"Randy Moss Randy Moss Randy Moss."
It was the latest salvo in a not-so-subtle campaign by those who keep track of such things to get me to acknowledge what I couldn't see last April, when New England made what would prove to be the most significant transaction of the offseason. Or in early September, when I taped a video segment destined to go down with the LoveLetter virus of 2000 among the most corrupted content ever to flash across a computer screen.
Back then, I thought Moss was a selfish, gutless nightmare whose negative qualities would outweigh what remaining physical skills he had and make his new teammates wish he'd never set foot in their locker room.
Now, midway through a season that seems destined to go down as one of the greatest individual efforts by a receiver in NFL history, Moss has forced me to reconsider my stance.
Apparently, I was an exceptionally nearsighted man in a world full of post-laser-surgery patients, a Dodo bird among eagles.
After being hit over the head with a preponderance of grisly evidence – the 47 catches for 779 yards and 11 touchdowns, the graceful grabs of alley-oop passes lofted into double coverage – what other verdict am I supposed to reach?
Granted, it's still early, and this grand experiment by coach Bill Belichick and the younger Tom Brady could still turn ugly. As with Terrell Owens in Philadelphia three years ago, things might change once adversity strikes.
Remember T.O.'s sideline blowup at Donovan McNabb as the Eagles were suffering their first defeat of the season in Pittsburgh? Might Moss, more of a pouter than a tweaker, revert to his immature behavior of previous years if New England loses a big game and he's unhappy with his role in the offense?
It's an interesting theory, with one serious flaw: That adversity may not come, at least not this season. If New England can get past the Indianapolis Colts Sunday in the most compelling autumn battle of unbeaten teams in the modern NFL era, the Pats aren't likely to slip until a possible January rematch in the AFC Championship game, if it all.
Yes, a lot could happen between now and then, and I'm not saying the Patriots will necessarily go undefeated if they beat the Colts, though I wouldn't put it past them. The point is, just as Owens' presence on the Eagles didn't become toxic until after he'd helped Philly come within a few points of a Super Bowl championship (losing to Guess Who despite a stellar individual effort), Moss may well stay happy and prolific through the end of this season, or even longer.
As many of the people who saw this coming, including Brady Sr. and Patriots president Jonathan Kraft, tried to convince me at the time the Patriots acquired Moss from the Oakland Raiders for a fourth-round draft pick, the veteran deep threat seems fully to have bought into the Patriots' team-first culture. From all reports, he has put his head down, worked hard and even mentored hobbled second-year wideout Chad Jackson, all while resisting the compelling temptation to, you know, run over meter maids or squirt water at officials.
Having taken a substantial pay cut as a way of demonstrating his commitment to fitting in, Moss seems to understand the magnitude of this opportunity. Seize it, as he has so far, and he's looking at a Hall of Fame bust in Canton; blow it, and Superfreak is a Superfund waste site that no other NFL team is likely to touch.
I haven't talked much to Moss in recent years, which is too bad, because I actually have enjoyed our interviews, especially the lengthy one I did for a Sports Illustrated cover story back in August of 2002. For the record, my negative impressions of him were never formed from personal experience; rather, they were based largely on conversations with people who played and interacted with him regularly over the course of his career.
The day before the Patriots' 49-28 pummeling of the Dolphins, a game in which Moss twice out-positioned and outfought defensive backs for spectacular catches in the end zone, Moss told the Boston Herald, "The atmosphere around here is good. Some teams or organizations go out there and practice, and lollygag and go through the motions. Here, we take care of business inside the classroom and outside of it. And then go out there and execute and make things happen on Sunday. So, everything that comes with football is why I love coming to work, from the food, all the way to sitting around here with the camaraderie in the locker room."
The food ? Memo to Al Davis: In addition to ensuring that you never again employ an offensive coordinator as dated and ineffective as Tom Walsh, please consider cutting a deal with one of Oakland's finer establishments (say, Everett and Jones barbecue or Cactus Taqueria) to cater your pre-practice meals.
More to the point – and this is the part of this equation that I hate – Moss is lending credence to the arguments of those who justified the trade thusly: He was a dog in Oakland because he was unhappy, and because the organization was dysfunctional. Put him in a good situation, they insisted, and he'll play hard.
They seem to have been right so far, though I still have my suspicions. When Moss had that lingering hamstring injury that virtually shelved him for all of training camp, it set off every "Here We Go" alarm in my head, and, though he might not admit it, Belichick had to be fearing the same thing.
When I speak of Moss' gutlessness, I'm not just talking about not blocking or running out decoy routes on the backside of plays, or becoming an outspoken distraction in Oakland, or walking off the field before the end of a game with the Vikings. And I'm not merely referring to his infamous "I play when I want to play" quote or the knee-jerk defiance that caused him to stand by the sentiment when given numerous opportunities to clarify or retract.
There's also the matter of his physical fragility.
One of Moss' former Vikings teammates once told me that he could tell whether Moss would have a big game on Sunday by the way the receiver practiced on Wednesday. Were he fully healthy and running unimpeded, Moss was headed for a monster outing. But the slightest twinge or discomfort could throw him off to the point where he'd be ineffective.
"A lot of that 'I play when I want to play' stuff is a smokescreen," the player insisted. "He'd rather have you think he doesn't care than have you realize that he's not physically tough."
Remember that quote if Moss happens to get banged up during his time in New England, and then let's reassess whether the Patriots' no-nonsense, no-one-trumps-the-team culture has magically cured him of his penchant for quitting on his teammates.
But here I go again, being all negative, when this is supposed to be an apology of sorts. To be fair, the Patriots do have a great locker room full of valiant leaders who are serious about their craft, starting with the quarterback who lobbied intensely to bring Moss aboard. It's true that Corey Dillon's attitude shaped up immensely once he received that lifeboat from Cincinnati and joined the Pats, and it's also true that players who didn't get with the program (Bethel Johnson, Cedric Cobbs, P.K. Sam, Doug Gabriel) have been sent off with minimal tolerance, with Jackson likely the next in line.
In the end, it all comes back to Brady and the amused expression on his face when I told him I'd be writing this column. He saw this coming way back in the winter, lobbying the organization to make the move while lobbing text messages and phone calls to Moss to make him feel wanted. Having been deprived of an elite receiver in what proved be an insurmountable obstacle in '06, Brady wanted a drastic change in the organization's approach to the receiver position and, to their credit, the Patriots' shot-callers wisely went overboard by getting Wes Welker and Donte' Stallworth as well.
In retrospect the Moss trade was about making a franchise quarterback happy, and it was clearly the right and only move. Had Brady told his bosses he wanted them to sign Charles Manson as a third-down threat, their rightful response should have been, "Will his 'family' be needing a suite at the stadium?"
If the Krafts and Belichick can essentially admit they were wrong, as indicated by their behavior this offseason, I can certainly follow suit. Brady is headed for his first regular season MVP trophy, but if you ask me which player has made the biggest impact in the first half of the '07 season, it's not a very difficult answer.
Randy Moss Randy Moss Randy Moss.