Randy Moss was the most exciting New England Patriot ever. I know, I know that’s like saying “Avatar” did well at the box office. My Patriots never had a player you’d describe as “thrilling,” except for those two seasons when Mike Haynes returned punts (unless you count Irving Fryar’s knife-wielding wife). Seeing Moss in a Patriots uniform always felt like a special treat. We never had a guy like that before. We also knew it wouldn’t last.
It couldn’t last because Moss is a front-runner: someone who has little problem mailing in games or sabotaging situations if the team isn’t winning, if he doesn’t like his coach or quarterback, if his contract status hasn’t been resolved to his liking or, in some cases, all of the above. Boston fans found themselves battling Manny Ramirez flashbacks during our last few weeks with Moss, but the Freak is cagier than Ramirez ever was.
Manny disrupted things much like a little kid would. Manny won’t go to school today, he’s pretending he’s sick. That kind of crap. You could always see right through it. Moss was infinitely more dangerous. Cunning, even. He made a big deal about obeying the Patriots’ tradition, then spent the last two seasons subtly undermining it. Which is part of what made him so damned exciting. When the Patriots dumped Moss this week, I had multiple readers compare it to cutting ties with a crazy hot girl. Jason Whitlock went there as well in his FoxSports.com column:
- “Moss is the unstable, super-hot girl you never marry. You tell her what she needs to hear, you might even give her the code to your garage door but you never commit. You enjoy the ride while it lasts and you move on without any hard feelings.”
I want to take that analogy a step further, and only because I wrote this entire column before reading that Whitlock excerpt. Hate when that happens. In fact, I swear on Larry Bird’s life that I wrote the following paragraph about the Crazy Hot Chick before seeing Whitlock’s piece.
“You know it probably won’t last long. You know you can’t get attached. You know that it has to be condoms all the time, every time, no exceptions. You know you can’t let her move her stuff into your apartment, give her a key, get your e-mail password or find out where your checkbook is. Even when things are going perfectly — like a vacation in Mexico when you’re watching the sun setting on the beach, or a dance floor at a wedding when she’s the sexiest girl there and you’re the envy of your buddies — in the back of your mind, you’re constantly saying ‘Keep your guard up, keep your guard up, keep your guard up,’ because that’s how it has to be. And at the first hint of trouble, you bail. No hard feelings.”
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The last two lines were eerily similar to what Whitlock wrote. You know why? Because that’s how you end things with the Crazy Hot Chick! Bill Belichick finally bailed late Monday night, right after Moss didn’t catch a pass in Monday’s Miami blowout, missed a couple of blocks, nearly got punched by the quarterbacks coach at halftime, then couldn’t be calmed down on the team’s plane ride home. (And yes, that story is true, too.) Added together, it was like Crazy Hot Girl causing a scene at dinner just because you said “I don’t know where this is headed,” steaming in silence on the way home, breaking a wine bottle back at your apartment, storming out with no shoes, disappearing for the night, then sending a group e-mail to your buddies the following morning that you were hung like a field mouse. And the whole time, you’re thinking “God, I was attracted to her that ENTIRE TIME. I need to get out of this!”
Belichick knew he needed to get out. The tension had been building for weeks, ever since the team extended Tom Brady’s contract and effectively told Moss, “Sorry, you’ll have to play for yours.” By the time the team’s plane landed, Belichick had decided to break up with Crazy Hot Girl once and for all. From what I heard, the Patriots were trading him or releasing him. One or the other. Within 36 hours, Randy Moss was a Viking.
On the surface, it looked like the umpteenth example of Belichick putting the team’s future ahead of one player. He consistently cuts ties with veterans a little too soon rather than a little too late. He stockpiles draft picks so relentlessly that you could do a “Hoarders” episode about him. He will never pay a player more than he’s worth, even if that player’s absence could threaten a season. He will always choose chemistry over talent, and he doesn’t care what you’ve done for the franchise, just that you’re doing something right now. You could call him ruthless, you could call him brilliant, or you could call him both. It’s up to you.
Just don’t blame him for the Moss trade. On this one, he bailed at the perfect time.
My Pats buddies are freaking out that our deep threat is gone, that we have nobody to command a double-team, that the safeties can move up and squash our short routes, that Aaron Hernandez (who looks like a young Tony Gonzalez, and I’m not just saying that because they both have Hispanic last names) was thriving in the middle mainly because Moss was opening up the field. Look, I get all that. Makes sense. All of it. But think back to 2001, 2003 and 2004, or how the Patriots sprinted out of the tunnel together before Super Bowl 36. During the glory years, everyone put the team first and nobody made excuses. That’s why they won.
Moss’ departure reverted them to Lunchpail Patriots mode, with the exception of Brady’s hair, of course. We’re hearing stuff like “everyone has to chip in” and “now Brady has to spread it around” again. It’s a likable team that can’t win the Super Bowl because its front seven is terrible — one of the reasons Belichick didn’t mind trading Moss, by the way — but has its eye on next season, when the Patriots have eight picks in the first four rounds (including Oakland’s No. 1 and Carolina’s No. 2, which could yield a top-six pick and/or three of the top 35). They may even have Ewing Theory potential. After all, Moss fits the definition, similar to Tiki Barber with the Giants: a media-hyped superstar who never actually won anything, left his team, then everyone immediately wrote that team off. You never know.
I loved the trade to get him; I support the trade to dump him. And I won’t forget the 42 months in between. Fifty years from now, someone will fumble through some football book or website, see Moss’ 2007 season — 98 catches, 1,493 receiving yards and a record 23 touchdowns — and say “Wow, that was quite a year.” But those numbers don’t come close to capturing the experience of following him for an entire football season. Every time Brady went back to pass, planted his feet, bent his knees a little and looked long, you thought one thing: MOSS!!!!!!!!!! I used to stand up. I really did. Just the sight of Brady taking that extra second brought me off the sofa.
And in person my Lord. Normally at football games, you watch the quarterback. At Patriots games, you watched Moss. If he started off jogging through routes or throwing a half-hearted block, your eyes veered back to the line. Three times per half, Moss took off like a jet, with everyone realizing what was happening a split-second later. Your first reaction? To grunt excitedly. Not quite a “Whoa,” more like a “Hoaaaaa.” But 60,000 people were saying “Hoaaaaaaaa” at the same time. You could hear all of them.
Meanwhile, Moss would be gaining steam like Secretariat at the Belmont. Watching those deep routes ranks against any spectator experience I’ve ever had. I’d put it up there with Bird and Walton running pick-and-rolls, Pedro with two strikes and Fenway swaying, the grainy Bobby Orr highlights, anything. The dude was breathtaking. He was taller than everyone else, so it always looked like some pro receiver had been inserted in a high school game. He was slightly faster than everyone else, but he sprinted so effortlessly that it didn’t seem human. He had better body control than everyone else. Better hands. He could jump higher. He had everything you would ever want. Seeing a long football pass in person always keeps your interest, but this felt different. Just like LeBron briefly shrinking the court in size on a breakaway feels different, or Bo Jackson scoring standing up on a 200-foot fly ball felt different.
I will never forget watching Randy Moss go deep. Three of those moments ended up defining the 2007 season.
Week 1, at New York Jets
Rumored to be skipping this one with an injury, Moss finished with nine catches, 183 yards and one electric play, when he sprinted down the right sideline, ran a buttonhook, then kept going across the field with three Jets flanking him. Brady had a little extra time, so when he finally unleashed the bomb, he aimed toward the left side of the end zone. Moss kicked in a Co2 canister and zoomed across the field — almost at a 60-degree angle, which would make sense normally, but he was 40 yards down the field at this point — dusted all three guys and caught the touchdown, but the finished product looked like a 15-yard crossing pattern on steroids or something. I can still remember my father cackling maniacally on the phone like Herm Edwards. Never, ever, not ever, had we rooted for a Patriot like this guy.
Week 7, at Miami
The apex of Eff You Mode, when the Patriots were coldly annihilating everyone in the league. The Dolphins couldn’t cover Moss — it was clear from the beginning — so after the Patriots had started to pull away, Brady went back to throw, felt some pressure, said “Screw it!” and chucked it downfield up for grabs. Blanketed by two defensive backs as always, Moss glided under the pass, slowed down, jumped up and kept going up and suddenly he was yanking the pass away from the safety for a 50-yard score. He looked like Dwight Howard vaulting over Steve Nash’s back for a rebound. It was incredible. A moment like that could happen in professional football?
Week 21, Super Bowl, Arizona
Six years after the underdog Pats banded together and improbably defeated a juggernaut, we were the superior juggernaut getting improbably defeated. Everything had come full circle. The Helmet Catch had already happened. Giants fans were in “last few seconds of ‘Hoosiers'” mode, every fair-weather fan in the stadium had jumped on their side and every Patriots fans was reacting like the guy in “The Crying Game” during the “You’re a dude????” scene. After an unforgivable sack on second down, we had less than 30 seconds to play and one timeout. There wasn’t enough time to dink and dunk down the field — we needed to play the “Let’s throw a Hail Mary pass to the greatest deep threat ever and hope he does something superhuman” card, almost like a last resort in a “Madden” game.
Everyone in the building knew it was coming. Especially the Giants. When the ball was snapped, the cornerback facing Moss turned around and started running. So did the safety shaded over to his side. Brady rolled out to his right, bought a couple of seconds, waited as long as he could, then uncorked the pass from his own 12-yard line. The flight of the ball alone should have been mesmerizing, but there was Moss racing down the sideline. We didn’t have a chance, but suddenly, we had a chance. It was the distant cousin to the 3-pointer that Larry Bird missed by a half-inch in Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals: We knew we needed a miracle, we knew we had the right horses in place to make that miracle happen, and then the play was happening, the ball was headed toward a good place and we were standing there frozen in disbelief.
“Wait a second, why does it seem like he might catch that wait a second WAIT A SECOND!!!!!!!!!!”
Brady ended up underthrowing him by one yard, although “underthrowing” is the wrong word because the ball traveled traveled an astonishing 70 yards in the air. (Note: I still think it was Brady’s best throw ever. Coming within a hair of completing an uber-bomb to a double-teamed receiver in stride on the season’s last gasp was like Tiger needing to hole a seven-iron to win the Masters, missing it but hitting the pin.) Moss had to ease up for a split-second of a split-second — screwing up his timing since he was sprinting about 85 mph — allowing one of the Giants to make up 2 yards and tip the ball before it could land in the Freak’s hands. So long, miracle.
For whatever reason, you never hear this play discussed in reverential “What if ” tones like some other famous near-misses even though, had the ball traveled a yard farther, it could have spawned one of the single greatest moments in sports history and made that team immortal. Bird’s 3 was the greatest “Hrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA HHHHHHHHHHHHHHH owwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!” crowd moment I’ve ever seen in person, because 15,000 Celtics fans screamed it at the same time. The sound for Moss’ Almost Hail Mary was different — part “Hrrrrrrrrrrrrr AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH owwwwwwwwwwwwww!” (the incredulous Pats fans having their hopes dashed) and part “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh-AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” (the petrified Giants fans crapping their pants, then celebrating their escape). Every one of them is nodding right now. They remember. I promise you. But that catch wasn’t meant to be.
Neither was Moss’ winning a Super Bowl for New England. Eventually, it was time for him to leave, and he did. You don’t marry someone like Randy Moss; you date him for a few seasons, hope for the best, then break up with him. It’s the same mentality you should have during a blackjack run. Ride a hot table, build your chip stacks, then cash out once the cards show any sign of turning. That’s what Bill Belichick did this week. And by the way, he cashed in a whopping amount of chips.
One last thing: We rarely see quality players get traded during a football season. When it happens, it happens for one of two reasons: either the player was holding out (John Jefferson, Joey Galloway), or a bad team wanted to flip an asset to a contender for picks (Eric Dickerson, Herschel Walker, Hugh Green). But a potential playoff team trading an elite player to another potential playoff team during the season? Has that ever happened before? Even nuttier, both the team that dealt him and the team that acquired him believed they were better off.
That’s the thing about football players that can be easily compared to crazy hot chicks: They prey on the weak, and they usually get what they want. For a few months, anyway. The deal doubled as a microcosm of Moss’ career: His remarkable talents wore out one franchise even as they tantalized another — a franchise that had already been worn out by him once before, no less, but couldn’t resist hooking up again.
In real life, you never want to get back together with the crazy hot chick. It’s just a bad idea. It’s like escaping a tornado, then circling back and driving through it again. But the Vikings were weak. They were desperate. They couldn’t resist. At the very least, they know it will be exciting. And they’ll be right.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times best-seller “The Book of Basketball.” For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy’s World. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.