Posted: Tue January 29, 2013 7:17PM; Updated: Tue January 29, 2013 7:17PM
Michael Rosenberg
Michael Rosenberg>INSIDE THE NFL

Reality of Randy Moss' comeback deeper than perception

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Randy Moss of the San Francisco 49ers
Randy Moss has won praise from his Niners teammates this season for his leadership by example.
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Super Bowl XLVII
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NEW ORLEANS -- Well, Randy Moss just gave you another reason to hate him.

"I really think I'm the greatest receiver to ever play this game," he told reporters at Super Bowl Media Day.

What else do you need? This is Randy Moss. He says he is better than Jerry Rice, and he isn't. More talented, maybe. But Rice was a more complete and polished receiver. He ran more precise routes and didn't take plays off. If Moss was the greatest receiver of all-time, why did the Minnesota Vikings unload him when he was only 28? Why was his value so low when he was 30 years old that the New England Patriots got him for just a fourth-round pick?

"He told you he was the best of all-time?" asked his former Vikings teammate, and current Ravens tackle Bryant McKinnie.

Not just me, I said. A hundred of us. McKinnie laughed.

"You would think somebody else could say it," he said.

Nope. It was Randy, saying something he shouldn't, and that was the Randy Moss Media Day story. And that's unfortunate, because the story should be about the redemption of Randy Moss. He skipped a year, came back and has been a leader and mentor to the 49ers' young receivers. All year, he has acted like he doesn't see himself as the greatest receiver ever. He has conducted himself like an older guy trying to help out.

Do you believe this?

Do you want to believe it?

Do you want to be happy for Randy Moss?

I don't think a lot of people do. I think it's more fun to decide Moss is a bad guy -- I should put that in caps, Bad Guy, since it is practically an official title for Moss -- and leave it at that.

Ask A.J. Jenkins. Jenkins is a rookie receiver for the 49ers -- a first-round pick who expected to play a lot and didn't. His friends and family members ask him all the time: What is Randy Moss really like? He can tell by the tone that they expect him to say Moss is a jerk. Instead he told me this:

"Randy Moss is one of the coolest people you'll ever meet. Moss is really a good guy, man. Good person, always has good advice for you. Honestly, my season would have been a lot more difficult if I didn't have Moss in my corner."

Do you want to hear that? Or is it easier to imagine Moss as human sandpaper, scuffing everything he touches?

This is not a new story for Moss. Two decades ago, he arrived on the national scene pre-labeled. He was set to go to Notre Dame but stomped on a kid in a fight, so Notre Dame pulled his scholarship. He went to Florida State and got kicked out when he smoked weed. He dominated at Marshall, but dropped to 21st in the 1998 NFL Draft even though everybody knew he was a top-five talent.

McKinnie said most of Moss' transgressions were overblown by the media. Maybe, but let's face it: There have been a lot of transgressions. He mooned fans and lashed out at reporters. He basically quit on the Raiders, and nobody should ever quit on a team, even if that team is the Raiders. In 2010, he returned to the Vikings and ripped a caterer at a team lunch. Really now: Who rips a caterer?

When Moss' teams were playing well, he was probably the most dangerous offensive weapon in the game. But when things started to go south, they went way, way, south. Like, to Antarctica. Nobody gets in trouble that much by accident.

Moss was a joy to watch and fun to hate. But teammates, coaches and friends often swore that deep down, there was a good and sensitive soul in there, and this year Moss finally found him.

He did not come back for the money, though he surely likes it, or a Super Bowl win, though he desperately wants it. He says he just missed playing.

"I love this game of football so much," he said. "I don't like everything that comes with it, but going out on the field between the white lines and playing football is something I've always done. I've been doing it since I was six years old. For me to be able to just walk away from the game, knowing that I wasn't ready, mentally or physically, it really hurt me, man. It really depressed me."

The 49ers say he has been an outstanding teammate. You might wonder how a man who handled so many situations so poorly could teach others how to act. But that is why he can do it. He doesn't have to tell them about the mistakes he made. They've all seen them on SportsCenter.

"We all know what happened with Randy," receiver Ted Ginn Jr. said. "Some of the things that have been said and done ... I don't think he would go back and change it. I think it's him. But he is going to make sure the next person doesn't go down the same drain he did."

He preaches the importance of practice, of working out every day, and of swimming to stay in shape, because it's easier on the body. He tells guys to stay patient rather than panic when they don't get playing time or the ball. He was never any good at that.

"I can't say he didn't have a mentor, but the right guy behind him when he was younger ..." Ginn said.

Cris Carter would dispute that. He was Moss' teammate early in Moss' career and tried to help him. The Patriots were not short on leaders. Heck, Moss' incident with the caterer happened when he was near the end of his career, so it wasn't a young-guy mistake.

The guy screwed up a lot. And that's why the truest thing he said at Media Day may have been this:

"I don't think the football world understands how much I love to compete. When I hear people talk about how talented I am and how easy I make it look ... I can honestly tell you people that it's very hard work."

People didn't notice because the specter of Randy Moss, Bad Guy, sometimes overshadowed Randy Moss, Great Player. He could have scowled and grumbled for the rest of his life. That would have been easier for a lot of people to digest.

He came back, and his teammates say he has been gracious and kind, helpful and selfless. I hope you believe them. I hope you want to believe them.

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