Randy Moss forever changed the NFL

August 2 3:25am

Randy Moss retiresBy Antonio D’Arcangelis

When a sports icon retires, it usually signals the end of an era. But the news that Randy Moss is hanging up his football cleats evokes the myriad ways he changed the league and shaped a new prototype for the NFL receiver.

Before Moss came along, there was only one wide receiver folks thought of when describing the ultimate pass catcher – Jerry Rice. The legacy of Rice was one of tireless work ethic, game-changing talent, precise route-running and a modicum of leadership. Early in his career, Rice didn’t have to be a leader. He had Joe Montana and Steve Young to carry that torch in San Francisco, but his years in Oakland seemed to bring forward the elder statesman, the pro with fading skills who could still get it done and rally a team around him.

Moss came into the league under ominous circumstances. He was snubbed early in the first round until the Vikings scooped him up with the 21st pick overall. They had a support system in place; Cris Carter was waiting in the wings to show the already embattled Moss how to set aside his personal problems and get right to the business of catching touchdown passes, and anything else thrown his way.

The 6-4, 215-pound Moss – a physical specimen that soon had many teams smacking themselves for not taking him when they had the opportunity – soared in his first season, catching 69 passes for 1,313 yards and a rookie record 17 TDs. It was a wild time in Minnesota, and the Vikings finished the regular season a league-best 15-1, scoring at least 24 points in each game and 12 times scoring at least 31.

Moss immediately challenged the way the world saw the No. 1 receiver. Cockiness was already assumed, but Moss was an unruly, frizzy-haired clown who terrorized secondaries to the point of exhaustion. He made defensive backs look stupid during his years with the Vikings and even outraged Green Bay in a 2005 playoff game when he feigned dropping his trousers after yet another touchdown. Still, the Packers and their fans had respect for Moss, even trying to acquire the perennial Pro Bowler in 2007 after his lackadaisical, injury-plagued two-year stint in Oakland.

When Moss went to the Patriots instead of Wisconsin, Tom Brady even spread out $5.28 million in 2007 salary as a signing bonus over the remaining portion of his contract to free up space and bring in the electric receiver. Moss went on to deliver one of the best statistical seasons in the history of professional football, racking up 98 catches for 1,493 yards and 23 TDs, edging out Rice’s record of 22, set in 12 games in 1987. Rice had retired in 2004, and at just 30, many believed Moss was in his prime and ready to dominate for several more seasons before his skills would fade. But frustration after the perfect season evaporated in Super Bowl XLII and Brady’s torn ACL in the first game of the 2008 season tarnished hopes that Moss could one day surpass Rice for all-time receiving TDs.

After another brilliant 2009 season, it all came apart in 2010. Now, we can only sit back and admire Moss’s meteoric rise and fall, each singularly spectacular in its own way. His legacy is peppered with drug, violence and traffic-court infused off-field incidents, bizarre quotes, and even an impressive list of charitable endeavors.

As it stands, Moss is tied with T.O. on the all-time receiving TD list at 153, and Moss won’t get to 1,000 receptions unless he changes his mind and returns. Still – he played on the two highest-scoring teams in NFL history (1998 Vikings and 2007 Pats) and despite the debacle in Tennessee last season, he’ll be remembered fondly. In its entirety, Moss’s career seems more similar to that of Jim Brown than Rice. It was relatively short, irresistibly radiant and markedly tumultuous. Even as T.O’s junior, he seemed to pave the way for both him and Chad Ochocinco to become reality stars. Would a Bravo-produced show about Moss be any less engaging than whatever the current housewife lineup boasts?

Moss was everything we want our star receivers to be these days – talented, irreverent and dangerous. Without him, the NFL wouldn’t have quite been the same.

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