so much so that three ex-teammates — Rodney Harrison, Troy Brown and Tedy Bruschi — all agreed that Moss had become too big a distraction for the Patriots to continue.
There will be another generation of leaders in the New England locker room, but given the current state of the locker room, it appears unlikely that they will be able to replicate the same sort of risk-assuming infrastructure in the foreseeable future.
THE PATRIOTS PASSING GAME IS NOW GOING TO GO OLD-SCHOOL
For the rest of the 2010 season, it certainly appears the Patriots are ready to take a page from the offensive formula that made them so successful throughout the early part of the decade — a true spread-the-wealth style that includes multiple tight end sets. It’s a look that worked for them offensively in the earlier part of the decade, and one they’ll likely rely on going forward.
What that means is there will be fewer deep shots down the field. The electric, highlight-reel era of Brady-to-Moss is done, and the yards per catch average of the Patriots as a team (which currently stands at 10.7) should dip. But in baseball parlance, while there will be fewer home runs, expect more singles and doubles in the form of short and intermediate routes, with a focus on receivers like Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The Patriots offense will shift to more of a ball-control look that’s focused on slowing the action down, controlling the tempo and forcing teams to try and stop their short game.
“What I think the Patriots will do is go back to their early-decade offense — you can already see that with all of the multi-tight end sets they are running,” Tanier said. “I think there’s going to be a much greater emphasis on ball control, and that will serve them better against opponents like the Jets, Ravens, and Steelers in the AFC.”
Former Moss teammate and ESPN analyst Cris Carter said the Patriots will have to reach back into their not-so-distant past if they want to be a success going forward.
“You have to remember, they broke all the (offensive) scoring records, but they haven’t won any championships the last three years,” Carter said. “When they won their championships, they were a grind-it-out football team on offense, with a very inexperienced quarterback. They can grind it out now and have one of the best — you’re talking about spot routes and hitting people on target — Brady, he can do that. He was just playing at a stratosphere level when he had Randy, because he could pick them apart and still take the deep stuff.
“When they won championships, they were rock solid in the return game and their special teams,” Carter said. “The kick game was at an elite level and offensively, they were just able to grind it out. That’s the kind of team that Belichick is going to have to try to put on the football field because that’s the kind of personnel he has.”