Rookie wideout Randy Moss is propelling the Vikings to new heights
Under the Teflon sky of the Metrodome late on Sunday afternoon, the new boss met the old boss. The new most important player in the NFC playoff race, Vikings rookie wide receiver Randy Moss, embraced the man who previously held that distinction, Packers quarterback Brett Favre. "You're a great player," Favre told him.
There was an air of unreality in the visitors' locker room after the Vikings beat the Packers 28-14 to all but wrap up the NFC Central tide, which has been won by Green Bay for the past three seasons. A sense of loss hung over the place, but just as prevalent was a sense that Moss had almost single-handedly lifted the Vikings to a level above the Packers. A reporter asked defensive end Reggie White what the biggest difference was between the Vikings of 1997 and this year's team, and he shot the guy a withering look. "Don't ask me crazy questions like that," he said. But wideout Antonio Freeman spoke for White and the rest of the Packers when he said, "The addition of Randy Moss has made Minnesota the most dangerous team we play."
In the three seasons before this one, Green Bay outscored Minnesota 62-48, 59-40 and 65-43 and won four of six meetings. This year, after selecting Moss with the 21st pick in the draft, the Vikings swept the Packers for the first time in five years and outscored Green Bay 65-38.
Moss's two-game totals against the Packers—13 catches, 343 yards, three touchdowns—would lave swelled even more if penalties hadn't wiped out catches of 61 and 75 yards. On Sunday, Randall Cunningham threw Moss in arcing spiral late in the fourth quarter that, for once, was underthrown. Moss slowed, pivoted around cornerback Craig Newsome, caught the ball and gamboled into the end zone for a 49-yard touchdown. "He adjusts to the ball in the air better than anyone I've ever seen," White says.
Moss is a Ferrari among Saabs. What makes him the most dangerous rookie receiver to enter the league in years is his combination of size (6'4") and speed (4.34 in the 40—a time that may be slow because Moss has another gear when he needs it). Brad Johnson, the injured Minnesota quarterback, tells this story from training camp: "We're trying to get to know each other, as quarterbacks and receivers have to do. So Randy comes up to me one day and says, 'When you see me running even with a corner—unless it's Deion [Sanders] or Darrell Green or somebody who runs a 4.3—just know that I'm playing with 'em. Just throw it far, and I'll catch up. Don't ever worry about overthrowing me.' You've got to know Randy. He wasn't saying it to be cocky. He was just telling me the truth."
Vikings fans get no sense of Moss's being cocky, which is how he was widely perceived as a troubled collegian at Marshall. He's respectful of the game. He talks only about winning. He hasn't groused once about not getting the ball, though he caught but nine passes in the four games before Sunday's.
After the game Lee Remmel, the Packers' 74-year-old executive director of public relations, compared Moss's arrival in the league to that of the man some call the greatest receiver in NFL history. Remmel was 11 in 1935 when Green Bay signed Don Hutson, who went on to set receiving records, some of which still stand. That year the Packers were trying to catch the rival Bears, who were coming off a year in which they finished the regular season 13-0 and won the NFL Western Division.
Remmel remembers Hutson for his blazing speed. "In our second game we played Chicago. Hutson caught a touchdown pass, and we won 7-0," Remmel said. "When we played at Chicago later in the season, we were down 14-3, but Hutson caught two touchdown passes late in the game, and we won 17-14. I'd say Moss's first year is approximating Hutson's."
Which is why the balance of power in the NFC Central has shifted. Dramatically.