The case for (and against) Randy Moss, Super Bowl champion

Scott Halleran

Randy Moss might win a Super Bowl tonight, and you still probably won't like him.

1. Randy Moss wore high socks at Marshall, high socks stretched up to his game pants over thin legs. They made him look lanky, spindly, even breakable. For certain games he wore horizontally striped socks, rings of kelly green bobbing down the field with a sickening ease. Striped socks fit Moss in two senses.

  • They give a certain vintage feel to watching Randy Moss footage, footage where Moss runs so slowly, and with such floaty ease through competition, that he seems to have several frames more a second than other players like old reel-to-reel tape of 1930s football players.
  • A person who wears spearmint candy cane socks on a football field has already told you how little he cares what you think, do, want to do, or care to say about him getting anywhere he wants on the field.

2. Randy Moss will play in the Super Bowl on Sunday for the San Francisco 49ers. He is 35 years old, and the third receiving option on his team behind Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis. He sits third on the NFL receiving yards list behind Terrell Owens and Jerry Rice.

Rice has a vested interest in being the Greatest Receiver Ever. That's convenient since statistics and facts let him make a very, very good claim for it, along with the Super Bowl rings and All-Pro selections that lend real anecdotal weight. He also believes Randy Moss could have been the best wide receiver ever.

"This is how I impacted the game: with Super Bowl rings,'' he said. "I'm hoping he can go out there and win his first one and be a big factor."

Jerry Rice had Joe Montana and Steve Young throwing to him on pre-salary cap teams that rank among the greatest ever assembled. Moss has had his Hall of Fame partner -- Tom Brady in New England -- but for the bulk of his career relied on Daunte Culpepper, Brad Johnson, and a cavalcade of middling signal-callers to get him the ball. Randy Moss, for all his athletic brilliance, is not a one-man delivery system.

Moss has no Super Bowl rings, the most arbitrary piece of evidence for an NFL player's greatness. (Kevin Faulk has three. Kevin Faulk is a very good football player, but he is also Kevin Faulk.) Moss missed a trip to the Super Bowl in the freaky 1999 NFC Championship Game, hauling in a TD and six catches for 75 yards despite blanket coverage in the loss. He caught his career high of 23 touchdown catches in the perfect 2007 New England season. That season ended in a baffling loss to the New York Giants where Moss had a modest 62 yards but still caught a touchdown.

At the age of 35, he has his third shot at a Super Bowl. If the pattern holds, Haloti Ngata will run 95 yards for the Ravens' game-winning touchdown, just as field goal kickers and long-cut wide receivers decided previous shots at glory. And Randy Moss could still lack the shiniest and most hollow indicator of a player's net historical worth in the NFL.

3. This is a photo of Randy Moss.

Mossintajuice_medium

"If Randy wants to do something, Randy's gonna do it, and you better get out of the way." That's Chad Pennington, talking on the phone about Moss. Moss just did things: wearing the high socks, falling out of bounds mockingly after embarrassing another DB on a fade route, mock-mooning the crowd after a touchdown, or deciding to take a whole busload of West Virginia kids to watch LeBron James play in Cleveland and paying for it all himself.

I'd also like to point out that Randy Moss there is clearly business Moss: tie, white shirt, and yet still wearing a full head of braids, just one of the things that threw sportswriters -- particularly white sportswriters writing about him at a distance -- on the wrong track. Google "Randy Moss thug" and 4,000,000 results pop up instantly, mostly because it was easier to assume the easy, tacitly racist thing about him: that he was loud, opinionated, and a prima donna because he was rich, black, and grew up without a father. That he was a thug, and whatever other coded statements follow that word.

4. The truth is that Randy Moss did grow up without a father -- in Rand, West Virginia, a town of 1,631 people as of the last census. He appeared on national television for the first time when he was a middle-schooler on the old Scholastic Sports America, hosted by a chipper young Chris Fowler. Like Wayne Gretzky in Canada, Moss was a spectacle worth a road trip by the time he was a freshman in high school. He could trust no one, and outside of a close circle of longtime friends, he hasn't since he was very, very young. To teammates he was personable, warm, even generous. Outside of the locker room, he was isolated, quiet, and private.

5. When Randy Moss decided to un-retire for the 2012 season, he did not use a consultant, manager, agent, svengali, adviser, psychologist, coach, pundit, financial guy, or any other kind of professional advice-giver. He did it after fishing with a professional bass fisherman on the coldest day of the year. They did not talk about football once.

6. From an interview with Aaron Ferguson, former teammate of Moss at Marshall.

AF: We watched him play in the state basketball tournament that previous year, his senior year when he and Jason Williams were on the same basketball team. We knew who he was, what kind of a freak athlete he was."

SH: When he played basketball was there a big talent gap between him and future NBA player Jason Williams?

AF: Randy was a high-flying act. They played well off each other. Randy could basically jump out of the gym. The game I saw, he took one dribble at the free throw line, jumped over a kid at the dotted line, and dunked the basketball off two feet.

7. The talent, by any account, was and is unparalleled.

"A lot of the time people thought he wasn't working hard because he made it look so easy." Chad Pennington is on the other end of most of those early, jaw-dropping moments of high-socked stunnery. He starts the play, something you might not remember since for most of Moss' career, the quarterback has been a utility, not a feature, a catalyst for the combustion reaction on the other end.

Yet no one believed what they saw. In 1997, when Marshall went undefeated, every team covered him one-on-one because they simply did not believe what they saw on film. 1,820 yards and 26 TDs later, he was a Heisman trophy finalist and the Biletnikoff winner in Marshall's first year in D-1 football.

"Randy was the first wide receiver to ever be your checkdown," Chad Pennington said. "Think about that. When Daunte Culpepper didn't have anything else, he just threw it up to Randy. And it worked."

8. I repeat: Randy Moss, wherever he was on the field, was at one point a safer and better option than a pass in the unoccupied flat to your running back.

9. Pennington:

"The first time Randy got on a high-dive, he jumped off and did a gainer. The second time he did some kind of back dive twist thing."

10. He did the same in the pros: as checkdown receiver for Daunte Culpepper, in vagabond stops at Oakland, Tennessee, and in New England when he put up the ludicrous numbers of the 2007 season: 98 catches, 1493 receiving yards, and the record 23 touchdown catches. Yet even then he ended up elsewhere, retiring completely in 2011 before returning to play for the 49ers as the most gifted journeyman receiver in NFL history. The rep would be the same: that he didn't work, that he was a malcontent, that he would quit on plays.

11. There is evidence for this, at least early in his career with the Vikings. There is the disgusting act, the weird press conferences in New England, and Moss heading to the locker room early. He railed against caterers for no apparent reason. He did leave the field early in 2005, and did in fact say that he would play when he wanted to play, and say what he wanted to say. At times, Moss has been the strangest personality on a football field, a paranoid physical genius devoid of trust in anything around him; the game, his teammates, coaches, management, players.

12. There is also plenty of evidence to the contrary: that Moss blocked his ass off from his time at Marshall to the present, that he helped mentor younger receivers, that his teammates on the whole liked playing with him, and not just because he could breeze to 1,000 yards and 18 TDs a season. He was charitably impulsive as often as he was destructively impulsive, and anything but inconsistent when it came to playing the games on the schedule.

From 1998 to 2010, Moss missed just six games due to injury playing professional football.

13.

AF: He liked to wrestle offensive linemen.

SH: Really?

AF: Yeah, he'd walk into the locker room and challenge an offensive lineman.

SH: Did he win?

AF: He won his share. If it went to the ground he lost, but otherwise he won as many as he lost. He's strong as a bear.

14. Every football player of a certain degree of talent has his own cartoon alter-ego. Ray Lewis' is the histrionic, face-painted inspirational speaker, capable of appearing anywhere at any time with a terrifying motivational speech ready to go. Ray Lewis may be right behind you right now, ready to sermonize. Every American lives with this threat, and will until Ray Lewis loses the ability to speak.

15. Randy Moss' alter-ego can be found on Twitter: MAWSE. All-caps, and typed in a country-accented spelling taken straight from one of Randy's touchstone cultural namedrops, the 2001 Outkast song "The Whole World." Glitter, glisten, floss, floss/ I catch the beat running like Randy Moss. It's Killer Mike, another country dude who got money and doesn't really give a shit what you think about him.

16. MAWSE also comes from Moss himself, and from the West Virginia accent that makes him with eyes closed indistinguishable from his high school teammate Jason Williams, or any number of sweatshirt-wearing bros from West Virginia. Randy Moss will forever be the contested talent, the freakball football savant whose ability was so immense that placing third in career receiving yardage seems like a disappointment compared to what might have been. Randy Moss is the one Joe Buck frowns at; the one every closeted racist will dismiss as another thug without noting that Moss averaged more TDs per season than Jerry Rice, and did it without two Hall of Famers throwing him the ball.

17. MAWSE, however, is the one who pays in straight cash, homey.

MAWSE is the alter-ego of Randy Moss who worked so fluidly that you didn't see the effort, the work, the time he put in over the offseason. MAWSE didn't run a mountain every morning like Jerry Rice did, but he didn't need to, and certainly wouldn't invite reporter after reporter to see just how hard he works. Prior to the 2007 season MAWSE is the one who didn't work out with the New England Patriots, prompting a local anxiety attack over whether he'd be ready for the season. MAWSE is the one who caught 23 TDs that season, and made it look easier than any receiver ever. MAWSE is the one people love for being precisely what he is: the guy who runs drills against DBs without looking for the ball only to catch it over his shoulder without looking, and pays all fines in hand-counted American currency.

18. From S.L. Price's 1997 profile of Moss at Marshall:

But in April 1996, on the day he was to begin finishing his prison sentence, Moss smoked a joint. He was given a drug test during his first week in jail, and it came up positive. He was tossed into solitary confinement for a week, and 60 days were added to his sentence. Bowden revoked his scholarship. "That hurt inside," Moss says, "but the only thing I couldn't do was cry, because I did it."

19. "Randy is more country than I am." That's Chad Pennington again, repeating what most people will say about Moss. What that means depends on a lot of things. It depends on whether you think it is an excuse for his behavior, for his skepticism of most things around him, for the low simmer of turmoil that was enough to get teams to get rid of a talent universally recognized as exceptional. He's country, and that means he'll act out, or cuss out the caterer, or talk about shaking his dick at the NFL when it came time to pay his next fine. (For the record, he did not.)

20. It can be an excuse. It certainly wasn't for Rice, who credited his soft hands to catching bricks with his father growing up in Mississippi. But country is also a description, and clue to what may be Randy Moss' only true crime against the NFL: not surrendering to it completely. Moss could retire after the game tonight. If he does, he will do so as a healthy man who by all accounts has kept his friends and his money close and secure. His immense talent and canny ability to avoid hits has kept him from taking much of the impact trauma that will cripple his contemporaries later.

"I could see Randy having an outdoors show, easy." Ferguson's right: he could. Randy Moss, his alter-ego MAWSE, whatever you want to call him, kept the game at a distance past the bounds of the locker room. Unlike fellow hillbilly Brett Favre, Moss never let people past the gate of the mansion, and never cared to bullshit with reporters or sell himself in pair of jeans designed for the bigger-butted middle aged man.

21. If anything, Randy Moss is the true country to Favre's counterfeit version. Favre wanted your adulation, your respect, your recognition of his boyish, bounding enthusiasm. Randy Moss wanted to play, and then receive a check, and to be left alone to fish in the woods smoking a cigar while wearing a hoodie. He is country as hell, and to some degree that will entail telling a certain fraction of the world to kiss your ass. MAWSE is alright with this, because there's footage, and stats, and possibly, at the end of the day, possibly a Super Bowl championship. The rest is straight cash, and doing what most people do in life: playing some kind of game for money.

He's content with this. Why aren't you?

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