Randy Moss has called himself the greatest receiver ever. Was he:
• Displaying the kind of useful arrogance that defined his career?
• Slandering the great Jerry Rice?
• Ignoring his own flaws?
• Or making the same kind of modern, analytical argument that has made the Baseball Hall of Fame voting so frustrating and fascinating, that has destroyed certainty when it comes to evaluating greatness?
Moss will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend. His fans have progressed from worrying whether he would enter the Hall of Fame on the first ballot to debating whether he ranks first among all receivers.
Before the arrival of Moss, Vikings fans were generally pessimistic about the franchise, and bored with offense except when Cris Carter was catching a pass that would have landed 6 feet out of bounds.
Upon Moss’ arrival, a new generation of Vikings fans changed the atmosphere at games — and during entire game weekends. Moss became the centerpiece of an ongoing festival — Hendrix at Monterey, torching defenses instead of a guitar.
Are Moss fans practicing idol worship, recency bias or advancing thinking?
I’ll admit to a pre-existing bias on this topic. I covered Rice in many postseason games, and frequently talked with Vikings defensive coaches about him when Rice was in his prime. Rice remains the best all-around receiver I’ve ever seen, combining incredibly reliable hands, precise routes, football speed and sense that made him faster than any stopwatch time would suggest, excellent blocking, intelligence, maximum effort and the ability to win big games.
I also have a certain bias against Moss. I heard him say disgusting things and misbehave as a public figure. I watched him give up on certain deep balls, perform below his capabilities in two NFC Championship Games, take plays off, walk off the field on his team at the end of what he wrongly thought was a season-ending loss, and praise the Patriots and rip the Vikings after a game in which he appeared to loaf on a deep pass while playing for the Vikings.
Rice ranks first in NFL history in touchdowns, catches and receiving yards. He is so far ahead of the second-place players in those categories that it is easy to build a case that he is the greatest football player ever. He also won three Super Bowl rings.
Moss did not win a title. He ranks fourth in career receiving yards, 7,603 yards behind Rice. Moss would have to add the career totals of Sidney Rice, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs to pass Rice.
Moss ranks 15th in receptions and fourth in touchdowns.
If accumulated statistics, longevity and championships matter most to you, there is no argument to be made that Moss is superior to Rice.
Is there any argument at all?
Yes. Rice played with two Hall of Fame quarterbacks and for one of the greatest offensive minds ever. He played in a balanced offense that attacked defenses that might otherwise have overplayed Rice. Despite Rice’s strength, speed, quickness and body control, he couldn’t match Moss in any of those categories.
Moss played mostly with quarterbacks who were at their best when he was their teammate — Randall Cunningham, Jeff George, Daunte Culpepper. Tom Brady has thrown more than 39 touchdown passes in a season once — when he threw 50 in his first season with Moss.
If the Patriots defense had held up in Super Bowl XLII, Moss would be famous for catching the game-winning touchdown that secured the only 19-0 season in NFL history.
In his last season in the NFL, as a role player, Moss helped San Francisco’s Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick set what stand as career bests for completion percentage and quarterback rating. He caught only 28 passes, but this is a good time to remember that Vikings teammates often raved about Moss’ intelligence and teaching skills. His presence might have helped as much as his hands.
Moss correctly notes that he altered NFL defenses, prompting the installation of the Cover-2 (two safeties deep) scheme, and prompting division rivals to stock up on large cornerbacks.
So should we believe our calculators, which favor Rice, or our eyes, which favor the almost superhuman Moss?
Should we view Rice as the perfect receiver … or the perfect receiver for the 49ers system and precision quarterbacks? Should we factor in behavior?
Considering Moss’ dynamic influence on his quarterbacks makes the debate more interesting than it otherwise would be. But when the question is, “Who is the greatest ever?’’ how can you not lean toward the receiver with all of the records and none of the flaws?
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MNSPN.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org