It was the first day of Vikings training camp in 1998, and Robert Smith, the team’s veteran running back, was on the phone talking to his agent during lunch. Coming off a breakout season, you’d think the topic of conversation was Smith’s contract or his health or how the opening workout went. But no. The agent wanted to know what everyone else wanted to know about the Vikings that year.
“Well,” Smith recalls him asking, “what do you think of this Moss kid?'”
Smith’s answer was simple. “I don’t know about him off the field,” he told him. “But if he stays healthy, he’s going to be a Hall of Famer.”
By lunchtime of the first day of Randy Moss‘ first training camp. That’s how long it took teammates to know what he was going to be.
“I saw something Moss did that first day, and I’ll never forget it,” Smith continues. “It was like a 15-yard dig route. And I remember the speed in which he made the cut—how easily he separated and how quickly he was able to go up and snatch the ball out of the air, never losing stride and getting upfield. It was something I had never seen before athletically.
“I had been in the league five years at that point. I had seen Deion Sanders, and obviously I had played with Cris Carter and been on the same field as Jerry Rice. Just so many great players. And s–t, back in college I was actually in a race at the same time with Carl Lewis. So I had seen a lot of great athletes. … I had never seen anything like that.
“This was the best player, maybe the best athlete I had ever seen in person.”
Moss’ new teammates nicknamed him “Freak” that year, and never has a nickname been more apt. He treated the well-worn moniker roughly the same way he treated defenses around the league. Simply put, he made the game look easy and quickly became the most feared receiver of his generation.
It’s been 20 years since that season, since the NFL first experienced Randy Moss. His 41st birthday was Feb. 13, and his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame is coming in August. He’s the first receiver to become a first-ballot selection to Canton since Jerry Rice in 2010.
But for those who played and coached with and against Moss, the mark he left is still fresh. They all have stories like Smith’s. Of the first time they saw him. Of benefitting from playing alongside a guy with these unique gifts. Of how uncoverable he was for the league’s defensive backs. Of trying to game-plan against him. And of where he was headed all along.
Smith remembers that opponents whose task it was to stop Moss in pass coverage often wore a look of “resignation” in their eyes even before the game started. After a week of watching film of his work, by game day the fear of the challenge had grown exponentially in an opponent’s head.
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“He was like Mike Tyson,” Smith says. “He’d beat you before you even faced him. I’ve never heard defensive players talk the way they talked about him. I shouldn’t say that; there’s one other player who was like that: Barry Sanders. It’s like they knew they were inadequate to perform the job they were supposed to do against those two. They just couldn’t do it. There was no way athletically to get the job done.”
Tony Dungy’s 1998 Bucs were the first team to test themselves against Moss in regular-season action. Tampa Bay had made the playoffs the previous season and already fielded one of the best defenses in the league. The Bucs had done their homework and thought they were prepared for what was to come in Week 1 in the Metrodome.
“We had seen all the preseason stuff Moss did and said, ‘OK, but this is the regular season, and we play good defense,” Dungy recalls. “I said, ‘Hey, whatever you do, keep this guy in front of you. Make sure you don’t give him the deep ball.’
“And then he proceeded to get behind us twice (for 48- and 31-yard touchdowns), and we lost 31-7. All that talking, and he just ran past us. And it was like guys couldn’t judge his speed; it was so freakish.
“He was the real freak of freaks.”
Like Smith, Dungy conjured up Lions running back Barry Sanders as the only other player to impact a defense quite like early-career Moss, who presented nothing but bad options in an opponent’s coverage.
“When he was in the game, everything revolved around where he was,” Dungy says. “And it really didn’t matter the coverage, because the quarterback was going to throw it—and even if he’s covered, he’s going to catch it. And if he wasn’t jumping over the top of people, he’d catch quick passes and run by people.
“It’s hard to even describe the impact he had just on game-planning. He disrupted everything, and we had never seen anybody quite that big and fast.”
Right away, the league knew it was in trouble. There was his breakout, jaw-dropping performance in Week 5 in Green Bay, single-handedly destroying the Brett Favre-led Packers at Lambeau Field by turning a mere five receptions into 190 yards and two touchdowns in a Vikings upset win.
And who can ever forget his Thanksgiving Day beatdown in Dallas, when his three receptions of 51, 56 and 56 yards produced 163 yards and three touchdowns against his once-beloved Cowboys, with a 50-yard pass interference penalty adding insult?
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Moss scored at least one touchdown in each of his final nine games in that tour de force season, including playoffs, and was the overwhelming choice for the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Rail-thin at 6’4″, 198 pounds when he entered the league, Moss had been clocked at 4.3 in the 40-yard dash in his NFL combine workout. Even a veteran like San Diego safety Rodney Harrison—a future teammate of Moss’ in New England—was at a loss as to how to defend his unprecedented blend of size and speed.
“There were two players in this league who gave me anxiety: Randy Moss [and Peyton Manning],” Harrison says. “When I played [Moss] in ’99, I made sure—coaches always say line up 15 yards deep and two yards outside the hash; well, I lined up 22 yards deep, because if he catches a slant and you come up and try to tackle him, [he’s gone]. That shows you the magnitude he had [against defenders].
“When he’s building up speed, you don’t think he’s going fast—but he’s going really fast. And the fact he’s 6’4″ and he’s got long arms and these big hands, man, it’s tough.”
Opponents and teammates alike said Moss’ speed was always tricky to calibrate, and once you finally did, it was likely too late. He was a long-strider, and his first few steps were slow-developing. But he could reach top speed while you were still reacting to his so-so getaway.
“It was just so deceptive,” says former Vikings defensive tackle and fellow Hall of Famer John Randle. “You couldn’t believe it until you saw it firsthand. And even then, you had to see it again and again to realize how quick he was. He never looked to be going as fast as he was really going.”
Former 49ers quarterback Steve Young goes beyond the NFL to the world of Olympic track to compare Moss’ top-end speed in his prime.
“It’s kind of like Usain Bolt,” Young says. “With Moss, it was How do I even cover that? No defensive back is big enough to cover him, and no one’s fast enough.
“I always wanted him in the West Coast offense so he could run some routes. He’d be unstoppable, completely unstoppable, in a more structured offense. And he’s a Hall of Fame player as it is. But in a more structured offense, they would have had to make him illegal.
“If you’re in the NFL, you’re a great athlete. But he’s probably one of the greatest athletes ever to play in this league.”
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Deion Sanders makes no bones about it. The former Cowboys great wanted Moss in Dallas. He lobbied owner Jerry Jones to draft Moss, but Dallas famously passed on him with its No. 8 pick in 1998, largely because receiver Michael Irvin was going through some well-chronicled legal issues, and the Cowboys did not want to add Moss and his off-field baggage to the mix.
Before landing at Marshall University, Moss had lost scholarships at both Notre Dame and Florida State for taking part in a beating of a fellow high school student and subsequently violating the terms of his probation when he tested positive for marijuana.
“We wanted him, and I told Jerry to draft him,” Sanders says. “The problem was, somebody else had baggage at that point. It wasn’t Moss’ baggage. It was the other guy’s baggage, and they didn’t want two pieces of Samsonite in the same locker room.
“He made them pay for not taking him, and rightly so. He was a fan of the Cowboys growing up. Jerry brought him to my crib, and I’m the one who got to know him. So I could say yay or nay. But I said get him.”
Alas, the Cowboys didn’t get him, which allowed him to drop all the way to No. 21. During the course of his NFL career, Moss’ grudge against Dallas resulted in a 7-0 record against the Cowboys, with 35 catches for 662 yards, 10 touchdowns and almost 19 yards per catch.
But of course his hostilities weren’t reserved only for the Cowboys. Every defensive back felt them. Even those as elite as Sanders or fellow Hall of Famer Aeneas Williams, the former Cardinals star.
“When you played the Vikings, he was the guy you had to neutralize to be successful,” Williams says. “It was enormously difficult to stay with him, but more importantly, it was Randy’s ability to adjust to the ball. Even though he was tall, Randy rarely caught deep balls with full extension.
“Most times he jumped and caught the ball in his arms. Because of his ability to adjust to balls, on a lot of touchdowns there were DBs all around him. They just weren’t adjusting to the ball with freakish athleticism like he could. He was a matchup nightmare.”
Even the supremely confident Sanders, whose “Primetime” nickname is at least a match for Moss’, admits he never felt completely at ease against No. 84.
“He was the only guy that I knew if there was one wrong step, he could go get it,” Sanders says. “Just like I could go get it. And there weren’t too many people in the game that could even make me think that way.
“I remember once I played him with a hamstring [injury] they didn’t know about. And I was like, ‘Please don’t throw at me.’ They tried deep one time, and I broke it up, but thank God they didn’t know. Because that threat he posed was unbelievable.”
If there were a bookend to Moss’ monster debut season in Minnesota, it came nine years later in New England, when he teamed up for the first time with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Many believed Moss’ career had long since peaked, but in getting traded from the losing purgatory of Oakland to New England in 2007, his renewed game again set the pace for NFL receivers and helped the Patriots become the first team to go 16-0.
Stephan Savoia/Associated Press
Moss posted a league-record 23 touchdown catches, hauling in 98 passes for 1,493 yards and becoming the top weapon for a team that set the NFL’s all-time single-season scoring record with 589 points. In the Super Bowl against the Giants, Moss caught the go-ahead touchdown pass with just 2:42 left, but New England’s defense faltered down the stretch, and the 18-0 Patriots were upset 17-14.
On the final two snaps of that game, Brady threw deep for Moss, trying desperately to get into position for a game-tying field goal. Then-Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo could barely watch, such was the severity of his Moss Stress Syndrome.
“I still have nightmares of the last two plays of that Super Bowl, when Brady was chucking it down to Randy,” Spagnuolo says. “We had two guys on him, and I still didn’t feel comfortable. Those passes were up there forever, and you knew where they were going. He scared me to death. You could have him gloved, covered perfectly, and he’d still find a way to catch it.”
Rich Gannon’s tenure in Oakland didn’t overlap with Moss’, but he played with star receivers such as Rice, Cris Carter, Art Monk and Andre Rison and still considered Moss the most dangerous pass-catcher of all.
“He’s one of the rare players when you played against him, every time you saw the ball go up in the air you took a deep breath,” says Gannon, the NFL’s MVP in 2002. “It was like one of those ‘Aw s–t’ moments where you thought, ‘Our guy’s not going to cover him. Let’s be honest.’ Trying to cover him was really asking for trouble.”
Running back LaDainian Tomlinson, himself a Hall of Fame terror to opposing defenses, remembers how pronounced Moss’ effect could be. “It terrified guys, really scared them,” he says. “There’s certain guys that you know you won’t be able to stop them, and they’re going to make their plays. You just don’t want to be embarrassed.
“That’s what defensive backs were like against Moss. ‘I don’t want to be on SportsCenter the next day and see all these highlights of what he did to me.'”
One of the ultimate compliments to Moss is how his last name became synonymous with his particular style of catching the ball. Post-1998 in the NFL, everyone understood what it meant to be “Mossed.”
“You know you’re great when they name a catch after you,” former NFL running back Maurice Jones-Drew says. “With Randy, it was, ‘You got Mossed.’ And that’s what we did as kids. Everybody was trying to jump over your guy and Moss them. Even though he could run by you, more defenders feared getting Mossed, where they got jumped over and embarrassed.
“I remember [former Vikings head coach] Mike Tice was one of our coaches in Jacksonville, and he’d tell us stories about Randy in practice just running past guys, catching the ball one-handed and just laughing. The game came easy to him.”
By the time he called it a career, Moss had accumulated 982 career receptions, 156 touchdowns and a gaudy 15.6 yards-per-catch average.
But impressive as the statistics may be, they aren’t Randy Moss’ legacy.
The Randy Moss legacy is the memory of the dread and terror he instilled with his singular and transcendent combination of blazing straight-line speed, tremendous height and length and suction-cup hands.
That’s what Hall of Fame voters honored when they considered him as a candidate for the Class of 2018.
The same thing Robert Smith saw on day one.