Emboldened critics target Moss
Cracks in Patriots' invincibility have foes lining up to take long-suppressed shots
"There are going to be a lot of people waiting for you on the way down, Jim. Just you wait," longtime Boston Herald columnist Joe Giuliotti told Jim Rice, then at the height of his powers in the late 1970s.
Though they are in first place and on track to return to the postseason, that moment of vulnerability has finally reached the New England Patriots, and the result is a negative crescendo -- directed at the team, and this week particularly, directed at Randy Moss.
The Patriots are under siege. Rivals who had to sit and listen for years about the Patriots' organizational acumen, their flawless field execution, their status as the model NFL franchise, see an opportunity to get in long-awaited shots.
On the field, opponents have witnessed in helmet-to-helmet clashes what fans are discovering in living rooms, luxury boxes and club seats around the country: This team is not as ferocious, not as confident, not as sure as its predecessors. It is transitioning from a tested, championship core to a largely untested one held together by a few -- albeit top-shelf -- marquee players.
Against teams that qualified for the playoffs, the vaunted Patriots were 2-4 in 2008. Against teams with records above .500 this season, the Patriots are 3-5. Outside of defeating the lowly Buccaneers during a showcase game in London, the Patriots haven't won a 2009 road game, leaving one journalist to quip, "This year, the only places the Patriots have won have been in New England and Old England."
Coach Bill Belichick, who in large measure has had the right veterans suited for his demanding style over the years, has lost the ear of some key players this season. As is evidenced by his trading of Richard Seymour and twin benching of Adalius Thomas and Shawn Springs, Belichick has looked petty, more a child-coach than a secure, Hall of Fame-bound legend.
Now a rival player, Panthers defensive back Chris Gamble, has leveled the most devastating critique of all, saying that Moss' heart wasn't very much into the Patriots' 20-10 victory Sunday.
The criticism of Moss may be valid or it may just be, as Belichick suggested Monday, a player shooting his mouth off after a losing effort. What is significant, however, is that perceived Patriots vulnerability has cleared foes to attack a once unassailable franchise.
Moss is at the center of the news cycle, one that is mostly talk. The challenge is to separate the trash talk from what are legitimate concerns for the Patriots.
First, a little perspective is in order. Moss has been with the Patriots for nearly three seasons and, yes, he is already the greatest receiver in the history of the franchise. The others: Troy Brown, who has the most catches; Harold Jackson, who has the highest yards-per-catch average; and Stanley Morgan, who has the most touchdowns. Irving Fryar and Terry Glenn are the most celebrated draft picks at the position, and Wes Welker, who arrived the same year as Moss, is already seventh on the team's career receptions list.
But Moss is the engine. He's the reason Welker is often so open. When Moss is on the field, two players follow him in either a straight double-team or in single coverage with a safety rolled to his side of the field. Moss' value to the Patriots' offense is obvious. Opponents calibrate their entire defensive game plan to him. He has had two games this season with just one catch, and yet he still has 1,074 receiving yards and a team-leading nine touchdowns. His 82.6 yards per game is 20 yards a game more than last season.
There are, however, both macro and micro reasons not to dismiss Gamble's assessment of Moss entirely. A common theme throughout the season for the Patriots has been the collective need to be tougher, more disciplined, more focused and hungrier, especially in the second half, when the Patriots are at their least efficient. Gamble hit the hot button of the season: the word quit.
The rest of his comments were Cornerback-speak 101: Get physical with a receiver, get him out of the game, frustrate him and hope those frustrations make him think more about the defenders harassing him than catching the ball.
On a micro level, Moss is perhaps the most physically gifted receiver in the history of his position: bigger and faster than Jerry Rice, the best receiver of all time, but with outstanding hands and physical ability. But Moss doesn't play the game with the every-down ferocity of Hines Ward or the stoic, grinding execution of Rice. He is more mercurial. Oftentimes, it is obvious by his body language lining up whether or not a given play is designed for him, and when things are not going well, that leaves him open to the charge that he doesn't care.
Did Moss quit on Sunday? Only he can answer that question, but the two most serious charges that can be levied at a professional athlete are: (1) he is purposely manipulating a game for money, and (2) for whatever other reasons, he is not trying his best. These are charges that speak to the heart and integrity of a player not only as a professional but as a person, and their domino effects are unmistakable.
Maybe Moss was frustrated that he hasn't seen any single coverage and maybe the frustration forced him into a bad game. Maybe he's steaming that Belichick sent him home for showing up 10 minutes late for last week's team meeting. Maybe he no longer wants to play for the Patriots or to play football at all. Or maybe he came to New England complemented by a devastating set of receiving weapons and -- with the exception of Welker -- watched them all walk out the door, leaving him with double coverage every Sunday. Whatever the reason for his uninspired effort is between Moss and his mirror.
Gamble's comments also struck a nerve on the macro level because organizations and their fans are constantly attempting to project; they look for the player who might blossom a year early and they try to identify the characteristics that suggest a player might be on the downside before it becomes evident to all. In a sense, Moss is reminiscent of Gary Sheffield, a player whom teammates love but who has had a curious relationship with management and fans. Like Sheffield, Moss shares a tendency of being spectacular his first year with a new club, but by the third, the relationship begins to alter.
Moss is particularly susceptible to this scrutiny because he arrived with a reputation for losing interest despite his enormous talent. A large section of the fan base -- and perhaps the organization -- has been waiting, maybe unfairly, for the reputation to reappear.
In Boston, Moss is reminiscent of Manny Ramirez, the most physically and mentally gifted offensive player to arrive since Ted Williams. Ramirez went through stretches in which it appeared, for all of his talent, that he did not care. As the organization grew weary of him, so too, did the fans. Ramirez was the center of two championship runs before the relationship strained irrevocably.
There are differences, of course. Ramirez drove Grady Little and his successor, Terry Francona, crazy. Also, Moss hasn't disappeared like he did in his final season in Minnesota or in Oakland. (In 29 games during two seasons with the Raiders, Moss caught 102 passes, only four more than he caught in his first season with the Patriots.)
And then, there is the Boston factor. Moss has been in New England just long enough for his monument to begin to show some signs of wear. He doesn't play the hero game management likes to play with its players or the public-relations game with the press. He does not often speak to the media, in victory or defeat, which puts him in vulnerable territory the millisecond his skills show even the slightest erosion, as Jim Rice, Ramirez and every other emotionally distant star -- in Boston or otherwise -- eventually found out. That makes him the player to watch on the Patriots because of his oversized impact on the team's success.
Moss has become a symbol for a franchise at a pivotal point. The season has not followed the projected path and everyone is looking for reasons why. The eternal quest to determine why seems to be landing at the cleats of Randy Moss. In a sense, it is the price of his talent.
Still, an inherent danger exists in all of this. Moss is a once-in-a-generation talent who is precisely aware of what he is capable of on a football field and it would be a mistake for the organization -- or for that matter, the fans -- to get caught up in artificial momentum, created at its core by comments by one player on one team.
Boston can be rough on a player, especially one it becomes convinced has stopped caring. But Moss has not publicly embarrassed himself or the organization. He alone is not the problem with the Patriots.
Too many times an overreaction has destroyed a relationship. It is good to remember that before Moss, Reche Caldwell was the Patriots' big-play threat. Calling a player of Moss' ability a quitter is a strong charge and requires more basis than the negative groundswell of the past 72 hours. If you're going to say a player quit, you better have the goods. This one doesn't nearly pass the test.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," to be published in May 2010. Reach him at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com or follow him on Twitter @hbryant42.