Randy Moss and Exceptions to the Rule

You’ve seen this eRumor:

It is time to elect a new world leader, and only your vote counts. Here are the facts about the three leading candidates.

Candidate A associates with crooked politicians, and consults with astrologers.
He’s had two mistresses. He also chain smokes and drinks 8 to 10 martinis a day.

Candidate B was kicked out of office twice, sleeps until noon, used
opium in college and drinks a quart of whiskey every evening.

Candidate C was a decorated war hero. He’s a vegetarian, doesn’t smoke, drinks an occasional beer, and never cheated on his wife.

Candidate A was Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Candidate B was Winston Churchill.
Candidate C was Adolph Hitler.

Although there is no record that Churchill ever used opium and Hitler’s “wife” became his wife shortly before he offed himself in his bunker, there’s a lot of documented truth in these statements that make a sound point: It is sometimes dangerous to deify or damn our public figures for behavior outside their role. This is especially true with athletes.

“To be great is to be misunderstood”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Given this point, I shouldn’t find it incredible that the NFL fan base is polarized when Randy Moss is mentioned as one of the greatest receivers in the history of the game.

Randy Moss is the exception to the rule on so many levels that the subject of his greatness is polarizing among fans. Photo by The Brit_2.

Invariably a significant percentage of fans will say that Moss is a one-dimensional player who runs only a few routes and never puts forth the consistent effort every week to earn the mantle of greatness.

There’s some truth to those points. Moss didn’t run the same route tree as Michael Irvin. Although he was always in tip-top shape, camera crews weren’t  following him during his offseason training regimen like they did with Jerry Rice. He didn’t define effort like Fred Biletnikoff or Wayne Chrebet and his lapses of motivation didn’t inspire organizational loyalty.

In the coming days, I’ll publish a multiple-post series about a college wide receiver prospect titled “Unvarnished Moss.” There are striking similarities in terms of height, weight, speed, and athleticism between this young player and Moss in his prime. But when comparing their performances at the same points of their careers, Moss was a far more intelligent, aware, and refined football player. The exercise of evaluating this college prospect reminded me of two things about Moss: There can be great subtlety to athleticism and there is a lot of football intelligence beneath his athletic veneer.

As with every team sport, Moss’s greatness demands a certain level of skill from other players to put it on display. Moss is the greatest deep threat to ever play receiver. When paired with Kerry Collins, a solid quarterback with a good deep arm but such poor deep ball anticipation that he forced open receivers to slow their stride or come back to the ball, it made what Moss does so well a non factor. At the same time, has Tom Brady’s game declined so much that deep threats Chad Johnson and Brandon Lloyd never had a chance to meet Randy Moss’s production in New England at a point in the receiver’s career where most pass catchers are considered past their prime? I think not.

Moss’ off-field behavior and unbuttoned attitude on it chafe with the etiquette of the game and its fans. But just like Churchill and Roosevelt, should a player’s greatness be defined only if an observer can check “exceeds expectations” in every box on a list of defined criteria for that title? What is this definition of greatness and what are the criteria points? Which points can a player fail to meet expectations and still be considered great? Are the points always the same for every player? And when does a strict adherence to criteria yield a result where we’d like a do-over?

Longevity seems to be one of those criteria points for many. However, Gale Sayers, Bo Jackson, and Terrell Davis lacked longevity due to catastrophic injuries and they are glaring exceptions to the that rule. Accumulation of popular statistics is the most logical of the acceptable criteria points for greatness. Some may argue that while Floyd Little’s career stats was the initial reason he was kept out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it was the data analysis that one persistent fan presented with the severity of a PhD dissertation that convinced pro football writers that the Broncos running back was great enough to earn induction to Canton.

However, there is poetry to football – yes, poetry.  If there weren’t significant weight to the poetry of the game then the logic behind the data of injury, long-term disability, violence, and overall exploitative nature of the industry would have shut the sport down decades ago. But there is an emotional, lyrical, heroic, and poetic component to football. If you acknowledge that this element has significant import to the game then evaluating greatness shouldn’t be limited to the measurements that we think are objective.

Otherwise we might as well be a bunch of Dr. J. Evans Pritchards of football appreciation:

While I tend to give less weight to qualities that people lump together and term intangibles when I’m evaluating a player entering the pro game, a big reason is that I don’t spend time with them. I don’t interview coaches or teammates. And if I did I’d still develop a process to do my best at separating the potential truth from the probable horse manure.

Lawrence Taylor, Brett Favre, Bo Jackson, and Gale Sayers, like Moss, are exceptions to the rules and that creates consternation for the J. Evans Pritchards within us. Photo by John Corbett.

Greatness comes in many forms and sometimes the more flawed the individual personally, the greater the player is as a professional. The only thing great about Lawrence Taylor’s Bacchanalian pregame routines was his generosity to let his opponents share in his experiences. But it adds to his legend that he could behave like a wild man on and off the field and he was still one of Bill Parcel’s guys. Add Michael Irvin and a significant portion of the `70s and `80s Oakland Raiders to that list.

Is greatness moral or ethical? If we’re judging human behavior, absolutely. If we’re judging a specific skill, it’s often not part of the criteria. Brett Favre’s alleged infidelities were not Hall of Fame worthy behavior. But his durability, guts, winning percentage, and three MVPs are reasons that he is. Go ahead, bring up Favre’s interception total, but it might be one of the most overrated stats among football fans.

There are some questions about the nature of greatness that veer into territory where I have no answer. Is there a line of immoral or unethical behavior outside the game that can’t be crossed? Would O.J. Simpson deserve entry in Canton if his legal troubles occurred prior to induction?

While I find the events surrounding his wife reprehensible, I have no problem with honoring a player’s greatness without celebrating him. It’s a fine line in Simpson’s case because I wouldn’t have wanted to see him on a stage accepting his induction and giving a speech. However, he was found innocent of murdering his wife in a court of law – even if that decision was as sound as the thousands of court cases in this country that unjustly put men and women of color behind bars – and it means he would have earned the right to participate like every other inductee. One thing I can’t deny O.J. Simpson is that he was a great running back.

Why do we believe that when we honor an individual for his or her achievements that we also have to deify them in areas of life beyond the scope of the honor?  We see over and over in life that some of the most flawed individuals can still be great at something. There is a valid argument that the public relations mindset behind putting these players on a pedestal beyond the game has to end – or at least lessen the influence of the PR Factor.

Moss is no O.J. Simpson, but to many fans, some teammates, certain coaches, a drenched official, a local Minnesota caterer, a butt-hurt traffic officer, and numerous organizational executives he is a bore. He might have earned the ire of analysts like Merrill Hoge for taking plays off and the media potentially misstating the context of the statement “I play when I want to play.” He may be hanging on well beyond his career’s expiration date. However, I believe that greatness can also encompass a limited number of criteria and what Moss did well he did better than all but a small handful of receivers to ever strap on a helmet.

“Every great man is unique”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

The video below lists the stats for the NFL fan-media-academic, but look at the poetry of his game. Enjoy it – don’t just quantify it. It’s sad to think that we always need numbers to tell us what greatness is. Just as there are times that our senses deceive us, there are times that our reliance on data cripples us. If you don’t have time to watch this 10-minute video by Bruce Davis, enjoy the final two minutes of plays that few, if any, receivers could make as consistently as Moss.

Bill Belichick says Moss is the smartest receiver he’s ever been around.  My colleague Eric Stoner at Draft Breakdown and Rotoworld does a fine job of explaining Moss’ intelligence with option routes in his RSP Writer’s Project. Moss is also effortless as a pass catcher when it comes to adjusting his body to get position against a defender. He’s a master at tracking the ball with his eyes without telegraphing the location of the ball to defenders with his hands. In this prime of his career, Moss could beat any defender on a vertical route or weave around them in the open field. And, on Monday night Moss still proved that he has the speed to make a defense pay if they don’t bring him to the ground on the first try.

Moss is the exception to the rule and he is the best example we have in football why the exception to the rule is so dangerous on just about every level one can imagine. His off-field troubles as a prospect forced teams to pass on him and live to regret it. Believe me when I say that a Steve McNair-to-Randy Moss, pitch-and-catch combination in Tennessee would have rendered the 1999 Rams and the 2000 Ravens moot points.

McNair’s career would have been vastly different with a great deep threat that the Titans could never give its quarterback. Kevin Dyson? Carl Pickens? Yancy Thigpen? Justin McCareins? They all were pale imitations of the real deal. McNair took a tremendous amount of punishment hanging in the pocket to buy time for these lesser vertical threats to get open.

Yet Moss’ initial success also influenced NFL teams to take chances on troubled talents they later wished they hadn’t because on the surface Moss was a gamble that worked for Minnesota. You might argue that Moss didn’t work out, but even three years of his excellence was greater success than most teams get from any player.

But it wasn’t just about Moss as the exception to the rule who was “worth the trouble.”  Moss ran a limited route tree compared to other great receivers and in this sense he was also the exception. There are NFL personnel executives who likely took the chance on limited talents because they didn’t fully appreciate that Moss’ skills were more than just out-running and out-jumping the competition.

The college player I evaluated in the upcoming post “Unvarnished Moss,” has all the skills to develop into a fine starter. He even has the potential for greatness. However, the craft is missing from his game – that extra layer of skill and awareness.

There is craft in Moss’s game that makes playing receiver appear deceptively simple – A.J. Green has it, but needs a more refined quarterback for it to bloom in its full glory. That craft and the play of two of his quarterbacks has been part of Moss’s greatness. Unfortunately his greatness is easily overlooked because it is easier to focus more on what he can’t do rather than celebrate what he does better than everyone else.

5 responses to “Randy Moss and Exceptions to the Rule”

  1. Few people seem to remember that Rice took modest depth passes to the house to set his record. (Which is not to diminish his career an iota.) Moss was the deep threat you’d find when you Googled the phrase, and is the standard everyone else should be measured against. Great piece.

  2. Excellent article…..Moss was like the modern version of the Lombardi swwep, Moss knew what was coming, the DB knew what was coming, Moss knew the DB knew what was coming, then he went out and made the play anyway….his reflexes, ball skills and hand-eye coordination were incredible….I think you could formulate a strong argument that he is one of the 10 greatest offensive players of al time.

  3. I agree with all your points. Moss had unparalleled talent, he was an incredibly hard worker, and his football IQ was very high. I was always frustrated people questioned #2 and #3 despite immense evidence to the support them.

    The only argument against his hall of fame qualifications was how he handled adversity on the field. Every great player faces adversity. The truly great rise to the challenge and will their teams to overcome it (sometimes successful – sometimes not). When his teams faced their toughest moments, Moss often disappeared or even worse imploded causing havoc on the sidelines.

    Moss was the most talented receiver, one of the hardest working (Jerry Rice probably get this one though), but he was not a winner. This hurts his HoF bid in my eyes.

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