Not so much a skeptical reaction, but more of a simple shrug of the shoulders and a “Well, guess we’ll wait and see how that works out.” Expectations were low—no matter how much publicity he and the signing received up until the start of the season.
Moss was a shell of himself during his last stint in the league in 2010. Whether self-imposed or as a result of legitimate contractual slighting by the Patriots—and subsequently playing for three teams in a single season—he had mentally checked out.
So, after a year away from football to take inventory of all things Randy, one of the best the game has ever seen was ready for a comeback. And signing with the 49ers was a “no-brainer” for both him and his new organization (h/t Yahoo! Sports).
Moss appreciated head coach Jim Harbaugh and recognized the 49ers’ Super Bowl potential. San Francisco, in turn, was all in with a low-risk, high-reward commitment. It would not suffer any contractual obligations if he didn’t make the team and would pay a maximum of $2.5 million for an all-time receiver that could potentially bring the franchise a Lombardi trophy.
After a stellar training camp, Moss indeed made the team as the No. 2 wide receiver. He began the 2012 campaign with a bang, hauling in four passes (four targets) and a touchdown in a win over the Packers—his old NFC North rival, no less.
Unfortunately, his game log features just one similarly productive box score through eight subsequent games. Moss currently stands at 15 catches (24 targets) for 254 yards and two touchdowns.
(It’s conceivable that 49er fandom would have hoped for double that production at this point.)
But stats read in a morning newspaper—or, check that, in an online recap—do not reveal the whole story.
The fundamental philosophy of the 49ers’ offense is run the ball, wear down the defense and capitalize with an efficient, turnover-free passing game. The times where they have presumed otherwise resulted in the only two losses of the season against the Vikings and Giants.
Knowing this, Moss would not seem to have a place in the 49ers’ game plan. Surface-level box score analysis would reveal as much.
There is, however, another layer to the dynamics of this offense.
What has Moss done as proficiently as anyone throughout his career?
Run the deep route, stretch defenses vertically, catch the ball at its highest point—and make the big play.
That threat remains—even at the age of 35.
The key word here is threat. Moss’s mere presence on the field takes safeties out of the box and keeps defenses honest. His merely lining up out wide affords Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter more space with which to maneuver and opens up the field underneath for 49ers’ pass-catchers.
He doesn’t even need to register a catch to serve a vital purpose. Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s West Coast offense works that much more effectively because of it.
To wit, how many times have we seen Moss streaking downfield without Alex Smith really ever planning to target him? Moss facilitates the designed high-percentage throws by occupying multiple defenders in those situations. He helps create yards-after-the-catch opportunities for Michael Crabtree and other Niner wideouts—something that is so essential to the 49ers’ offense.
This is not to say that Moss is a gimmick decoy through and through. He snared a 55-yard bomb against the Giants, was a valuable weapon for Colin Kaepernick late against the Rams and showcased some YAC abilities of his own with a 47-yard catch-and-run TD to seal the game in Arizona.
The small sample of highlights will not assuage the frustration of many 49er fans who want so much more from the prolific wideout. Two games with just one catch (Lions, Bills) and another without a single target (Jets) won’t diminish their angst either.
But again, Moss doesn’t actually need the ball to help his team win.
The 49ers win when Gore or the team itself runs for well over 100 yards. They win when they run more than they pass and eliminate high-risk plays while doing so.
Randy Moss helps serve as the catalyst towards the successful completion of that equation.
To be sure, a full season with an expanded playbook and ascension of the offensive line into one of the most formidable units in all of football are more valuable developments. The 49ers have grown considerably more as a team and operate with a binding chemistry that countless other teams envy (see: Jets, Eagles, Cowboys, Chargers, Bills).
Yet, in an oddly paradoxical way when considering Moss’s track record, the idea of the 49ers collecting W’s on Sundays via a cohesive team approach derives much from No. 84.
Moss immediately bought into that Harbaugh-instilled familial mentality and blue-collar work ethic from the very beginning. How he has continually embodied those qualities on and off the playing field has reinforced that which already existed on this team—the winning camaraderie.
In other words, things are going full circle.
Gore and Hunter are enjoying career years in numerous categories. Moss has contributed by directing defensive personnel away from them and—believe it or not—by executing some fairly impressive blocks.
Crabtree is in the midst of establishing career highs in all statistical categories. Moss has contributed by providing invaluable knowledge on the nuances of the wide receiver position and how best to perfect them.
As significant as anything else, Moss has not placed himself above the team and shows zero signs of being a distraction moving forward. It is indeed a resurgence that few anticipated.
Now, there will likely come a time when the 49ers will regrettably find themselves in a shootout, whether during the regular season or playoffs. They would then have to abandon the ground-'n'-pound game plan for a more aggressive aerial assault (à la divisional playoff vs. the Saints).
That scenario would clearly place the onus on Alex Smith and the vertical passing game—a matter requiring a separate discussion altogether.
But an obligation to the betterment of the team would fall on Moss in those potential circumstances as well. That is exactly why fans should have faith in him completing this 2012 comeback.
Should they expect a seven-catch, 120-yard and two-touchdown output from Moss when the situation necessitates it?
What they can expect, however, is Moss to make it possible for Crabtree to have such a day—or throw a block to spring Gore downfield on a screen for the go-ahead score. Or just maybe grab a game-winning touchdown himself on a back-corner fade.
Don’t sleep on one Randy Gene Moss—the script for his resurgence with the 49ers has yet to be written.
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