Monday, August 1, 2011

Gathering Moss

Randy Moss, the legendary NFL receiver who recently announced his retirement, has been one of the most mocked and disdained players in the league for about the last year or so; the mighty falling inspires joy in most sports fans, and Moss always had an air of entitlement about him that made as many people hate him as love him. He could get away with being cocky when he was young, but when the skills faded and he took off the Patriots jersey you were left with a wretched scene; an old Moss, lost on a doomed Vikings franchise, taking passes from an equally decrepit Brett Favre on Monday Night. He produced even less in Tennessee. Scorn rained down on his shoulders.

Moss was always compelling, always a star, but never really a hero. Like most prodigies, he knew he was head and shoulders above the competition and let others know too. That made his failures (his disastrous year in Oakland, for instance) delicious to his legions of haters, who saw him as a cocky (he was), overpaid (a good portion of the time, he was), jerk. Remember him mooning the crowd in Green Bay? Moreover, remember how little effort he used to put into some of his routes? He was never a consummate worker, like Jerry Rice or his rival Marvin Harrison. He gave up on blocks, hated going inside where linebackers roamed, and was often sullen. In press conferences, he glared at reporters, delivering clich├ęs and generally making himself difficult to love. He regularly made news for his off-the-field issues and gaffes – his being caught with marijuana, the allegations of dating violence – but he never seemed to be a violent criminal like Ray Lewis, or a sociopath like Michael Vick. Just an unpleasant kind of guy; a jerk.

The reason he got away with it all is because Randy Moss was undoubtedly the most athletically gifted receiver ever to step on an NFL playing field; a man so preternaturally talented that (like all athletic prodigies) he made the ridiculous look simple. In his prime, no cornerback faced him one on one. No one. He was 6'4 and could outjump almost any defensive back in the league; he ran like a deer (his 40 time was faster than DeSean Jackson's) and he had a knack for timing his jumps so that he nabbed the ball at its apex, long before it was within anyone else's reach. He had many highlight catches, but rarely any that were visually exciting. Most of the time it was the same formula; the QB hauls it deep, Moss rises up above the secondary and plucks it like an apple from a tree. He dashed defensive strategy into the dust because the only way to really stop him was to be as big as him, as fast as him, to jump as high as him, and no one could do it. He was unstoppable on fade routes at the goal line, and like his deep catches they too followed a formula; Brady launches it to the corner, Randy floats up and grabs it, easy. You rarely saw Moss look like he was working too hard. He was so talented that he tended to have a seismic impact on the offenses he played for; so much work had to be put into subduing Moss that defensive coordinators were forced to leave safeties deep and think carefully before they blitzed. There's a reason he played for arguably the two top offenses in NFL history; both depended on him to limit defenses.

From his great talent stemmed his arrogance. Moss could dominate without having to work as hard as everyone else. He saw no reason to work too hard going over the middle, tended to quit on routes, blocked halfheartedly, and radiated condescension. No one really rooted for Randy Moss. What made him so compelling was his dominance. Watching Moss play was like watching a bullfight sometimes; the outcome of the event was known, but the pleasure was in watching it unfold. Even at the end of his career, when the magic was mostly gone, he could still conjure up memories of the old Moss every once in a while. Remember his one-handed grab over Darrelle Revis a year ago, in what turned out to be the last season of his career? Revis, the top cornerback in the game and in the prime of his career? It was vintage Moss; just reached out and snagged the ball, like a kid in a schoolyard, like Revis wasn't even there.

Ultimately his prodigious talent proved to be his undoing; unlike more fundamentally sound receivers like Rice, Cris Carter, and Terrell Owens, Moss depended wholly on his physical gifts. When those gifts eroded, he had nothing left to stand on, and was unable to play late into his thirties. Moss was proved human after all. And without the production, he had no shield against criticisms of his arrogance, his seeming disinterest in football. It's safe to say not too many people really felt bad for him, sitting there in Tennessee like a mortal, but Moss' downfall did seem a little tragic, like a god cast down from heaven. Like the tragic heroes, his greatest strengths were also his greatest flaws.

Moss leaves behind him a stunning body of work. Football fans still quote the numbers he put up in awe; 23 touchdown catches in one season, 1,313 yards in his rookie season, his freakish 111 catch, 1,632 yard 2003 output. It seems unlikely that the ignominious end to his career or the general sense of dislike that followed him will survive the years. He benefits from a paradox of sports; that on-the-field greatness can make up for anything off it. He's without question one of the top five receivers in the history of the NFL, and you could make a solid case for his being as high as second, behind Rice. He's headed for the Hall of Fame. History will be kind to Moss, leaving only the memory of him as a young phenom, levitating impossibly high to pull in a fifty-yard bomb over a crowd of defenders. Moss is lucky that the unsatisfied, cocky man up in the air will be largely forgotten.

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