Rotating zones gathered no Moss

Posted Aug. 03, 2011 @ 12:53 p.m.
Posted By Tom Danyluk

What do the two biggest scoring teams in history — the 2007 Patriots and the 1998 Vikings — have in common? Yeah, the answer is Randy Moss. That's all I'm compelled to say about the man's immense talent and ability to dominate.

He was the elite of a wonderfully skilled, attention lusting wacked-out strain of talky receivers that hogged the headlines and soundbites over the past decade or longer.

Michael Irvin batted leadoff, in the early 1990s. The patriarch of the group, bringing that macho, kiss-my-behind arrogance from Miami U. over to the NFL. Next came Keyshawn Johnson and his love of the language. Then, the emergence of Terrell Owens.

Moss hit the scene in 1998 with a 17-touchdown, 1,313-yard rookie season, and shortly thereafter a character with a questionable minor in Spanish arrived in Cincinnati, Chad Johnson.

All of them, in terms of demeanor, were a backlash to the all-business, team-first receiver who reigned over the league before them — Jerry Rice.

I read something in one of the recent Moss farewell articles that bugged me. The author was trying to credit Moss for the proliferation of the cover-2 defense around the league, that the scheme was "designed in large part to prevent Moss from wreaking so much havoc down the field," and I nearly spit out a sandwich on that one.

It's a defense that has been in the playbooks for generations. Funny, I don't remember Moss being on the field at all in the late 1970s, back when NBC's Bob Trumpy was in the booth doing AFC games, talking week after week about Pittsburgh's slick "corner's up, safeties out" defensive scheme — the cover-2. Back then it was Blount and Ron Johnson up, Shell and Wagner out — all trying to throttle Isaac Curtis or Wesley Walker or Roger Carr or any of those other old fliers from getting deep on them.

I remember talking cover-2 with Rod Rust, the longtime NFL defensive coach. This was a few years back, when Moss and Brady and the Pats were raising all that hell with their passing attack. So, Rod, why doesn't everybody just go out and cover-2 Moss to death?

"Because if you don't have the personnel," he answered, "I mean, the up-front, defensive line personnel, then it could get ugly fast. Reason being, for the cover-2 to really work in today's game you have to be able to get a terrific pass rush with your front four. You need All-Pro guys up there, guys who can get to the quarterback on their own.

"If you don't have them, and your safeties aren't great cover guys, then basically you're dead. There's no way a defender, even the very good ones, can cover a receiver from snap to whistle."

Paul Zimmerman, the great football writer from Sports Illustrated, used to moan all the time about the way teams would candy-ass around when they defended Moss.

"All he wants to do is run," Zimmerman said. "He's an antelope. He hates being jammed, the hand-to-hand combat of getting off the line. It throws him off. It messes with his concentration. Why do teams refuse to press him and bump-and-run him more?"

And the answer to that was, because if you missed the jam, if you missed that bump and Moss starts running, then it was a certain six points, and pretty soon the defensive coordinator is at the late night Kinko's faxing his résumé around and his kids are crying how they don't want to move again.

Another time I was talking with Mike Wagner, the old Steel Curtain free safety, and the discussion was about how defensive backs are pretty much traffic cones and crossing guards in today's game. The sterilizing aftermath of the five-yard chuck rule. Moss's name came up that day, too.

"Hey, we played against big receivers like Moss before," Wagner said. "You know what we would have done against Randy Moss? We would have $#&*-ed him up. We would have absolutely $#&*-ed him up. We would have hit him on every possible play. But that kind of defensive philosophy doesn't exist today. The rules wouldn't permit it."

He's one of the game's strangest cases, a wildly talented player who freely roamed the label range from magician to dog over his career. Teammates over the years were just as varied in their scope of him. This was Vikings WR Cris Carter, back in 2001, criticizing Moss for la-di-da-ing his routes and not always operating at peak speed:

"I take personal offense to it because that's not the way you approach the game. You play when they make the schedule. Probably 99 percent of the players in the league have less ability than Randy has … for the rest of us, we know we have to give our absolute best to even perform in the NFL, and we know it's not easy."

And here's another view of Moss, the Patriot Moss, courtesy of Tom Brady:

"Football is very natural for him. He was born to play football. … He's very smart as a player. He doesn't need to practice like a first- or second-year player. He understands defenses. He understands what a quarterback is looking for."

I can get to the essence of Moss' career with a quick story about Larry Fitzgerald, another fabulous talent, another natural.

It was senior pro day at Pitt and Denny Green, Moss' former head coach in Minnesota, was on campus to scout receivers. Pitt head coach Walt Harris went out of his way to deliver Green a piece of advice on how to deal with Fitzgerald, who was entering the draft as a third-year sophomore.

"You need to throw the ball deep four or five times a game," Harris said, "because Larry will make the play. And, for sure, he'll keep the ball from being intercepted."

"How's that?" Green asked.

"Larry's always thinking ahead. He knows that if it's intercepted, you aren't throwing deep to him again."

With Randy Moss … the marvelous sphinx of today's pass-catch game, you were never really sure of anything.

 

Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His book on pro football, "The Super '70s," is available at Amazon.com. You can contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.