- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH -- The Patriots' offensive pieces have yet to fall into place, except for one -- Randy Moss.
Quarterback Tom Brady is still rounding into form, in search of his pinpoint accuracy. Wes Welker has missed two games with a knee injury. Joey Galloway has struggled to find his rhythm. The running game was only just recently rediscovered.
Then there is Moss. The receiver with the bad back has essentially put the passing offense on his back, off to the best start of his 12-year career with an NFL-high 26 receptions.
In addition to Moss' gutsy effort in playing through excruciating back pain this past Sunday, what has made his early-season performance so impressive is the variety of roles he's filled.
Without Welker and their trademark short passing game, the Patriots have dialed up Moss more around the line of scrimmage. They've also utilized him in the intermediate areas of the field, in addition to sending him deep. He's lined up in the slot and outside.
or a team that values versatility, Moss has been versatility-plus, running precise all-round routes and producing big-time results. It's almost as if he's been three styles of receivers turned into one. Of Brady's 142 pass attempts, 40 have been in Moss' direction.
"He's such a valuable player for us because he can do everything," Brady said Friday. "He's one of the most dependable players in the league, and we count on him. We're always trying to find ways to get him the ball. He always responds."
Moss has recorded double-digit receptions in two games -- 12 against the Bills, 10 against the Falcons -- and is threatening Cardinals receiver J.T. Smith's record (36 in 1989) for most receptions through a team's first four games for players in their 10th season or later.
The Patriots have been on the field for 241 snaps (including penalties), and Moss has played 233 of them, easily the high total among Patriots skill-position players.
His last 76, against the Falcons, came while battling through piercing back pain. At one point, Moss had his back stretched out by fellow receiver Sam Aiken in the huddle.
"I thought he showed a lot of toughness," coach Bill Belichick said Friday. "He was hurting, and he had a will. He just played through it. I know he's doing a lot better this week than he was last week, but he showed me a lot of toughness. Not that he hasn't been tough, but that was really a pretty special performance -- going over the middle, blocking, catching short passes, taking a lot of hits, making first downs. He was making a lot of them."
While Moss appeared to move effortlessly on the field, Brady took note of Moss' condition after the game as the two have lockers next to each other.
"He could hardly move," Brady said, "but he went out and played his butt off."
In doing so, Moss continued his ascent up the NFL's record books.
He is now 12th on the NFL's all-time list with 869 career receptions, and ninth on the all-time receiving list with 13,482 yards. He also has 61 career 100-yard receiving games, the second-highest total in NFL history, after hitting the mark against the Bills (141) and Falcons (116).
About the only thing missing this season has been a touchdown. Moss is sixth on the NFL's all-time touchdown list (136).
If Moss were more outgoing with media members, such accomplishments would probably earn more headlines. But Moss' efforts are certainly recognized inside the locker room, and that seems fine with him.
"He's one of the better teammates you could ever ask for, very competitive and he wants to win, so you can't ask for more than that," said former Patriots linebacker Junior Seau, who was in Boston on Thursday as part of his upcoming television show, "Sports Jobs with Junior Seau." "The guy goes out and works every day. He's a workaholic -- in there early, out of there late. He puts a lot into his trade and you can see why."
Given some of the other issues the Patriots have faced on offense this season, they've leaned on Moss as heavily as they have at any point since he arrived in 2007.
Brady, for one, appreciates what he's seen.
"He plays his butt off, he always has," he said. "He's an incredible player."