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Randy's Dandy Again
September 17, 2007
After a phenomenal Pats debut, the big question now is, Can Randy Moss be stopped?
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September 17, 2007

Randy's Dandy Again

After a phenomenal Pats debut, the big question now is, Can Randy Moss be stopped?

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RANDY MOSS was still wet from his postgame shower on Sunday, when a media horde swarmed around him, cameras, boom mikes and digital recorders all trained on a mug that might as well have been on a milk carton the past two seasons. "I wouldn't talk to none of 'em, Moss!" a Patriots teammate bellowed from across the visitor's locker room at Giants Stadium. "They said you was washed up!" But Moss was all too happy to indulge his Greek chorus. With just a towel around his waist and a pink loofah in his hand, the 10th-year veteran wideout resumed his rightful place in the spotlight, patiently answering one breathless question after another in a measured twang. "I'll leave that up to you guys," Moss said, when asked whether he intended his nine-catch, 183-yard performance in New England's 38--14 win over the New York Jets as some kind of statement. "That's what the talk shows and the game shows are for—to tell people all the nonsense that y'all believe in."

It appears reports of Moss's demise were greatly exaggerated. Once considered the most dangerous receiver in the NFL, he spent the last two seasons in career purgatory with the Raiders and, after arriving in New England by way of a draft-day trade, nearly all of August on the shelf with a hamstring injury. As a consequence, few figured the enigmatic, sometimes irascible receiver would make much of a splash in his first game as a Patriot. But Moss put on the kind of performance that hadn't been seen since his glory days with the Vikings. Consider just a few of the myths about him that were dispelled.

HE'S LOST A STEP. Given Moss's age (he turned 30 last February) and precipitous decline in production (his 42 catches last year were a career low), the whispers around the league were that the three-time All-Pro no longer had the physical skills to make an impact. But Moss needed only one game to remind the rest of the NFL that, when properly deployed, he remains the toughest cover in the league. At 6'4" and 210 pounds, he's not only significantly bigger than most defensive backs but faster as well, and covering him one-on-one is just asking to get burned. The Jets went with man coverage on him for most of the game and, indeed, paid dearly. When cornerback Justin Miller tried to jam him at the line in the second quarter, Moss blew right past him for a 33-yard reception. Rookie Darrelle Revis was fast enough to stay with Moss but at 5'11" was no match in stature. On second-and-seven in the fourth quarter the Patriots receiver went over Revis's head to snare a 13-yard pass that set up New England's final touchdown. Said New York safety Erik Coleman, "He definitely showed me something today."

He showed that double-covering him won't be much of an answer. It either handcuffs a defense from blitzing quarterback Tom Brady—thus affording him a world of time to pick and choose underneath targets—or it fails to contain Moss in the end. "I could [see] a huge difference when Randy was out there on my side," said Wes Welker, the free agent from the Dolphins who had six catches for 61 yards and a touchdown. When the Jets finally did roll a safety over to Moss's side they got burned big-time. Exploiting a sound play action by Brady, Moss deftly slipped past three defenders on a crossing route and caught a 51-yard touchdown pass in stride. ("I threw it about as far as I could throw it," Brady said through a wide smile. "That wasn't exactly the way we drew it up, but maybe we should draw it up that way.") Afterward Coleman admitted being deceived by the formation. "They had three tight ends in the game," he said. "That's usually a run play for a lot of teams."

HE WON'T BE IN SYNC WITH BRADY. When the hamstring forced Moss to sit out most of training camp, the concern was that it would prevent him from getting comfortable in the new offense and getting his timing with Brady down. As offenses go, the Patriots boast one of the most complex in the league. (It certainly is more multifaceted than the one Moss left in Oakland.) In New England's playbook, receivers are asked to make their own defensive reads and adjustments rather than rely on the quarterback. Reche Caldwell, who despite leading the Pats in receptions last year was the odd man out in the overstocked wideout corps and was cut on Sept. 3, said it took him half a season before he found a rhythm with Brady. ("We had an off week and worked on our passing game," says Caldwell, who is still looking for a job. "Then it took off.") Moss, by contrast, needed one good week of practice to get on the same page with his quarterback.

Moss's versatility—he lined up at the X and Y spots and also caught passes out of the slot—allowed New England to deploy him in various personnel packages. Sometimes he was out there with Welker, other times with fellow newcomer Donte' Stallworth, and in a handful of instances all three lined up together; occasionally, as on the TD bomb, Moss was a lone wideout with multiple tight ends. Often, substitute receivers weren't sent in until the last moment, to further keep the Jets off-guard. What was once considered a team weakness—wide receiver—now makes New England even more potent. "If [opponents] defend deep, we throw it short," said Brady, who spread his 22 completions among seven players. "If they defend short, we try to throw it deep. And if they're overaggressive, we try to screen it." What's more impressive: The fact that the Patriots have an answer for everything or that it's only Week 1? And what happens when this offense really gets rolling?

HE'S NOT A TEAM GUY. This notion was dispelled on New England's first play from scrimmage, when Moss put a helmet on the defensive back in front of him, clearing a path for tailback Laurence Maroney to gain 11 yards. Moss's early fluency in Patriots-speak, the lingua franca of the selfless, is noteworthy—instead of "me" and "I," words like "game plan" and "execution" are his new go-to terms—and his enthusiasm was infectious on Sunday. On more than one occasion in the dead time between plays or quarters, he would suddenly explode into a stationary sprint on the sideline, knees pumping like pistons into his chest, and then, once back to idle, observe Welker or Kelley Washington (yet another new wideout, a free agent formerly with the Bengals) excitedly following suit. "I think he's been a great leader for that receiver group," said Brady, who singles out performance as the chief criterion for leadership on this team. "He sets high expectations for that position. All the guys look up to him as a role model—and Randy knows that."

For all of Brady's brilliance, he'd never had a receiver (with the possible exception of Deion Branch) who ranked among the game's elite. Similarly Moss, though he'd played alongside Cris Carter in Minnesota, has never before been this flush with complementary talent. Now that the two are teamed, who knows how much better they'll make each other?

The answer could send chills down some spines in San Diego and Indianapolis.