by Scott Kacsmar
To kick off Hall of Fame week, we are opening the case of an upcoming first-ballot candidate for the 2018 class: wide receiver Randy Moss. It might sound ridiculous to question whether the player with the second-most touchdown catches in NFL history is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but the last player to retire with that distinction (Moss' teammate Cris Carter) was a six-time finalist before finally getting inducted in 2013.
In fact, unless your name is Steve Largent or Jerry Rice, every wide receiver who played in the 16-game, "Blount Rule" passing era (1978-present) has had to wait through at least three years of eligibility before getting into the Hall of Fame. When Terrell Owens last played in 2010, he was tied with Moss with 153 touchdown receptions, the two only trailing Rice (197). In the last two years, Owens has been a finalist, but was one of the first five names eliminated in the process.
Putting Moss and Owens in Canton together would be quite the spectacle next summer, but is there anything in the voting process that would lead us to believe that it will happen?
As we get set to go through Moss' career highlights, and the value that he brought to his teams, it is worth pointing out just how often the word "great" gets thrown around. Sometimes a player is called great before he actually proves he is. Moss was one of the generational talents of his era. He is what true greatness looks like.
1998: A Star Is Born
The idea of Moss having to wait for anything is both comical and fitting. This was a player with so much speed and confidence in his abilities that he would immediately throw his hand up after the snap to signal his quarterback that he was open. However, in the 1998 draft, Moss had to wait until the 21st pick before a team drafted him. How does this happen to an electrifying player who finished fourth in the 1997 Heisman Trophy vote? The three players ahead of Moss in Heisman voting -- Charles Woodson, Peyton Manning, and Ryan Leaf -- were all selected within the first four picks of the draft that year. Moss even watched the Titans select wide receiver Kevin Dyson with the No. 16 pick. Moss had more touchdown catches in each of his college seasons than Dyson had in four years combined at Utah.
The problem was that Moss had earned the reputation as a "bad boy" for a few incidents as a youth that dashed his dreams of playing big-time college football. In high school, Moss was involved in a racially-motivated fight that led to Notre Dame passing on his enrollment. After transferring to Florida State, Moss tested positive for marijuana in 1996, which violated his probation. He was dismissed from Florida State and ended up playing for Marshall, a Division I-AA school at the time. It was at Marshall where the nation got to see just how incredible Moss could be on the football field.
In two seasons at Marshall, Moss caught 174 passes for 3,529 yards and 54 touchdowns in 28 games. The highlight reel speaks for itself. Moss would have been an asset to any team that drafted him, but the Vikings were the team that did. The draft slide may have been a blessing in disguise. Head coach Dennis Green's Minnesota teams often made the playoffs in the 1990s, but often flamed out in the first or second round too. The Vikings needed a spark, and wide receiver Cris Carter could serve as a good mentor to Moss given his own personal struggles off the field earlier in life.
What transpired in Minnesota in 1998 was largely unexpected.
In the first half of his first NFL game, Moss had 31- and 48-yard touchdowns. We just did a study last week on Jarvis Landry's 288 catches, and how he only has three touchdowns of 15-plus yards in three seasons. Moss had two in one half of play. In Dallas in Week 13, Moss had touchdown catches of 51, 56, and 56 yards to embarrass a team he thought was going to draft him. Destroying Dallas became a Moss tradition.
By season's end, Moss had set a rookie record with 17 touchdown catches. That record really hasn't been challenged since. In fact, let's put it into perspective just how crazy that achievement was. Since Moss did that in 1998, there have only been three seasons in which a player of any experience level has had at least 17 touchdown catches. Moss has two of those three seasons (2003 and 2007). The only other player to do it was Rob Gronkowski, who had 17 touchdowns in 2011. Gronkowski might just be the best tight end in NFL history too.
So far we have mentioned touchdowns a lot, and for obvious reasons. But Moss' 1,313 receiving yards in 1998 still rank as the third most by a rookie in NFL history. Moss' 425 receiving DYAR was the rookie record (since 1986) until New Orleans' Michael Thomas just surpassed him last season with 431. Moss won the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award and was a first-team All-Pro selection.
Of course, Moss wasn't doing this alone. He had a quarterback in Randall Cunningham who had been MVP-caliber earlier in his career, but had not done much in the years leading up to 1998. (He had even taken a year off from football in 1996, starting a marble and granite installation company.) Carter, Jake Smith, and running back Robert Smith were good players, and the offensive line had a future Hall of Fame guard in Randall McDaniel. Yet it is hard to imagine that the Vikings would have ever hit such highs in 1998 had Moss not joined the team.
The dominance of Moss helped the Vikings to a 15-1 mark, and they set a new record with 556 points scored. The 1998 Vikings are still the only team in NFL history to score at least 24 points in every game of a season. They did so in the playoffs as well, including a Moss touchdown in each game, but fans will always remember the three points the team did not add. In the 1998 NFC Championship Game, Gary Anderson missed a 38-yard field goal that would have given the Vikings a 30-20 lead with 2:07 left in the game. It was Anderson's first miss of the season. Atlanta went on to tie the game and win in overtime. The dream season was over, and Moss' chance to cap off his rookie season on the game's biggest stage was denied.
Minnesota's scoring record fell nine seasons later, broken by another Moss team.
1999-2004: The Randy Ratio
For this era in the NFL, it didn't get much better than watching Moss make a big touchdown catch. Moss continued his stellar play in Minnesota after the offense transitioned from Pocket Cunningham to Surly Jeff George, and then to Scramblin' Daunte Culpepper. Moss was All-Pro again in 2000, but the Vikings ended that season with one of the biggest duds any team has displayed in the playoffs: a 41-0 loss to the Giants in the NFC Championship Game.
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Mike Tice took over full time for Green in 2002, and Carter was gone as well. The offense was pretty bare bones at that point. These were the players vying for targets that year: D'Wayne Bates, Jim Kleinsasser, Byron Chamberlain, Moe Williams, Michael Bennett, and Derrick Alexander. With that type of cast, wouldn't you throw to Moss as much as you could?
Tice may have let the cat out of the bag, advertising a "Randy Ratio" that was a goal to throw 40 percent of the team's passes to Moss. That would be akin to 200 targets out of 500 attempts, so not the most preposterous thing in NFL history, but certainly not a good sign for balance and team play. That season, Moss finished with 185 targets, 105 more than his next closest teammate, but Culpepper's struggles with turnovers presented a major problem in a 6-10 season. Repeatedly forcing the ball to Moss simply did not work. The Vikings had a higher passing DVOA (32.4%) when not throwing to Moss than they did throwing to Moss (17.4%) that season. As you will see later, that was most unusual.
Moss had 33.2 percent of Minnesota's targets in 2002. The next year, without the so-called Randy Ratio, that number fell -- to 33.1 percent. The difference for Minnesota was a much sharper Culpepper, who rebounded with one of his best seasons. Against the Broncos, Moss made one of his greatest plays. Just before halftime, he caught a Hail Mary short of the goal line, but was able to lateral the ball back to Moe Williams for a touchdown. Moss was an All-Pro for the third time with career-highs in catches (111) and yards (1,632), but the Vikings were eliminated from the playoffs by a miracle touchdown thrown by a young Josh McCown in Week 17.
Culpepper was at his best in 2004, but Moss was unable to fully capitalize due to a hamstring injury. He missed three full games and served as a decoy in two others, only getting one target in those contests. He still managed to catch 13 touchdowns that year, and added two more in Minnesota's wild-card playoff win in Green Bay. Moss infamously pretended to moon the crowd at Lambeau, which drew the ire of FOX's Joe Buck. Hey, being able to elicit that much emotion from Buck might be Hall of Fame-worthy itself.
Moss would only catch one more touchdown in his playoff career, and Buck was there for that call too, but again, we'll get to that later. Moss actually never cracked 70 receiving yards in his last 10 playoff games after doing so in each of his first five playoff games.
The hamstring injury limited Moss to 767 receiving yards in 2004. He is still the only player in NFL history to start a career with six straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Cincinnati's A.J. Green was 36 yards away from tying that feat, but injury got him last year too. Moss' first six seasons were all at least 1,200-yard seasons, while only half of Green's were. That is why Moss has the most receiving yards (8,375) in a player's first six seasons in NFL history. He also had the most receptions (525), but Antonio Brown just nipped him with his 526th to end last season.
Moss' 2004 injury threw him off a record-setting pace, but he still ranks second to only Rice in 1,000-yard seasons (10) and 100-yard receiving games (64). Perhaps the biggest limiting factor to Moss' prime was his 2005 trade to Oakland.
2005-2006: The Black Hole of Losing
In March 2005, the Vikings traded Moss to the Raiders, the bad boys of the NFL. Even though Oakland had been to the Super Bowl in 2002, the Raiders were in the early stages of a rebuild in what became 13 years of not winning. Paired with an inefficient volume passer in Kerry Collins, Moss was just alright in his first Oakland season, finishing with 1,005 yards and eight touchdowns.
In 2006, Oakland fielded the worst offense in the league and showed that even a talent like Moss can't overcome that many flaws around him. The statistical breakdown for that year is interesting, and perhaps highlights some of the shared credit or blame for a quarterback and his receiver. Andrew Walter had 27 passing DYAR when throwing to Moss that year, while veteran Aaron Brooks had 6 DYAR on throws to Moss. That 33 DYAR is absolutely miniscule when Minnesota averaged 692 passing DYAR per season when throwing to Moss. But what really dragged the offense's numbers down further in 2006 was one trick play thrown by wide receiver Ronald Curry, which resulted in an interception (-24 DYAR). Marques Tuiasosopo threw three passes to Moss, including another interception, and those plays resulted in -52 DYAR. So that's -76 DYAR on four plays that were likely more the result of poor quarterback play and decision making than anything wrong with what Moss did.
Of course, Moss was well known for having an "on-and-off switch" when it came to his effort level. This was true in Minnesota, and it was certainly true in Oakland, where he quickly grew tired of losing. You can read accounts from teammates on how professional and dedicated Moss was in Oakland, but the ineptitude of that 2006 offense coached by Art Shell was likely to drop his interest level.
When I do stat searches for the period of 2006 to 2016, Andrew Walter is often a name that comes up at the bottom. He was Moss' primary quarterback that year, and it's really no wonder why Moss couldn't elevate Walter like he had done for so many other passers in Minnesota. If Moss had stayed in Oakland any longer, we might not even be talking about the Hall of Fame for him at this point, as his career would have continued to decay. He would be closer to Andre Rison than to Jerry Rice.
In 2007, the Raiders drafted another quarterback who almost always shows up at the bottom in my stat searches: JaMarcus Russell. Fortunately, Moss was traded to New England that offseason for a fourth-round pick. With the proper motivation, Moss was ready to help another team break the scoring record and challenge for a perfect season.
2007-2009: The Patriot Way
Seriously, how did the league let the Patriots fleece the Raiders so that Moss could pair up with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady for just a fourth-round pick? Brett Favre wanted Moss in Green Bay, which certainly would have reshaped a memorable 2007 season, but New England became his new home. Like when he started in Minnesota, Moss had great help around him. The Patriots also added Wes Welker and Donte' Stallworth to form a dynamic receiving trio with Moss.
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In just one game, Moss showed he was clearly still the most dangerous receiver in the league. He outraced three Jets for a 51-yard touchdown as part of his 183-yard debut with the Patriots. This New England juggernaut got scarier and scarier by the week. After big catches by Moss helped a fourth-quarter comeback in Indianapolis, Moss embarrassed Buffalo in prime time with a career-high four touchdowns. The Patriots were 10-0 and Brady had thrown 38 touchdowns, including 16 to Moss. This looked like the greatest offense and greatest team in NFL history, and it is hard to imagine things ever going that well without the addition of Moss.
However, from that point on, the 2007 Patriots went from historically incredible to merely great. They finished the season with 589 points, breaking Minnesota's 1998 scoring record. Moss still kept scoring too, and had another highlight moment on the night the Patriots completed the 16-0 regular season against the Giants. Trailing 28-23 in the fourth quarter, Brady found Moss deep behind the defense for a 65-yard game-winning touchdown. The score was Moss' 23rd of the season, breaking Jerry Rice's record of 22 touchdown catches (done in 12 games) in a season. It was also Brady's 50th touchdown toss that season, setting the record (since broken) in that category as well. Brady had never thrown more than 28 touchdowns in a season before 2007, but had 23 to Moss alone that year.
The duo was quiet in the postseason, but still connected for a 6-yard go-ahead touchdown with 2:42 left in Super Bowl XLII against the Giants. That play was not as highlight-worthy as the one in Week 17, but it would be shown a lot more had the Patriots held on to complete the perfect season. Instead, we see David Tyree's helmet catch all the time, complete with Joe Buck's lack of enthusiasm on the call. Perhaps the play Moss is known best for in that game was the "almost catch" on the final drive. Brady threw a pass roughly 70 yards down the field, and Moss was eerily close to hauling that one in for an all-time great play. Alas, Moss' best shot at a ring and some football immortality evaporated.
That was also the peak for the short-lived combo of Brady and Moss. Hopes were dashed much sooner in 2008 when Brady tore his ACL in Week 1. Moss still had a productive season in helping inexperienced backup Matt Cassel along at quarterback. The Patriots missed the playoffs despite an 11-5 record. Brady returned in 2009, but defenses were better prepared to defend this offense. Moss led the league in touchdown catches for the fifth time, but with only 13.
2010-2012: The Awkward Finish
Expectations were still very high, as they always are, for the Patriots going into 2010. Brady-to-Moss was still a connection to fear, as New York's Darrelle Revis learned the hard way in a Week 2 contest. Moss caught a one-handed touchdown over Revis, though the Jets still won that game.
Rumors were swirling that Moss wanted out of New England after not getting a contract extension before the season. In a Week 4 game in Miami on Monday Night Football, it almost looked like the Patriots were making a point to prove that they did not need to throw to Moss to win. Moss had just one target in the game, and it was a fake spike attempt before halftime. The Patriots won 41-14 and shifted immediately into an offense that was built around Welker and two rookie tight ends (Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez). Moss infamously had a huge argument with offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien in the locker room.
Two days later, Moss was back in Minnesota after a stunning trade. He finally got to play with Favre, though Favre was in his final season and his body was failing him by then. Not even a month later, Moss was critical of his new head coach Brad Childress, especially after a Vikings loss to the Patriots. Moss was waived after four games with the Vikings. Tennessee picked him up off waivers, and Moss played the final eight games of 2010 with the Titans. He caught just six balls on 16 targets for 80 yards in that stretch.
At 33 years old, Moss was unproductive for three teams in the same season just a year after he led the NFL in touchdowns. His 2010 remains one of the oddest seasons ever for a player of his caliber. Moss retired ahead of the 2011 season, but returned for one last try with the 49ers in 2012. He was helpful as a No. 3 wideout, but the days of dominance were clearly over. The 49ers reached the Super Bowl, but came up a drive short of the win. Moss had two grabs for 41 yards in that game. The last target of his NFL career was an incompletion from Colin Kaepernick on a two-point conversion that would have tied the game in the fourth quarter. The pass was thrown away.
Moss' final numbers include 982 receptions (15th in NFL history), 15,292 receiving yards (third), and 156 touchdown catches (second). We also compiled our advanced metrics on Moss' impact on his teams. "Team Pass DYAR" is the sum of Moss' quarterbacks' DYAR with sacks and aborted snaps excluded. "Moss DYAR" is the passing DYAR earned only on targets to Moss. The "Randy Ratio" is the percentage of the team's passing DYAR that Moss accounted for that season. "Passes" is how many targets Moss had, which includes defensive pass interference penalties. "Moss DVOA" is the passing DVOA of quarterbacks on throws to Moss, while "Team Pass DVOA" is their passing DVOA on throws to other players, with sacks and aborted snaps excluded. "DIFF" is the difference between those two DVOA columns. The averages in the final row for DVOA are weighted by attempts. For the 2010 data, we only used the weeks in which he was a member of his three teams.
|Randy Moss: Team Passing DYAR and DVOA Breakdown|
|Moss DYAR||Randy Ratio||Passes||Moss DVOA||Team
Moss accounted for 31.6 percent of his team's passing DYAR. He was above 40.0 percent for three seasons in his prime in Minnesota. Cunningham (1998), George (1999), Culpepper (2004), and Brady (2007) all had their career-high DVOA seasons with Moss as their receiver. His only down years where his team had more success when throwing to other players were 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2012. Overall, Moss' teams were about 20 percentage points better in DVOA when throwing to him compared to his teammates. We'll look at how that compares to Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens tomorrow in our formal Hall of Fame predictions.
Canton's Wide Receiver Stigma
A player with Moss' resume would seem like a sure thing for a quick entry into Canton. However, we're talking about a wide receiver here, and for whatever reason, voters have had a tough time at sorting out receivers for the Hall of Fame. There have been 25 modern-era selections, and only five have been first-ballot selections.
|Pro Football Hall of Fame: Modern-Era Wide Receivers (25)|
|Wide Receiver||Class||Eligibility (Years)||Year as Finalist|
|Wide Receiver||Class||Eligibility (Years)||Year as Finalist|
|Tommy McDonald||1998||25 (*Senior nominee)||2|
|Bob Hayes||2009||29 (*Senior nominee)||2|
Again, Steve Largent (the first player with 100 touchdown catches) and Jerry Rice are the only primarily post-1978 receivers to go in on their first ballot. Everyone else waited at least three years. James Lofton retired after 1993 as the only player with 14,000 receiving yards. He had to wait through five years of eligibility to get in. Michael Irvin helped Dallas to three Super Bowl wins, but had to wait three years while the other "triplets," Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith, were first-ballot selections. Art Monk retired with 940 receptions, only two fewer than Rice had after 1995, and he was an eight-time finalist. So was Buffalo's Andre Reed, the leading receiver on Buffalo's four Super Bowl teams. We talked about Cris Carter's six-year wait, but Tim Brown waited just as long. Marvin Harrison also had to wait until a third ballot.
Is it just the nature of the position? We have to consider the quality of the receiver's quarterback, his other receiving teammates, and how often his team threw the ball. Were his reception totals "juiced" with a lot of short, ineffective passes a la Jarvis Landry? Are his touchdowns lower because the team has a strong running game in the red zone? Does that explain why Julio Jones has one double-digit touchdown season, and that was only 10 scores? Receivers also tend to accumulate more "garbage-time" statistics due to the offensive philosophy when trailing big, but this usually gets overblown in the grand scheme of things. Most NFL games are close, even those involving the Browns or Blake Bortles.
These are things that have to be considered, especially with the modern crop of wideouts, but I wish I could say this was only a modern problem. The Hall of Fame has a long history of treating wideouts in a fashion that just doesn't make much sense.
There have been 10 players (non-senior candidates) who were elected after being a finalist at least eight times, and five of them were wide receivers. Lynn Swann still holds the record as a finalist for 14 consecutive years. No position has led to more indecisiveness from voters than wide receiver. This is no doubt going to play a factor in Moss' case.
I would vote for Moss to go into the Hall of Fame next year, but neither I nor anyone else on this site has a vote. That's up to 50 other people to decide what they want to get out of this process. At the end of the day, a Hall of Famer is a Hall of Famer. Not many people care if a guy goes in on his first ballot or his third. The quality of the players who become eligible the same year as you plays a big part in this as well, and Moss has to deal with a sure-fire choice in Ray Lewis.
However, voters still find ways to push players through the process on the first ballot all the time. Since 2009, 15 players have been elected on their first ballot, including six classes with multiple selections. If Jason Taylor and LaDainian Tomlinson were good enough to jump the field this year, then why not do the same for Lewis and Moss next year?
Is Moss a media darling with a perfect resume? Of course not, but did I mention that the other guy he will compete for a spot with this year is Ray Lewis? Enough said. Maybe I have the wrong vision for Canton, but if you have a generational talent who helps two franchises to scoring records and countless highlights, then that sounds like a first-ballot Hall of Famer to me.
For any voter not in support of Moss next year, I have just one question. If the best wide receiver since Rice can't get into the Hall of Fame on his first ballot, then who can?