Randy Moss retired on Monday, and he leaves the NFL as an icon whose legend was always complicated by reality. He seemed completely perfect, then fatally flawed. Historically dominant, but sometimes indifferent. How will he be remembered?
For a generation of football fans, fantasy football has shaped how we understand the game. It forces us to keep track of more than just our favorite team, it gives us a tangible way to appreciate the best players in the league, and it brings the game to life for tens of millions of fans each week. More than anything, it gives us a vested interest in guys we'd otherwise ignore.
Of course, "fantasy" football is actually rooted firmly in reality. One player's highlights may dazzle us more than another, but the raw numbers tell us that someone like Arian Foster is every bit as valuable as someone like Chris Johnson. Fantasy football turns us all into GMs, which is really just a nice way of saying it turns us all into cynics. Instead of getting caught up in hype, as NFL fans focus on what they can see and what they can count. It sets football fans apart.
Dating back to the first Olympic games, there's always been a tension between myth and reality in sports. It's a giant pendulum that swings back and forth in our minds--one day an athlete looks magically invincible, and the next, we're reminded he's human.
Lately though, NFL fans fall closer to "reality" on that spectrum than any sport in the world, and fantasy football helps explain why. By forcing us to track the superstars of the NFL within a statistical framework, fantasy football makes it harder to get intoxicated by sheer talent. We chart production, not how it was produced. We contextualize, we don't romanticize.
All of which stands in stark contrast to Randy Moss, a player with some of the best numbers we've ever seen, but whose appeal always defied the numbers and sometimes defied reality.
"My whole goal is to just come in and do whatever I can to wreck this whole league," Randy Moss told reporters before his rookie year with the Vikings. "I'm gonna come here and do the best I can to rip the NFL up," he said another time. And that's exactly what he did.
Over the course of his first nine months in an NFL uniform, Randy Moss unleashed an onslaught the likes of which we've never seen from a rookie before or since. He had 1,313 yards and 17 touchdowns on the year, including touchdowns in each of the Vikings playoff games, and a combined five TD's in two national TV appearances (Monday night in Green Bay, Thanksgiving in Dallas). It was more than that, though.
Moss' path to the NFL was complicated; he was kicked out of Florida State and Notre Dame for discipline issues, and even after surfacing at Marshall and becoming a force of nature in college, Moss entered the NFL with his fair share of skeptics. He was a character risk, draft experts said. So two-thirds of the NFL passed him over on draft day, leading to quotes like the one above, and cover stories like this: "19 Teams Passed Up Randy Moss And He's Gonna Make 'Em All Pay."
And then Moss backed it up. He ran away with rookie of the year honors and probably should have won MVP. With him on board, the Vikings went 15-1 and unleashed the most explosive offense in the league. Moss came in talking about making people pay and turning the league on its head, and he did all that and more.
As Cris Carter asked reporters during that first year, "Do you understand that this kid could be Michael Jordan? That we're on the ground floor of something huge?" That's exactly how it felt.
Watching Moss as a rookie was like taking a glimpse at what football would look like 30 years from now, when genetics and evolution turned NFL players into freaks. He was faster than anyone in the league, he could jump higher than seemed fair, he caught everything, and he was 21 years old. His numbers were impressive, but how he did it always obscured what he did.
He'd out-jump two defenders after sprinting 40 yards down the field, then come down crumbled in a heap, ball firmly secured in his gut. He'd be running a go-route step-for-step with a corner for 30 yards, and then just glide past him for the last ten yards and an easy touchdown. He'd be out of position for a deep ball, and then just calmly, at full speed, contort his body and catch it anyway. He made all of it look routine--and that's just the stuff we got to see.
Michael Lombardi, the GM who watched Moss' worst seasons in Oakland, couldn't help but marvel on Monday afternoon. "The amazing thing about Randy," he wrote, "was he did things in practice that I had never seen before ... faster than anyone I've ever seen on the field."
Of course, Moss retired on Wednesday with a legacy that's a lot more complicated than Michael Jordan's, and despite everything else he did throughout his career, Randy Moss never transcended the game quite like we expected. As often as he was brilliant and invincible and magical, he was petulant, immature, unmotivated, and disappointing.
"They call me the freak, man," Randy Moss once said within earshot of NFL films microphones. "'Cause I'm a freak of nature. You gon' see today, just keep your eyes glued to the TV."
Even at the bitter end of last season--when he was a flop with the Vikings and then a decoy with the Titans--you always had to keep your eyes glued to the TV with Moss on the field. His numbers painted the picture of a washed up, overrated superstar, but that didn't matter. You just didn't want to miss something special. It wasn't an entirely rational phenomenon.
Not only had Moss been rendered human after 12 years of sprinting up and down NFL fields and straight into the arms of a defense looking to crush him, but he seemed emotionally detached toward the end. He'd float for plays--and games--at a time. He'd shrug his shoulders when his quarterback went elsewhere. The closer we watched him, the less he seemed to care.
It wasn't all like this, of course. In Minnesota, he built on his rookie year and put together a succession of All-Pro seasons that'd stand up next to any receiver in history. Then he wore out his welcome with the Vikings, and went to the black hole that is the Raiders.
That's when we first began to doubt Randy Moss, and where maybe even Randy, himself, began to realize how indifferent he can be to football. Nevertheless, after rejuvenating his career with Tom Brady in 2008, he looked like he'd found a second life, destined to go down as one of the two best receivers to ever play the game.
The spark we saw as a rookie was back that year in New England, and he hauled in a truly insane 23 touchdown receptions, the deadliest scoring season we've ever seen from a wide receiver.
But the same way his 15-1 rookie season ended without a Super Bowl, his 16-0 Patriots' season ended in heartbreak at the Super Bowl. That's one thing that'll always stick with me. By any reasonable measure, Randy Moss should've won a Super Bowl. When he was at his best, his teams were borderline unstoppable. Take away every other season if you want, but those two years, his teams should've won. They didn't, though, and something tells me Randy Moss will never get the credit he deserves.
He'll be remembered as one of the greatest talents the NFL has ever seen, but plenty of reasonable people could claim that, say, Marvin Harrison was the more productive player for his team. People will point to Moss and say he was all about me, never about team.
They'll remember the times he looked detached and indifferent, and they'll forget the teammate who spoke out when the Vikings cut Moss last year, saying, "Look at the tape. Look at the coverages. Look at what he does for everybody else. Percy [Harvin] is running free all over the field right now. The running game is moving along. I don’t even care about the fact that he’s smarter than everybody on the coaching staff. He’s a game-changer."
If this is really where it ends for Randy Moss, there's a chance that he'll go down in history as a guy whose game could never live up to the hype, and that's understandable. Nobody embodied the tension between myth and reality better than he did, and there were times when the reality of Randy made the Moss myth seem naive. He didn't always work hard, he didn't always treat people well, and sometimes he was more of a problem than a prodigy. But let's not miss the point.
He never became the Michael Jordan of football, no, but in a fantasy-crazed generation that processes football with stats, Moss was the counterpoint that can't be contextualized. He could jump higher and run faster than anyone we've ever seen. He was like a revelation from the football Gods, and what made him special had nothing to do with what he did, but how he did it.
He may struggled to live up to expectations his entire career, he had bad luck, and he brought a lot of trouble on himself. But at his best, he made football look easier than anyone has, ever.
So on some level, contextualizing his impact is impossible. It's counter-intuitive for this generation of football fans, but the numbers are meaningless when you're remembering Moss. If you remember anything, make it this: At his best, Randy Moss was the wildest football fantasy ever.