“I don’t really live on numbers. I really live on impact, and what you’re able to do out on that field. So I really do think I’m the greatest receiver ever to play this game.” -- Randy Moss, at Tuesday's Super Bowl media day
No, Randy, you’re not.
It’s not a surprise to hear him say this -- Moss is wired differently than just about any human being on the face of the earth, and I say that with nothing but admiration. He has a rock-solid belief in his skill set. If he was working as a landscaper, he’d say he was the best damn landscaper in the world, and pull out that separation move he loves doing after finishing a new lawn. (Straight grass, homey?) But to say that in a world where Jerry Rice exists, well, it’s flat-out incorrect.
In his defense, Moss can lay claim to the fact that he had the best year for any receiver in NFL history of the game. In fact, in 2007, the Randy Moss-Tom Brady combo was the best quarterback-receiver duo ever. Better than Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry, Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swann, Joe Montana (and later, Steve Young) and Jerry Rice. That season, Brady had 50 touchdown passes, and won the MVP. Moss set a record with 23 touchdowns, breaking Rice’s record of 22 (although, Rice set the mark of 22 in the strike-shortened season of 1987), to go along with 98 catches for 1,493 yards. The receptions or the yardage weren’t his career best -- that came in 2003 when he had 111 catches for 1,632 yards and 17 touchdowns -- but the level of dominance -- and to his point, impact -- he and Brady displayed in 2007 was enough to make it the finest season of his career. To put his impact into perspective that season, Moss accounted for 138 points on his own. The same season, the Niners scored 219 points as a team. That is impact.
There’s no question Moss is in the conversation when it comes to the best, and probably in the top three, at the very least. His 156 receiving touchdowns are second only to Rice’s 197, and his 15,292 yards are third behind Rice’s 22,895 and Terrell Owens’ 15,934. But Moss (and Owens, for that matter) didn’t have anywhere near the consistency of Rice -- any receiver who had four seasons of 49 catches or less can’t lay claim to being the best in league history, especially when stacked up against this line put down by Rice, who had at least 65 catches from 1989 through 2002 with the exception of one year, when he was injured and missed the bulk of the 1997 season.
(For what it’s worth, Rice is really the football version of Ted Williams, only with the championship rings and without the crazy family dysfunction. Check his final numbers here. He hung on a year too long -- in his penultimate season, he had 63 catches with the Raiders at the age of 41, but managed 30 in his final year, which was split between the Seahawks and Raiders. And don’t even get me started on the cup of coffee he had with the Broncos before calling it quits. But Rice maintained a level of consistency that was flat-out amazing. In addition to all of his honors, you could make a case he was the best over-40 receiver in the history of the game -- he had 92 catches with the Raiders at the age of 40, and had 185 catches after 40. Moss won’t be in the game by the age of 40, much less catching 85-plus balls.)
In hindsight, the beginning of the end of his quest to surpass Rice came when he left New England in 2010. While some contend he forced his way out of town and others insist the Patriots dealt him away in a vacuum, he ended up wandering through the football wilderness for a year, stopping in Minnesota and Tennessee (?!) before eventually taking a year off and returning to play for San Francisco. It wasn’t so much leaving Brady, but a receiver at that age needs a quality passer, and Moss went from an elite QB in Brady to a broken-down Brett Favre to a Tennessee team that was quarterbacked by the three-headed monster of Kerry Collins, Vince Young and Rusty Smith. If he had ended up sticking around Foxboro for another few seasons -- and isn’t it fun to think of Moss and Brady growing old together? -- he would have had a shot to top Rice.
At the same time, it also would have involved Moss evolving as a receiver, and that probably isn’t in Randy’s DNA. In 2010, the Patriots transitioned from a vertical passing game to a horizontal approach, incorporating rookies Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and leaning heavier on Wes Welker and (after he was reacquired after the Moss trade) Deion Branch. If Moss could have shown a willingness to evolve and accept more of a secondary role, he could have been part of that group. He could have been the guy clearing things out underneath for Gronkowski and Hernandez, coming away with 5-7 targets a game and stretching the field when the Patriots were looking to go deep. But that wasn’t going to happen.
(Even now, he’s clearly a little steamed at having to play second banana in the Niners’ passing game to the likes of Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree. “I don’t like my role; I don’t. I like to be out there playing football,” Moss told reporters on Tuesday. “One thing that I’ve always had to really understand was being a decoy. It was put to me, coach Dennis Green just said, ‘Even though the football is not in your hand, you’re still out there dictating how the defense is playing the offense.’ It took me awhile to really understand where he was coming from. Later on and now in my career, I understand that my presence out on the field, I don’t always have to touch the ball to be able to help the offense score touchdowns. Like I said, I don’t really like that, but it’s something that I’m used to. I have to grow to understand and grow to like it. I’ve always been a team player. I’ve never been about self.”)
In fact, even if he was in a limited role working more as a decoy, it’s fun to even surmise where Brady and Moss could have done together if the wide receiver stayed. The New England quarterback, who enjoyed two of the best seasons of his career in 2010 and 2011 without Moss for much of that stretch, would have had another option to work with. And while it’s unlikely he would have caught more than 60 passes a year over the last three years, as he hinted, his work as a decoy would have paid great dividends in the Patriots’ offense, particularly the passing game. You can probably subtract 15-20 catches from Welker, Hernandez and Gronkowski per year -- and it’s debatable what sort of affect he may have had on the overall development of those tight ends -- but trying to figure out a way to stop all the options in the passing game would have given defensive coordinators throughout the league ice cream headaches.
As we wrote when Moss left New England, his legacy with the Patriots was a complicated one, and in the time since, he’s done nothing to change that. Moss remains one of the best receivers to play the game -- if he doesn’t get into the Hall of Fame when he retires, they should shut the doors in Canton. But the inconsistencies that beset him in his time in Oakland, combined with his post-New England statistical swoon, renders the argument moot, especially compared to Rice’s statistical consistency. When it comes to the title of Greatest Of All Time, Rice has been able to put enough separation -- cue that move again -- between himself and Moss for the honor.