BOSTON (CBS) – The image of Randy Moss burning past two defenders, looking over his shoulder and effortlessly hauling in a perfectly thrown deep ball from Tom Brady is one that Patriots fans will never forget. It was a thing of beauty — football perfection – and it forever left its mark on Patriots history.
History, though, is all it is, and despite Moss’ Monday declaration of his return to the NFL, he should not and almost certainly will not be a part of the Patriots’ plans for 2012.
When the news first broke Monday via Moss’ own Ustream channel, ProFootballTalk immediately listed the Patriots as “the first team to watch,” adding that the website learned that New England “still likes him.” Perhaps the Patriots do like him as a person, but as a football player? That’s hard to believe.
Moss turned 35 on Monday, which isn’t ancient in wide receiver years but isn’t exactly a positive development for a man who seemingly forced himself out of football and spent a year away from the NFL. Since 1996, just two players over the age of 30 have led the league in receiving yards, and they were a 30-year-old Marvin Harrison in 2002 and a 31-year-old Muhsin Muhammad in 2004. The idea of Moss ever again being dominant or even close to dominant is, at this point, a pie-in-the-sky belief.
There is, however, some precedent to an all-time great wide receiver missing a season at age 34 and excelling upon his return to the NFL, and it comes from Jerry Rice. In 1997, Rice played in just two games due to knee injuries. Upon his return in ’98, he caught 82 passes for 1,157 yards and nine touchdowns. He went on to average 996 yards per year over the next four seasons, catching 28 touchdowns along the way.
So if Rice can do it, why can’t Moss?
For starters, Rice was the greatest receiver of all time. Moss, despite his greatness, is not.
Rice also never had as horrific a season as Moss did in 2010, when he was dumped by two teams and spent most of the season standing on the Tennessee sideline. Moss finished the year with nine receiving yards in eight games as a Titan, nine receiving yards in four games as a Patriot and a whopping 13 receiving yards in four games as a Viking. He did manage to score five touchdowns in his first seven games that year, but he turned into nothing more than a decoy as the season progressed.
Despite the drastic drop in production, Moss wanted back in 2011. No teams were willing to bite — at least none with offers enticing enough for Moss.
On Monday, Moss worked the spin control, saying his absence last season was his choice.
“I had some things I had to adjust in my life,” Moss said on his Ustream channel.
While Moss didn’t really expand on what those things were, they likely included veteran-minimum, one-year offers and a rapidly declining skill-set. The latter is something that doesn’t improve with a year away from football.
Still, the good memories remain. Moss embraced Robert Kraft, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick after returning to Gillette Stadium with the Vikings. He seemed to regret his unceremonious departure from the team that gave his career new life at 30 years old.
“I miss every last helmet in that locker room,” Moss said after that October 2010 game. “Coach Belichick gave me a chance to be a part of something special, and I take that to heart.”
He visited Kraft after Myra Kraft passed away over the summer, going so far as to sign his card “Randy Moss Kraft.” Kevin Faulk also said this weekend on NESN that Moss was waiting at Faulk’s house to greet the running back after the Super Bowl last week.
All that is well and good, but none of it means anything on the football field, and none of it erases what took place in 2010. After his team won in Week 1, Moss went on a me-me-me diatribe about how he was likely in his final season in New England because of his unsettled contract situation. That same game marked the return of Wes Welker, who shocked everyone by recovering from torn knee ligaments in time to score two touchdowns that day. Welker made that comeback despite making much less than his worth, providing a sharp contrast between the Patriot Way and the Moss Way.
Three weeks later, Moss dropped a sure touchdown in Miami. He then fought with offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien on the way to the locker room at halftime. It was his last act in New England.
Some may clamor for one last chance for Moss to end his Patriots tenure on the right note and, more importantly, on a winning note. It’s a nice thought and it would make for a nice story, but there’s just no reason to believe it could ever happen.
Faithful Moss supporters would say he’s about more than the numbers, that he “takes the top off the defense” and draws multiple defenders on every play. Brady’s 5,235 yards and the Patriots’ 15-4 record in 2011 suggests the team just might be better off without him.
Moss may not be realistic enough to understand that, but Belichick and the Patriots certainly are. Moss is going to have a hard time generating offers from any team, let alone the team that came within one play of winning the Super Bowl.
Moss was available to the Patriots and 31 other teams last year, and the Patriots and 31 other teams all said no thanks. Nobody should expect anything different this time around.