Remember a few years ago, when fans and pigskin “pundits” and even a certain quarterback, not satisfied by winning titles every year, clamored for a big-name wide receiver? ’Member that?
And remember when everybody said the dynastic Patriots needed to put some elite weapons around Tom Brady because, um, well … apparently Super Bowl victories in 2001, 2003 and 2004 and two last-second championship-winning drives and a pair of Super Bowl MVP awards weren’t enough?
And ’member the Patriots, two years removed from their last championship and one defensive stop away from winning the 2006 AFC title game and returning to the Super Bowl, went out and grabbed Randy Moss and Wes Welker in the offseason? Do you ’member?
How’d that work out for everybody?
You know the answer. Not so hot. Somewhere along the way, the Patriots voluntarily threw away their super-duper-secret recipe for championship success. And since that day, they’ve been tossing everything on the spice rack into the pot, hoping to recreate the magic.
Well, the Emeril Lagasse of the gridiron, the Cold, Hard Football Facts, still has the secret formula of 11 stats and spices.
Here’s what the Patriots need to do: They need to dump Moss. Maybe even dump Welker. He might never be the same anyway. More importantly, they need to dump the debilitating mindset that comes with the misguided faith in wide receivers, dump the desire to pass the ball on every down and get back to the basics of championship-winning football.
That’s not a knee-jerk reaction to New England’s humiliating 33-14 loss to Baltimore in the wild card round of the playoffs Sunday.
Quite the contrary. It’s an acknowledgment of one of the great eternal truths of football history: Flashy receivers are nice little glossy hood ornaments on a football team and nothing more. They are certainly not the engines that power victories and power championships.
Never have been. Never will be … no matter how many cover stories Sports Illustrated publishes to the contrary.
Moss, for example, is one of the great receivers in the history of the game. There are no two sides to the argument. The numbers, the Cold, Hard Football Facts, are overwhelming. He’s among the all-time leaders in every major receiving category — 10th in receptions (926), sixth in yards (14,465) and second in touchdowns (148).
And he’s hardly washed up at 32 years old. Despite what seemed like an unproductive season, Moss led the league in TD receptions this season with 13 (tied with Larry Fitzgerald and Vernon Davis).
In fact, everything he did this year was just about what you get out of an average Randy Moss season:
• In 2009 he caught 83 passes for 1,264 yards and 13 TDs.
• In his career he’s averaged 77 receptions for 1,205 yards and 12 TDs.
Moss’ 15.2 yards per reception this year, meanwhile, was dead on the 15.2 yards he averaged in his record 23-TD season of 2007.
Moss, in other words, had a very good and productive season in 2009 by any standard. He should have made the Pro Bowl.
But great wideouts rarely lead you to anything, not even the greatest among them, like Moss. Last we counted, he’s won zero Super Bowl rings in his 12 record-setting seasons.
He’s not alone.
In fact, we combed the length and breadth of pro football history trying to come up with a receiver who carried his team to championships — we found exactly zero. Maybe Green Bay Hall of Famer Don Hutson — but he last strapped on a leather helmet back in 1945.
Jerry Rice is the modern example everybody cites. He’s a three-time Super Bowl champ and the all-time leader in everything. But he was NOT the reason San Francisco dominated in the 1980s and into the 1990s.
The 49ers had won two Super Bowls before Rice arrived on the scene and already had established themselves as the NFL’s best club without him.
People forget that Rice was drafted in 1985 by the defending Super Bowl champs, and not just any old defending champ — those 1984 49ers were the best team in franchise history. They were an awesome, virtually unstoppable 15-1 juggernaut that dominated a very, very good 14-2 Dolphins team and its Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino, 38-16, in Super Bowl XIX.
San Francisco’s leading receivers that season, the greatest in franchise history, were Dwight Clark (52 catches, 880 yards, 6 TDs) and running back Roger Craig (71 catches, 675 yards, 3 TD). Very humble numbers.
So, Rice didn’t make the 49ers winners. The 49ers made Rice a winner. (Safety Ronnie Lott had more to do with San Francisco’s success than the record-setting wide receiver. It was Lott’s acquisition that turned the team’s defense into one of the best in football year after year and instantly lifted the club to its first Super Bowl win in his rookie season.)
The greatest teams, meanwhile, were not great because of great receivers. Not one of them.
The Packers dominated the 1960s, a decade of prolific leaps in offensive production, without a single 1,000-yard receiver.
The Steelers dominated the 1970s with just a single 1,000-yard season out of either member of their Hall of Fame receiving tandem of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth (who produced 1,183 yards in 1979). Swann averaged just 607 yards receiving in his nine-year career.
The 49ers dominated the 1980s but, as noted, were just as dominant before Rice’s arrival as they were afterward.
The Cowboys dominated the 1990s with a Hall of Fame receiver in the so-called “playmaker,” Michael Irvin. But he was hardly the centerpiece of their offense. In fact, Irvin put up pretty humble numbers by the standards of the era: He caught 10 TD passes just once, in Dallas’s 1995 championship season, and combined for 14 TD receptions in their 1992 and 1993 Super Bowl-winning seasons.
And, finally, there are the 21st-century Patriots. As noted here last week, they won three Super Bowls with just a single 1,000-yard receiver (Troy Brown in 2001). They’ve won nothing with the history-making tandem of Welker and Moss.
The three most dominant receivers of the past decade, meanwhile, were Moss, Terrell Owens and Marvin Harrison — each among the all-time leaders in every receiving category.
Yet these incredible, record-setting pass-catchers combined for three Super Bowl appearances and one victory. And, even in that victory (2006 Colts), Harrison was a non-factor. He’s probably the worst big-game receiver in history: Harrison caught just two TD passes in 16 playoff games — both of them in the same 2003 win over the Broncos.
In Indy’s Super Bowl-winning playoff run of 2006, Harrison combined for 15 catches and 193 yards in four postseason games. In other words, Indy’s best receiver barely contributed to the team’s playoff success.
By the way: The last guy to lead the league in receptions and win a championship? Todd Christensen with the 1983 Raiders.
So, while fans, broadcasters and pigskin “pundits” gawk at the athleticism and production of the game’s premier receivers, and while Sports Illustrated just ran a misguided cover story last week proclaiming wide receivers the secrets to success this year, the truth is very, very different.
The truth is this: Glitzy wideouts rarely have anything to do with championship success.
In fact, for some curious reason, great receivers seem to have the opposite effect. Teams seem to grow too dependent on their pass-catchers. And when these pass-catchers suddenly have a bad day or face a great scheme, the whole offensive production falls apart.
Remember the old line about Tom Brady?
Who’s his favorite receiver? The open one.
That was the mindset that made him one of the game’s great quarterbacks and made him deadly in critical moments and big games. It was a mindset that allowed this team to persevere in tough situations that could have caused other teams to crumble. It was a mindset that carried the team to its greatest period of success.
My take? Dump Moss, who has one year left on a hefty deal (reported at three years for $27 million when signed in 2008) and put the money toward harvesting game-breaking defenders in free agency or the draft.
These are the guys the Patriots have been missing in recent years. And these are the guys who, paired with an elite quarterback like Brady, make a team so deadly.
But it’s not just Moss the Patriots will be unloading. They’ll be dumping a mindset that has turned a perennial champion and one of the great big-game teams in the history of football into J-A-T — Just Another Team.