This past weekend, the 49ers were shockingly upset 24-13 by the Minnesota Vikings—the team Moss started his career with. As Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke notes, Moss was not on the field for the team’s attempted fourth-quarter comeback, as head coach Jim Harbaugh kept him on the bench in favor of Mario Manningham.
Moss has been targeted 11 times this season and has eight receptions for 88 yards. He ranks fourth on the team in all three categories behind Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Manningham.
Throughout his career, Moss has never been a strong route-runner. He has recorded Hall of Fame statistics because of his remarkable talent as a deep threat.
Moss’ speed, height, leaping ability and coordination have led to incredible highlights throughout his career, but the 49ers offense is heavily based on the ground game.
Last season, the 49ers ranked third in the NFL in rushing attempts and 31st in passing attempts. This year, the difference has not been as drastic, as the team has run the 16th-highest number of running plays and the 24th-most passing plays.
In the loss against Minnesota, the team passed 35 times, which was the third-highest number of attempts in a game since Harbaugh took over. The team ran just 20 times. But as ESPN’s Mike Sando notes, the Vikings were stacking the box against San Francisco, forcing Smith to audible to passing plays.
When pressure is coming, Smith is going to opt for shorter routs instead of throwing the ball deep.
Even in games where the 49ers are throwing more often than usual, it is unlikely that they take shots down the field. Due to the team’s elite defense, controlling the clock and avoiding mistakes is significantly more important to this offense than creating big plays.
Moss was brought in to give the team an added threat at wide receiver, but his skill set makes him most valuable in plays that the 49ers rarely run. He must accept that opportunities to catch the ball deep down the field will be few and far between.
While Moss has built a reputation for being a volatile locker room presence, he did not cause problems in situations where he was on a winning team. He also missed a year of football and is 35 years old now, making him significantly more mature and humble than he was when pulling the antics that led to his perception as a problem for team chemistry.
He will not cause a problem in a strong locker room that expects to compete for a championship this season. But going forward, he must ensure that his effort does not drop despite his limited role on the team.
Moss must make the most of his opportunities this season, even if they come rarely.