As they prepare for a live interview at the Minnesota Vikings' practice facility in Eden Prairie, Minn., Randy Moss and Cris Carter fall easily into their roles, Moss, the reed-thin 21-year-old with the ice-cold glare and the challenging demeanor, Carter, the muscular 33-year-old with the world-weary eyes and the air of unwavering confidence. "You want the rook to hold the mike?" Carter says to an off-camera interviewer. Moss sits quietly, watching how Carter operates—the easy charm, the gentle joshing. "See, the rook can't hear out of his left ear and can't see out of his right eye," says Carter.
"Yeah, but I get it done somehow," says Moss. They crack up. Carter begins asking Moss questions, not only to add levity to the interview but also to offer his own subtle audition for a post-football career. "See, I'm gonna be like Ahmad Rashad talking to my man Jordan," says Carter.
It's not much of a stretch to say that Moss's rookie season has been Jordanesque. He planned to show the 19 teams afraid to draft him because of his cloudy past that they were wrong, and so far he has in no way offended the good people of Minneapolis or in any fashion defiled the Land of Jesse the Body. He planned, soon after meeting elder statesman Carter, to make the Vikings wide receivers the catalysts for Minnesota's Super Bowl assault, and they have been, leading a high-flying offense that broke the NFL's single-season scoring record and helped produce a league-best 15-1 regular-season record and Sunday's 41-21 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, a game in which Moss caught four passes for 73 yards and a touchdown. Most memorably, the 6'4" Moss planned, in his own inimitable phrase, to do "whatever I can to rip this league up," and that's exactly what he has done, putting together a rookie season for the ages (his 17 touchdown receptions not only led the NFL but were also the highest rookie total ever), one that has him being compared with everyone from Don Hutson to Jerry Rice, the latter being one of his, uh, backups on the NFC Pro Bowl team.
Beyond that, Moss has—not single-handedly, to be sure, but preeminently—galvanized and glamorized the Vikes, giving them the league's highest phat factor. Next to Moss, Deion Sanders is old-school, Barry Sanders ancient, Rice downright prehistoric. Fueled by Moss Appeal, the Vikings have gone from 24th (in 1997) to 14th in sales of licensed merchandise and will certainly crack the top 10 if they make it to their first Super Bowl in 22 years. "There's so much Moss stuff and Vikings purple in there, it looks like backstage at a Barney concert," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said recently after he looked into an office at league headquarters in New York loaded widi NFL merchandise. For years Green Bay Packers items outsold those of the home team eight to one in the Field of Dreams gift shop in the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., just a few miles from the Metrodome. Now sales are running four to one in favor of Vikings merchandise. Moss's 84 is Starter's hottest-selling jersey seller not just in Minnesota but all over the country; the company has shipped more than 100,000 of them since mid-November. Says Minnesota general manager Tim Connolly: "Randy Moss is exactly what the NFL needs."
Could you imagine anyone saying that back in April when teams were avoiding Moss as if he was a strain of Ebola? Given Moss's masterpiece of a season, his slide to the 21st pick goes into the Draft Day Hall of Infamy right next to June 19, 1984, when the NBA Portland Trail Blazers used the second selection to take center Sam Bowie, thereby gift-wrapping a certain tongue-wagging guard for the Chicago Bulls to take at No. 3.
The self-flagellation has been particularly intense in Dallas, where Moss most wanted to play. "I was so stuck on the Cowboys, it wasn't even funny," he says. Moss finally got to Dallas on Thanksgiving Day and led the Vikings to a 46-36 victory with three catches of more than 50 yards, all of which went for touchdowns. Watching this performance was particularly painful for Cowboys wideout Michael Irvin, who blames his own well-publicized brushes with the law for the Mossed opportunity. "With everything I'd been involved in, we couldn't draft Randy Moss," said Irvin, who called Moss after the draft to apologize.
Irvin's teammate Sanders threw in these sentiments: "I'm happy every time Randy Moss catches the ball and every time a team that passed him up has to think about it."
It's important to remember, though, that there were good reasons not to take Moss, not the least of which is that many teams are reluctant to draft receivers high. Rice, whose college pedigree at Division II Mississippi Valley State was similar to Moss's at Marshall, was taken 16th by the San Francisco 49ers in 1985. Perhaps Moss's impact will change that philosophy, just as Michael Jordan's changed the NBA axiom that you always draft a dominant center before a talented guard. But it would've taken a brave soul indeed to take Moss in the top 10, where a draft pick might command $6 million a year instead of the $1.4 million for which the Vikings signed Moss. His transgressions were real: In 1995 he pleaded guilty to two counts of battery for kicking a schoolmate during his senior year at DuPont High in Rand, W.Va., and was sentenced to 30 days. In the spring of '96, after a redshirt freshman season at Florida State, he tested positive for marijuana. Later that year he and his girlfriend became involved in a domestic dispute. Charges against both were dropped. Some team executives still believe that Moss is a ticking time bomb and that the true test for him will come in the off-season, away from the structure of practice and games, when, as we've so often seen, idle hands do the devil's work.
Hands are the object of comparison between Moss and Carter, who are sitting in the equipment room at the Vikes' practice facility. "About the same size," says Moss, examining the long, valuable digits of his left hand, "but Cris's hands are a little better than mine right now." That's probably true. Carter, a future Hall of Famer who had fewer touchdowns (12) than the prodigy this season but more receptions (78 to Moss's 69), is known for being one of the softest-handed receivers in football, not to mention a specialist in that highlight-video staple, the one-handed catch.
"See, the rook is in the embryo stage of one-handed catching," says Carter. Moss sort of smiles. He rarely does more than sort of smile. "See, I told Randy he wasn't even allowed to speak about the one-handed catch until he made the Pro Bowl."