The national sports media may have a monomaniac focus on Brett Favre — Will he start? Will he win? Will he live to text again? — but most New Englanders are preoccupied with another future Hall of Famer. On Halloween afternoon, former New England Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss will make his return to Foxboro wearing a Minnesota Vikings uniform.
It won’t be a costume. Earlier this month, the Patriots traded Moss back to the team that drafted him. The details were hazy. There were rumors Moss had a locker room spat with Tom Brady. The wideout was supposedly advised to trim his beard as Moss mocked the quarterback’s Justin Bieber-like hairdo. Both men subsequently denied these reports.
Asked what Brady really did think of the trade, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick didn’t mince words. “Tom is a player,” he said icily. “He doesn’t make personnel decisions.” All we know for certain is that during a Monday night football game against Miami, Moss failed to record a catch for the first time in his Patriots career. Two days later, he was gone.
Fans were initially irate and the move was indeed a head-scratcher. Who trades away one of their best players? Even when Moss doesn’t put up big numbers himself, he opens things up for other players. Opposing defenses have to pay attention to him for fear of giving up the big play. Other wide receivers have thrived as a Moss drew double and triple coverage.
Then again, maybe the change isn’t so hard to understand. The New England Patriots’ dynasty has faded since the 16-0 2007 regular season, when Moss first started playing in Foxboro. Sports analysts weren’t sure how the team was going to fare this season. In the opening game of the season, many favored the Cincinnati Bengals — with newly acquired Terrell Owens complementing Chad Ochocinco — over New England at home.
Instead New England shellacked the Bengals, at one point opening up a 31-3 lead before easing up on the accelerator in the second half. It was a great victory against a team projected to be a playoff contender, the kind that makes a statement. One sports website ran this headline: “Patriots to NFL: we’re still here.”
The fans were jubilant. So were the young team members, as the Patriots are now heavy with first- and second-year players. Yet when Moss took the podium for his postgame press conference, he didn’t want to talk about the team effort. “I really don’t think that — me, personally — that I’m appreciated.”
Hey, the guy produced three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. All he wants is a little pat on the back, right? “Sometimes you want your boss to tell you you’re doing a good job,” Moss said. “That’s every man or woman who works for somebody. … And that’s just the way with football.” Owner Robert Kraft should have immediately given him a hug.
Ah, but it wasn’t all about handshakes and hugs. “This is the last year of my contract,” Moss said. “Nothing has been discussed. There’s not been anything said. Not a letter. Nothing.” As Rod Tidwell, the fictional football player in Jerry MacGuire, put it, “Show me the money!” And that’s just the way with football.
Moss has left a team that is now 5-1 to go with a team that is 2-5. The Vikings’ season is on life support. Their 41-year-old quarterback is practically on crutches. Perhaps Moss will be part of a miraculous turnaround. He certainly has the talent, and even at this late date you can never count Iron Man Favre out. Maybe this reversal of fortunes will begin in New England on Sunday. But arguing that this move was about a quest for a ring rather than the Almighty Dollar is a Vince Wilfork-sized insult to the fans’ intelligence.
Here are the cold, hard facts: Moss is 33 and in the last year of his contract. This may be his last opportunity to cash in on a huge contract before he retires. He did not believe that the Patriots — whom he described in the offseason as “cheap” — would offer him one to his liking. Now he could see that the team’s evolving offense, one with many targets for Brady to spread the ball around to, was not going to let him put up the kind of numbers that would make some other team want to offer him megabucks.
So, to paraphrase George Thorogood, he didn’t get the rent and out the door he went. The Patriots were certainly better off with the threat of Moss augmenting all the other offensive talent on the roster, especially with the need to protect a young defense with large leads early in the season. But there were going to be more press conferences like the one after the Bengals game, more quotes like the one after the win in Miami. (Asked why he didn’t get more receptions in that game, Moss shot back, “It’s called a playbook.”)
Moss is one of the greatest wide receivers ever to play the game. He was also on his best behavior nearly his entire tenure as a Patriot, never complaining as his stats decreased during the season where he had Matt Cassel rather than Tom Brady trying to throw him the deep ball. He’s definitely earned the money.
But sometimes fans would like to feel like they are rooting for a team, a group of individual players united by a common cause, not just laundry with the right logo on it. Just as Moss was getting ready to come to town, prodigal son Deion Branch — the onetime New England Super Bowl MVP who spent some time as a wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks — was telling reporters he’d like to retire as a Patriot.
That’s not the same as catching 23 touchdown passes in one season. But it’s certainly nice to hear.