Is Randy Moss a first ballot Hall of Famer? That probably depends on how you look at things. What should not be in question is that he belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In the opinion of some, there are Pro Football Hall of Famers, and there are “first-ballot Hall of Famers,’’ an exclusive list within an exclusive club. Of the 310 selectees, 97 were first-ballot selections — with 17 of those 97 members of the original class elected in 1963. So 31.29 per cent of all enshrinees got in on the first ballot, although the rules for eligibility have changed over the years.
Moss is in his first year of eligibility and is one of 27 semifinalists, a list that will be pared to roughly 15 finalists later this month. There are some who insist Moss is a “slam-dunk’’ first-ballot selection. There are others saying, “Wait a minute” … because, well, here is a small sampling of Hall of Famers who were NOT elected in their first year of eligibility: Otto Graham, Paul Brown, Pete Rozelle, Dick “Night Train’’ Lane, Cris Carter, Frank Gifford, Willie Davis, John Mackey, Mike Ditka, Lenny Moore, Mike Haynes, Ken Stabler, Joe Schmidt and the list goes on.
Point being, “slam dunk’’ is a relative term, as Randy Moss may or may not find out. What are not debatable are his numbers. When Moss retired after the 2012 season he had 982 catches, 15,292 yards, 156 touchdowns and a yards-per-catch average of 15.6. He remains second all-time in touchdowns, third in yards, 15th in receptions and second with 10 1000-yard seasons and 64 100-yard games.
Moss holds the single-season touchdown reception record for both rookies (17) and non-rookies (23), the latter coming during the New England Patriots’ 18-1 season when they were upset in Super Bowl XLII by the New York Giants — a game where Moss caught the go-ahead touchdown pass from Tom Brady with 2:42 to play. He then barely missed grabbing a bomb that might have set up a game-tying field goal with seconds left.
Moss made his presence known immediately in the NFL, scoring two touchdowns in his first game for the Minnesota Vikings his rookie season of 1998. In his first Monday night game he had five receptions for 190 yards and two touchdowns and had another 75-yarder called back because of offensive holding.
He would go on to become Rookie of the Year, a six-time Pro Bowl selection, four-time first-team All-Pro and five-time touchdown reception leader, as well as a member of the 2000s’ all-decade team. His dominance was so obvious that when Mike Tice became Vikings’ head coach in 2002 he added the “Randy Ratio,’’ to his game plan.
The previous season the Vikings were 4-1 in games in which Moss touched the ball 40 percent of the time or more. They were 1-10 in games in which he did not. So Tice came up with the idea that someone would keep track of how often Moss was getting the ball during a game, and if it was not 40 per cent or more, the Vikings would find ways to put it in his hands.
In theory it sounded good, but it became a force-fed offense where Moss had a then-career high 106 catches (which he would eclipse the following year with 111) but scored only seven times as Minnesota went 6-10.
The problem was Moss was a home-run hitter, a receiver with blinding speed and the ability to jump over defenders like Michael Jordan. But to get him the ball vs. double-and-sometimes triple-coverage 40 per cent of the time required he run shallower routes … and that detracted from what his game really was.
Tice abandoned the idea after one season, and the next year Moss became the only receiver other than Jerry Rice to play in 12 games or more and average over 100 receiving yards per game (111 catches for 1,631 yards, 102 per game). Moss again had 17 receiving touchdowns in just 16 games.
But in 2004 he incurred a series of nagging injuries that would plague him for much of the rest of his career. He scored 13 times in 13 games but had a then career-low 49 catches for 767 yards. On March 2, 2005, only months after having fake-mooning Green Bay Packers’ fans after scoring in a playoff game ( a response to their tradition of mooning opposing teams’ buses when they left the stadium parking lot in Green Bay), he was traded to the Oakland Raiders, where he would endure three ever less productive and more controversial seasons.
That was not the first nor the last controversial moment in his career.
Weary of injury and losing, Moss complained about being unhappy in Oakland and admitted “my concentration and focus level tend to go down sometimes when I’m in a bad mood.’’
Soon after he was in a Patriots’ uniform, with the Raiders trading him on April 29, 2007 for a fourth-round pick. Moss restructured his contract and embarked on one of the greatest seasons in NFL history. He had nine receptions for 181 yards and a 51-yard touchdown in his first game and finished the year with 98 catches, 1,493 yards and six of his 23 receiving touchdowns from beyond 40 yards. Those 23 touchdowns broke the record of 22 set by Rice in a strike-shortened 1987 season in which he played only 12 games.
Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick would call Moss “the smartest receiver I’ve ever been around,’’ but in less than three-and-a-half he’d worn out his welcome again after complaining about his contract following a season-opening victory in 2010. Two days after having no receptions in a half-hearted effort vs. the Dolphins, Moss was traded back to Minnesota … with the Vikings waiving him a month later after he criticized then-head coach Brad Childress and his teammates, accusing Childress of incompetence and refusing to speak to him.
The Tennessee Titans were the only team that claimed a guy who only a few years earlier was the most feared deep threat in the game. Then they declined to re-sign him at the end of the 2010 season. Moss retired for a year before returning with the 49ers in 2012. He was by then a shadow of the threat he’d once been and was let go following San Francisco’s loss in Super Bowl XLVII, a game in which he made the final two receptions of his career but had little impact.
Despite the way things ended, Moss was the dominant receiver of his era and one of the most dangerous deep threats in football history. It was said by his quarterbacks that he was open even when he was covered because he could both outrun defenders and jump over them. So, it would seem, what would be the argument against Moss becoming that rarest of NFL players, a first-ballot Hall of Famer?
Some voters, and no one knows how many, have kept Terrell Owens waiting for three years now despite retiring with numbers that exceed Moss’ in yards (15,934) and receptions (1,078) and trail him in touchdowns by only three (153, which ranks third all-time). Owens put up those numbers in one more season than Moss but, because of injuries and suspensions, played in only one more game than Moss (219 to 218). In his only Super Bowl appearance Owens had nine catches for 122 yards playing on a recently broken leg. Had the Eagles not lost by a field goal, Owens would have surely been the game’s MVP.
What has kept Owens out, it seems, is his too-often disruptive locker-room presence and penchant for getting into morale-crushing fights with his various starting quarterbacks, including one with Donovan McNabb only months after that Super Bowl loss. Moss’ self-absorption surfaced in other ways, but he was dealt away by every team he was ever on, as was Owens — with Minnesota getting rid of him at the height of his career.
Worse, while Owens was a lightning rod in the locker room, his effort was never questioned. Not so Moss about whom Rice said in 2011, “To see a guy with that much talent not give it 100 percent, it was almost like a little slap in the face. It was hard for me to swallow because I had less talent and had to work harder. But Randy was Randy.
“He could have been one of the greatest if he had worked just a little bit harder. I don’t think he wanted to give it 100 percent. You never knew what you were going to get with Randy. Sometimes you’d get the unbelievable guy, the amazing guy. Other times you’d get the guy that took a couple plays off.”
Moss seemed to confirm this on Nov. 22, 2001 in an interview with legendary Minneapolis Star-Tribune sports columnist Sid Hartman when he told him, “I play when I want to play. Do I play up to my top performance, my ability, every time? Maybe not … When I make my mind up, I’m going out there to tear somebody’s head off. When I go out there and play football, man, it’s not anybody telling me to play or how I should play. I play when I want to play, case closed.’’
Years later Moss tried to amend that statement, claiming it was not a true reflection of his effort. But those questions dogged him in his final years in Minnesota, in Oakland and in his last days in New England. If Randy Moss, in fact, played when he wanted to play should he be included among that 31.29 per cent of Hall of Famers who got in on the first ballot?
More than likely that will be part of the debate in February if, as expected, he makes the list of finalists. First-ballot Hall of Famer? There seems to be more than numbers that determine that.