Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
29 Sep 2004
By Michael David Smith
Randy Moss's college career was tainted by his reputation as a troublemaker. Moss got kicked out of both Notre Dame and Florida State before he finally spent two seasons dominating inferior opposition at Marshall.
But in the NFL he made an immediate impact and was almost universally praised until Week 4 of the 2000 season. That's when Merril Hoge ripped Moss on ESPN's NFL Matchup.
After the Vikings had finished a fourth of the season, Hoge took the time to examine every single play for which Moss was on the field. What he saw was shocking -- Moss loafed, jogged, or flat-out did nothing on dozens of plays. NFL Matchup showed plays when Moss simply stood in his position without moving, and other plays when Moss made little effort to block, costing his team yardage when his man made the tackle.
Showing perhaps more objectivity than Moss deserved, Hoge also pointed out that Moss runs more deep routes than almost any other receiver in the league, meaning he gets more tired than your typical receiver.
In the Vikings' first game after the broadcast, Moss ran wild, gaining 168 yards and scoring three touchdowns as the Vikings won in Detroit. After the game, Moss said he had seen Hoge's comments and was motivated by them. He also called Hoge the first person who had criticized him. (If that was true, shame on Minnesota receivers coach Charlie Baggett.)
I decided to revisit the issue this weekend by watching Moss on every play of the Vikings' game against the Bears. Here's what I saw:
Moss never stood by like a mildly interested onlooker the way he did on the plays Hoge showed four years ago, but he did have several lazy plays (all runs) when he merely jogged off the line of scrimmage. What I found most interesting about the Vikings' play-calling is that they hardly ever run to Moss's side of the field. I'm sure if I asked Mike Tice why that is, he'd tell me it's because whatever side of the field Moss is on, the opposing safeties tend to move in that direction. Even if Moss blocked downfield with as much toughness and enthusiasm as Rod Smith or Hines Ward (who set the gold standard for blocking among wide receivers), it would make more sense for the Vikings to run away from Moss because so much of the defensive players' attention goes toward him. That doesn't excuse Moss's poor blocking (and it was poor, and his man did occasionally tackle Onterrio Smith after long gains), but it's probably a valid reason.
Moss's aversion to contact also probably explains why the Vikings hardly ever line him up on the line of scrimmage, where a cornerback can stand in his face and jam him at the snap. By my count (and sometimes it's hard to tell with TV camera angles), Moss lined up as a flanker off the line of scrimmage about five times as often as he lined up as a split end on the line of scrimmage. He also went in motion eight times, but on three of those plays he was flagged for moving forward at the snap.
In a strange way (and maybe I'm looking too hard for a way to give Moss credit where none is deserved), his lack of energy on running plays might serve to lull the defense. On one handoff to Onterrio Smith, Moss walked off the line of scrimmage for three steps -- only to break into a sprint when Smith pitched the ball back to Daunte Culpepper, who threw the ball deep. On runs inside the 5-yard line, Moss just took a few steps into the end zone without blocking anyone -- but that might have given the Bears' defensive backs a false sense of security and helped Moss get position in the corner of the end zone on his touchdown catches of two and three yards.
In the final analysis, Moss caught seven of the 10 balls thrown to him on Sunday, for 119 yards and two touchdowns. His blocking was substandard, but the Vikings seem to have settled for running to the other side of the field. Randy Moss will never win acclaim for his blocking. But that's not what he's paid to do.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing mike-at-footballoutsiders.com. Next week: The Chiefs' front seven.
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