These days, Randy Moss is like a chameleon. He's whatever you want him to be. Or, to be more exact, whatever he wants to be.
Team player. Malcontent.
Dynamic deep threat. Undisciplined route runner.
Competitor who only wants to win. Guy who quits on his team.
Victim of circumstance. Victim of aging legs.
Who is Randy Moss? Who knows?
"When healthy, he's a definite force," said Marty Schottenheimer, the recently deposed San Diego Chargers coach, from his home in Palm Springs, Calif. "When he goes full speed, you know he's the target. When he doesn't, you know he's not in the play.
"When he's playing, you have to account for him. I have no reason to think he's not the player he was, but to be honest, I don't know because he wasn't much of a factor against us the past two years."
That, of course, is the great mystery and the great drama surrounding Randy Moss. Once among the most feared wide receivers in football, Moss has fallen off the planet the past three years. After not missing a start for five seasons, Moss has not played 16 games in a season since 2003, and his production has slid noticeably.
It began during his final season in Minnesota when that franchise was in turmoil. He caught only 49 passes for 767 yards, yet even then he scored 13 touchdowns and averaged nearly 16 yards per catch, numbers that convinced the Raiders a change of scenery was all he needed to blossom once again.
Now it is the Patriots who feel that way after Moss's two disappointing seasons in Oakland, including last year's slide to 42 catches for 553 yards and only three scores, the worst season of his career. Moss was not active for the last three games because of persistently aching legs and his constant criticism of the offense and the organization.
Yet Michael Lombardi, who until last Wednesday headed up the Raiders' personnel department, warned Moss's critics, "Don't go negative on this guy. Don't make that mistake. When he's healthy, nobody can run with him. Watch the tape of Champ Bailey trying to cover him. You've got to remember, his first four games here he was dynamic. Then he got hurt. When he was healthy, he never missed a practice."
In those four games in 2005, Moss caught 19 passes for 466 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 116.4 yards a game and 24.5 yards a reception. Then he got hurt against the Chargers and nothing seemed to be the same again with the exception of the final game that year, when he had seven catches for 116 yards and two scores against the Giants on New Year's Eve.
That led the Raiders to believe Moss was again healthy, happy, and ready to terrorize defenses, but Oakland's offense was the worst in the league last year. Whose fault was that? Many blame the situation, the offensive schemes of Art Shell and offensive coordinator Tom Walsh, and a lack of talent. But Walsh believes the rolling stone who played for him had gathered some moss. Too much, perhaps, to ever be the guy who averaged nearly 13 touchdowns a season in his first seven years in the NFL.
"Randy Moss is a player whose skills are diminishing, and he's in denial of those eroding skills," Walsh said from his ranch in Idaho, where he now lives after being fired along with Shell and Oakland's entire offensive staff following last season's 2-14 debacle. "Randy was a great receiver but he lacked the work ethic and the desire to cultivate any skills that would compensate for what he was losing physically later in his career.
"He told me last year, 'I'm too old to practice on Wednesday and Thursday, but I'm not too old to play on Sunday.' Did they start a senior league?"
"When he's right, he still makes an impact," Walsh said. "He looked like a world-beater in a preseason game against the Lions. I never thought he was difficult to coach, but we expected him to be a complete receiver and he wasn't. His whole game in Minnesota was outside the numbers [on or near the sidelines]. For him to run shallow crosses and in-routes was new for him. Initially, he showed all the interest but later on . . . I don't know."
Walsh described a play in a loss to the Cleveland Browns in which a play-action pass was called and Moss was asked to run a square-in on the weak side. The linebacker was sucked up inside by the fake, according to Walsh, and Moss was expected to run the in-route behind him into the open area. As Walsh recalled it, "He runs a 9 [deep go] route.
"Andrew Walter was at quarterback. He makes the play-fake and a huge hole opens up for Randy in the middle of the field but he's running down the sideline. Walter nearly threw his arm out pulling the ball back. When Randy gets to the sidelines, [wide receivers coach] Freddie Biletnikoff says, 'What were you doing?'
"Randy told Fred, 'I didn't feel like running the 6 route on the dirt part of the infield.' That's the Randy I coached. There were some games where out of 28 plays he'd have 13 or 14 busts. Wrong routes, wrong reads. Dogging it. Whatever."
Moss was asked about such criticism last month when he was acquired by the Patriots for a fourth-round draft choice.
"I don't really like to answer questions like that because the people that question it probably never played football in their life or been on the same pedestal that I've been on," he said at the time. "I have a microscope [on me] and my microscope is very big.
"The people that talk about me as far as my work ethic and my competitive nature and me going out there and playing football, the best thing I can say to you, male or female, all you have to do is line up against me and see what happens. My coaches that I've played for, the players that I've played with, never seemed to have a problem about me and my character; only the media does."
Unless you run a 9 route when your coach calls for a 6 route, of course.
"We're playing Sunday night against Denver and we call a play where Randy can run a post corner or a hook," Walsh recalled. "He runs the corner with Champ Bailey sitting on that route. Terrible read. He should have run the hook, which was wide open. Walter throws it up anyway and Bailey intercepts it.
"I can't put it all on Randy what happened last year, but the same things happened against Baltimore and San Francisco. He used to ask me all the time, 'When are we going to do some playground stuff?' He used to talk about [ex-Vikings quarterback Daunte] Culpepper 'throwing it up and letting me go get it.' But he didn't go get it in Oakland. You can't just let a guy run up the right sideline every play."
A desire to run up the sideline, in Walsh's opinion, isn't the greatest of Moss's problems, however. It is running at all.
"Randy Moss has great football IQ," Walsh said. "He's tremendously gifted. I think he can still play, but his legs will determine how much work he can handle. We used to take him out of Friday practices because the quarterbacks wanted the receivers running near game tempo and when Randy was on the field, the whole practice slowed down so much we started giving him the day off. Once he got discouraged, he just faded."
"I don't think he's lost a step," said Bill Kuharich, the Kansas City Chiefs vice president of player personnel. "The last two years in Oakland, he looked like he didn't want to play. He didn't compete for the ball. He didn't run backside routes.
"There were a lot of things he didn't do, but you were still fearful he'd run by you. I don't think his skills have declined. He just refused to maximize them in Oakland. The only question I have is, does Randy want to be the Randy he was in Minnesota?
"I wouldn't be shocked if he led the league in receiving this year, but in saying that, it will require a 180-degree turn. It's not, 'can he still run or can he still catch?' It's 'does he still want to?' You watch him in pregame and he's still pretty scary."
What about in the four real games Moss played against the Chiefs?
"He wasn't a factor in those games," said Kuharich, even including Moss's five-catch, 127-yard day in his first season in Oakland. "They threw him the ball 11 times that first game. The second time we played them, they were driving and had four cracks inside the 15 and didn't throw it to him once. Not a jump-ball situation. You'd think they'd like their chances on that, but Norv [Turner, then-Raider coach] didn't that day.
"But for a guy who didn't have a lot of production out there, he got a lot of attention. He still carries the danger flag when you line up against him."
That is what the Patriots are counting on, especially after reports surfaced that Moss supposedly ran a 4.29 40 in a pre-trade workout. When Moss was asked about it, he said, "Let's put it this way, the Moss of old is back. We'll leave it at that."
Well, the Moss of old ran 4.33 coming out of college, which is plenty fast for anybody, but 4.29? In Kuharich's recollection, "Only two guys I ever timed ran below 4.3. Deion Sanders and Herschel Walker. Randy is plenty fast, but what are the odds you run 4.33 in college, play nine years in the NFL, have several injuries, and run faster?"
According to the man who coached him last year, the idea is laughable.
"This is a guy who couldn't practice last year but he's going to jump up and run a 40 for somebody?" Shell said. "I never had a problem with him, but he's one of those guys where it's always everybody else's fault but his. They'll find out Randy can't run consistently anymore. He'll drive [Tom] Brady and [Bill] Belichick crazy. He teases people because every now and then you see something, but he can't keep it up consistently anymore.
"He's always had problems with his legs and he seems to feel if he practices too hard he's got nothing left for the game. I think that's why he takes a lot of plays off. But you can't just turn competitiveness on and off like that.
"We wanted him to take an MRI on his knee and he kept refusing to do it because he was afraid they'd find something wrong. This is just my personal opinion from what I saw: He's losing his legs. He's becoming an old man fast."
"This was a great move by New England," Collins said. "The one thing that struck me when I played with Randy in Oakland was just how much attention he gets on the field from defenses. With the crew of receivers they've put together up there, he'll be a tremendous asset. His presence on the field alone will help the other receivers.
"When we played in Oakland, he was a little dinged up but when he's full speed and at his best, he's by far the most gifted receiver I ever played with. His route running was better than I thought it would be and his deep routes are a clinic. He sees two-deep coverage over the top all game, every game, and frustration can set in with him at times, but with what the Patriots can create in the middle of the field with Tom throwing is like no other offense. Tom will kill defenses with Randy running deep routes.
"Last year, Oakland had troubles with the offensive line and a young quarterback. You have that and no receiver is going to be too productive. When I was there, he had a 1,000-yard season and he was battling injuries the whole year. I believe Randy's got a lot left."
While the opinions of players, coaches, and personnel men may vary widely, nearly everyone seems to agree on one point about the enigmatic wide receiver as he enters his 10th NFL season with his third NFL employer.
"This is his last hurrah," Schottenheimer said. "He's in the ideal situation. He's playing in a great system with a great quarterback, a great coach and in a place that has won a lot of different ways. It's Bill's way or he'll be gone."
Moss himself claims that's really all he wants.
"I just want to win," said Moss in a conference call after the trade. "I don't know where you guys are coming from knowing that I am going to be so selfish about this trade and me becoming a Patriot. I have never been a selfish ballplayer. I've been selfish about winning, but as far as me getting the ball and getting my numbers, I've never been selfish.
"I understand that an organization pays me a certain amount of dollars to make things happen and when things don't happen, of course I get mad. Of course I get angry.
"I think what I have done in the past as far as losing and sometimes getting out of control, I think it's just my competitive nature of wanting to win and helping my team get into a position to win.
"Like I said, losing sometimes can get contagious, but as a player I can't let that settle in, and I think that's one of the things that bothered me [in Oakland]. I didn't want it to set in and it didn't set in. It was just really nerve-racking that it was hard for me to win."
Hard in Minnesota and harder still in Oakland, but Kerry Collins believes his old friend has finally found his place.
"Tom's at least as big a star as Randy, if not bigger, so that will take some pressure off him," Collins said. "He won't be expected to carry the team there. Randy has the bravado and the cockiness of a great receiver but he wants to win more than anything. If Randy can find his niche there and stay healthy, he'll flourish."