“The Moss of old is back.”
On April 29, 2007, things changed for me and the other beat reporters covering the New England Patriots.
That was the day Bill Belichick and the Patriots stunned us all, trading for Randy Moss during draft weekend, sending a fourth-round pick to the Oakland Raiders to acquire Moss – and got Moss to agree to a steep pay cut to make it possible.
Moss’ production had dropped sharply with the Raiders, somewhat understandable since there were four starting quarterbacks in his two seasons there. He was nagged by injuries, the team was terrible (six wins in his two years), and Moss wasn’t happy.
Then he got a call from Belichick that the Raiders had agree to trade him to New England. Moss admitted on another conference call, this one last month to discuss the 2018 Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony, that he hung up on Belichick the first time the coach tried to share the news with the receiver, thinking it was a prank call. When Belichick called back, he told Moss he had just a few hours to get to Foxborough, Massachussetts or the trade would be voided.
As we clustered around the speakerphone in the press box, Moss explained in his West Virginia twang that he was excited to join the Patriots and get back to doing what he loved – playing football.
He closed by saying, “The Moss of old is back.”
Was he ever.
I was covering the Patriots for the Providence Journal newspaper then, about to start my second season as the beat writer after some time as the backup. Over my preceding years around the team, I’d gotten an up-close look at Tom Brady’s greatness, and to this day I believe getting the sad group of receivers he had to work with in 2006 – Reche Caldwell was the leading receiver that year, seriously, Reche Caldwell – to the AFC title game, which New England almost won, is his greatest achievement.
To make up for trading away friend and trusted target Deion Branch the season before, in 2007 the Patriots signed Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth, and traded for Moss. The moves couldn’t have worked out any better than they did, especially since it wasn’t always a given that receivers could seamlessly work with Brady; the offense is based on timing and reads, and if Brady wants you to cut at 7 yards and you cut at 9, he won’t be happy, and you won’t get the ball.
That didn’t happen with the new guys.
Moss was obviously a known commodity when he arrived in New England, and had turned 30 just a couple of months before the trade. His years with Oakland had gone so poorly he was already contemplating retirement.
Thankfully for all football fans, that didn’t happen.
Moss was revitalized with the Patriots, his preternatural talents on full display: the size/speed combination, the impossible catch radius, the knack he had for waiting until the last possible moment to extend his hands to pull in a ball, giving him another small advantage over defensive backs, because if they had their back to the ball, they wouldn’t know it was coming in.
Moss and the Patriots’ offense was breathtaking at times in 2007. Brady became the first quarterback to throw 50 touchdowns in a season, and Moss caught an NFL-record 23 of them. All told, he had 98 receptions for 1,493 yards; at the time, the yardage was a single-season franchise record.
I can’t even guess how many times that year I looked at a neighbor in the press box and asked, “How did he do that?” Sometimes my mouth just hung open.
Even in 2008, when Brady went down with a torn ACL in the season opener, Moss was a reliable target for Matt Cassel, recording another 1,000 yard season.
He was dominant again in 2009, with 1,264 yards and a league-best 13 touchdowns.
Off the field, Moss helped younger teammates on both sides of the ball with advice for all manner of situations, both football and life, and he was generally beloved. But as is well-known, he doesn’t let many into his inner circle. He and Brady had a great professional relationship, but Moss would befriend running back Kevin Faulk, whom he’d known for years, and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork.
And with us in the media, it was complicated. Whether it was because he knew Belichick wanted players to say as little as possible and knew he had a hard time not being frank or because he’d been burned by media before, Moss didn’t talk much.
On the eve of the 2007 playoffs, news broke that a woman in Florida had requested a restraining order against Moss, accusing him of battery. That day, he needed to talk to us, and we dutifully gathered around to hear him deny that he’d injured the woman, calling her a friend, the incident an accident and insisting he’d never put his hands on a woman in anger in his life.
After the media scrum, with perhaps the only reporter he did like, Moss said the two had engaged in a particularly physical sex, and now she was looking for money. Nothing came of the allegations.
Over the next two years, Moss would begin his infrequent media chats by announcing, “y’all got three questions,” and it would be a contest to see who could get to ask them – and if you didn’t get to ask, you silently hoped one of the three wasn’t useless or stupid.
But I always respected that not talking meant everyone. Some players will brush off media from local outlets, but when a reporter or camera from ESPN or NFL Network approaches, suddenly he has time. Moss didn’t play that. If he wasn’t talking, he wasn’t talking, period.
It all unraveled seemingly quickly in 2010, though things had been brewing behind the scenes for months. At the Patriots’ Kickoff Gala that August, at the time a huge annual fundraiser that players were required to attend – people paid thousands of dollars per table, and a player sat at every table – Moss was present, but as his teammates lined up for introductions and were approached by autograph-seeking fans, he was off by himself, bopping his head to whatever was coming out of giant Beats headphones.
Two weeks later, after the regular-season opening win over the Cincinnati Bengals, Moss stood at the podium and broke his months-long silence with a rambling speech about wanting to feel appreciated but not feeling appreciated. Less than a month later, he was gone, traded “back home” to Minnesota, where his NFL career began.
But Moss always spoke fondly of his days with New England, of Belichick and Brady.
And I will always get to say that for three-plus seasons, I got to see every catch from the greatest receiver ever.
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