It's a familiar NFL
tale: Fading star who dogged it or drugged it or talked his way out of one town
gets reborn in another, earning one last chance to erase his past and show
that, really, he's been a winner all along. The latest protagonist is wide
receiver Randy Moss, who, after two unproductive years with the woeful Oakland
Raiders, has a new lease on life with the three-time champion New England
Moss can be a lot of things--petulant, defiant of authority, the first guy to
jump off a sinking ship--but stupid he is not. He is 30 now, no longer the Hall
of Fame-bound receiver he appeared to be in his first seven seasons, with the
Minnesota Vikings. Everyone from Bar Harbor to Block Island will be monitoring
his behavior with the Pats, who acquired him for a fourth-round pick in the
draft two months ago. Every eye in his own locker room will be on him too.
"He knows if he blows this opportunity," says strong safety and
defensive leader Rodney Harrison, "no team's going to touch him."
Moss needed to show
up in New England this spring and make a good impression. In his first six
weeks as a Patriot he has made a great one.
At 2 a.m. on April
29 coach Bill Belichick called Moss in Houston and informed him that he would
have to accept a $6.25�million reduction in his $9.25�million base
salary and undergo a physical in Boston within 10 hours if he wanted to be a
Patriot. Moss immediately agreed to the pay cut and hired a private plane to
rush him to New England. He also changed two weeks of personal plans for early
May so that he could attend the Pats' off-season program, though he was not
ordered to do so by Belichick. At New England's Organized Team
Activities--practices without pads that NFL teams hold each spring-- Moss felt
he was lagging in conditioning drills, so when the Patriots took the last week
of May off, he stayed in Foxborough for four days of aerobic work.
Last week, at the
Patriots' minicamp, Moss snagged passes from quarterback Tom Brady before one
practice, bouncing around on the balls of his feet, simulating game action by
catching the ball and tucking it in while other receivers nonchalantly warmed
up. "Juices startin' to flow!" he said to Brady. "Oh,
The quarterback was
impressed. "On the second day of OTAs," Brady said at the close of
minicamp, "Randy goes to run a crossing route. He sprints up the field and
starts to make his cut across the field when I throw it. I'm aiming for a
window between two linebackers, but it's not a perfect throw. It's going to be
a tough catch to make. And here comes Randy, diving for the ball to come up
with the catch. Here's this 6' 4'', 210-pound guy in shorts and no pads, diving
for a ball in an OTA practice in the middle of May. Who does that? I'm standing
back there thinking, Wow. This guy wants it."
That's not the guy
Oakland saw last year, when Moss cut his routes short, criticized the offense
and had just 42 catches and three touchdowns, both career lows. The
losses-- Oakland was an NFL-worst 6-26 in 2005 and '06--and a balky ankle and
knee didn't help his spirits, nor did offensive coordinator Tom Walsh's system.
Brought out of retirement by new coach Art Shell, Walsh installed a passing
attack based largely on option routes, in which the receiver chooses one of two
or three predetermined patterns depending on the coverage. Every NFL team runs
some of these, but because they take time to develop, their popularity has
declined precipitously in the face of pressure packages.
"We all knew it
was the wrong system for our team," says Mike Lombardi, the Oakland senior
personnel executive who was fired by the Raiders last month. Oakland was 31st
in the NFL in passing offense, with seven TDs, fewest since Cincinnati's six in
2000. "Running mostly option routes with a new quarterback like [Aaron]
Brooks with a big windup, a big strider like Randy, who doesn't change
directions quickly, and a sieve of an offensive line--that's a lethal
combination," says retired wideout Cris Carter, Moss's former Vikings
(Asked last week if
his offense was outdated and detrimental to Moss, Walsh said, "That's
Cleveland's pro personnel director during Belichick's tenure with the Browns in
the 1990s, was one of a few people the New England coach called when
fact-finding about Moss. Lombardi told him Moss would play hard and play well.
"This is a steal," Lombardi said last week, "a home run. Randy's
not about making his money. He's about trying to get his credibility
Moss started with a
strategically placed locker at Gillette Stadium--deep in the back, between
Brady and nonroster veteran quarterback Vinny Testaverde. "That's where
some butterflies came in," Moss says of the new environs. He was issued
jersey number 6--he wore 84 in Minnesota and 18 in Oakland--because there was
nothing in the 80s available when he arrived and because he truly doesn't care
what's on his back. "Just give me a number," he told an equipment man.
"I'll make the number."