Commentary

TO and Moss: Are new versions better than old?

Randy Moss and Terrell Owens are having great seasons, but are the current versions better than the originals?

Originally Published: November 21, 2007
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN.com

Randy Moss and Terrell OwensGetty ImagesAt a point when some players trend downward, Randy Moss (left) and TO are having great years.
It's always something with these two. Take Sunday. Terrell Owens scores four touchdowns against the Redskins in an afternoon game; Randy Moss scores four in the first half against the Bills later that night. A few years ago, Moss would bail on plays; Owens would tear apart a locker room. Owens' career has been reborn with the Cowboys; same with Moss' and the Pats. Moss catches an absurd number of scores (16) from his heart-melting, depressingly handsome quarterback; Owens catches a ridiculous number (12) from his heart-melting, depressingly handsome quarterback. It's gotta end at some point.

More Moss and TO

• ZOOM GALLERIES: Hitting the high points of their careers.
Moss gallery | Owens gallery

• SCOUTS INC.: Jeremy Green breaks down the differences between the early versions and current versions. Story

• SPORTSNATION: Where would Moss and TO rank in your list of the NFL's current top 10 receivers? Rank 'em

What do you think of the seasons that Moss and TO are having? Think each player is bound for the Hall of Fame? Vote

• AUDIO: Jeremy Green discusses why Moss and TO have been so dominant. PodCast

• VIDEO: Keyshawn Johnson wonders if any team can stop Moss and Owens. Video ESPN Video

• TMQ: How do you stop Moss and Owens? Cover them! Column

Both have been destined for greatness, assuming they can get out of their own way. And now that thev're done that, now that they're out of Minnesota and Oakland and San Francisco and Philly, now that there are no Sharpies hidden in socks or a Randy Ratio to contend with, now that Tom Walsh and Bill Parcells are long gone, two former divas are unquestionably masters of their craft.

Owens has been comparing himself to Moss since the turn of the century, at various times saying that he's "better than Randy" because "I run over the middle." It was Owens, after all, who made a big deal about the two 81s when the Pats visited the Cowboys on Nov. 11.

Moss? Well, between giving traffic cops lifts and taking plays off and disappearing in Oakland for two years, it's tough to tell whether he even knows Owens exists.

If this were "Around the Horn," we'd holler about who has the better hands, who runs better routes and who's more dependable in the clutch. We'd holler until spit stains cover the camera lens because that's always the big question, right: Who's better?

But you know what?

It's so tiresome to compare them to each other. It's better to see how they stack up against themselves. Is Owens better now than when he was signing footballs in the end zone, less controversial and more loved? Is Moss better now than as a youngster snagging bombs in the Metrodome? And has age -- Owens is 33, Moss 30 -- impossibly made these two better?

Now that's an argument.

Original Owens vs. Modern Owens

[+] EnlargeTerrell Owens
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesTerrell Owens as a 49er.
WHY OWENS WAS BETTER THEN: Look, this one is easy: His hands were better.

Last year, Owens led the league with 15 drops. This year, he has the top spot again with eight, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. This might not be surprising until you consider that he dropped seven total in his two years in Philly. And Owens can't blame his bobbling on bad quarterbacks. With Steve Young, Jeff Garcia, Donovan McNabb, Drew Bledsoe and Tony Romo, few receivers have ever had better signal-callers throwing them the ball.

Having good hands is all concentration. As a 49er -- and for his first year as an Eagle, really -- Owens was overworked, underpaid, overachieving and underappreciated. He wasn't well-known at Tennessee-Chattanooga, and as the 49ers' third-round pick in 1996, he wasn't supposed to do anything other than back up J.J. Stokes, a first-rounder from a year earlier. His hands were better back then because they had to be.

Owens was more driven then than he is now -- and that's saying something because he's very driven today. But nothing can compare to the fight to be entirely set for life as a professional athlete rather than getting pink-slipped. Owens watched how Jerry Rice did his job -- and how he complained when he didn't get the ball -- and eventually unseated him. It's hard to imagine at times, but Owens was nothing but classy when he caught 20 passes in Rice's final game as a 49er and dedicated the game to his idol. As the Niners' main star from then on, he caught 97, 93 and 100 passes in the 2000-02 seasons.

Fat and happy as a Cowboy last year, he would have tied his career high for receptions if not for one little issue.

Dropping the ball.

[+] EnlargeTerrell Owens
Al Bello/Getty ImagesTerrell Owens as a Cowboy.
WHY OWENS IS BETTER NOW: Watch Owens walk the sideline or around the locker room, and you'll see guys stopping to joke and laugh. Against the Giants on Nov. 11, as Owens ran onto the field in the fourth quarter, Cowboys safety Ken Hamlin patted him on the back and implored him to, "Put a nail in it! Put a nail in it!"

See, Owens is liked in Dallas. Loved, actually.

This isn't the guy who implied that Garcia was gay. Or who took a million backhanded cracks at McNabb. Or who fought former Eagles star Hugh Douglas. Or who did sit-ups in his driveway and allowed his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, to utter "Next question!" a million times on his behalf. In the past, Owens would throw away whatever good will he'd acquired. After he caught nine passes for 122 yards in Super Bowl XXXIX on a badly injured ankle, he took a crack at McNabb and decided he wanted a new contract. There wasn't a more hated athlete in America.

That guy doesn't exist now. He's less TO, more Terrell Owens. He's a dream teammate. He's saying fewer controversial things so that the guys in the locker room don't have to answer for him. Not that many have noticed. Sure, every now and then you'll see Owens break down in an interview, claiming to be misrepresented and misunderstood. But did you see him yelling at the Giants fans a few weeks ago? That's what he wants to be: hated outside the locker room and loved in it.

Owens: Then vs. Now

Year Team Catches Yards TDs
2000-02 (average per season) 49ers 97 1,388 14
2007 (projected totals) Cowboys 93 1,645 19

Original Moss vs. Modern Moss

[+] EnlargeRandy Moss
Larry French/Getty ImagesRandy Moss as a Viking.
WHY MOSS WAS BETTER THEN: No receiver has ever done more with less than Moss.

Before this year, Moss has been on the receiving end of passes from over-the-hill types such as Randall Cunningham and Jeff George; so-so journeymen such as Brad Johnson, Kerry Collins, Bubby Brister, Aaron Brooks and Gus Frerotte; and jokes such as Spergon Wynn, Todd Bouman and Andrew Walter.

True, Daunte Culpepper had some Pro Bowl years playing with Moss, but judging how he has played since the two spilt, Culpepper is learning the hard way that not every receiver can pluck inaccurate deep passes out of the air for touchdowns.

Moss' greatness has extended past quarterbacks. You have to wonder whether then-offensive coordinator Brian Billick would have been hired as a head coach if Moss hadn't slipped to the Vikings in the 1998 draft.

Moss was great because he's simply the most gifted athlete ever to play receiver, and he was at the peak of his athletic abilities. Moss is the least deceptive receiver in NFL history. Opponents used to joke that he ran only two routes: slant and streak. But he was still unstoppable. He could reportedly run a 4.2 40, hang in the air like smoke and make impossible catches look routine. He had at least 10 touchdowns in six of his first seven years. Watching Moss in those years was watching an athletic phenom at his physical peak.

[+] EnlargeRandy Moss
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesRandy Moss as a Patriot.
WHY MOSS IS BETTER NOW: Nobody knew better that Moss carried his quarterbacks than Moss himself. And it affected his play.

If Moss had a passer he truly respected -- no, feared -- he never would have loafed, nor would he have bragged about loafing, nor would he have had three incidents with referees in a 13-month span, as he once did. He still might have done stupid things out of uniform, but he wouldn't have been a distraction on the field.

Moss has seen Tom Brady win three Super Bowls. Moss has seen Brady clinch a bust in Canton at age 27. If Moss wants a ring, Brady will show him how to get it. That level of respect cannot be measured, nor can it be emphasized enough. As Dennis Rodman looked up to Michael Jordan, Moss does with Brady.

Brady is the first quarterback Moss has played with who, if there were a draft today, unequivocally would be picked ahead of him. For once, Moss is the weak link. Moss says he has been misunderstood in his career? Prove it, because this quarterback will not tolerate anything less than perfection.

That's why in interviews Moss acts like a giddy subordinate. He's pleased to be the lesser of two stars. But in pads, Moss is showing he's more than worthy. Anyone who watched the first half of Week 7's Patriots-Dolphins game knows Moss has raised his game to that of Brady's. Twice, Brady threw into double coverage. Twice, the ball should have been intercepted.

Twice, Moss scored touchdowns.

Moss: Then vs. Now

Year Team Catches Yards TDs
2003 (best season) Vikings 111 1,632 17
2007 (projected totals) Patriots 106 1,683 26

Verdicts

With Owens, it's this: Does the fact that he's less of a distraction now outweigh his drops? As annoying as drops are -- and as counter to logic as it is to make inconsistent hands second to any other factor for a receiver -- Owens can rip a team apart if he wishes. It's better in the long run for him to juggle a few passes and make up for it in big plays (his 17.1 yards per catch is more than Moss' 16.5) than for his teammates to have to be asked constantly about Owens' behavior. So the 2007 version gets the nod.

With Moss, it's easy. Although his physical skills have eroded slightly since 1998, he still can jump higher than any other receiver in the NFL and still has better hands. Motivation has always been his issue, and it hasn't been one this year. Today's Moss is better than he was in previous years.

(Oh, and by the way, Moss is also better than Owens. Always has been. And don't even e-mail to argue.)

Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com. For Wick's Picks, click here.

Seth Wickersham

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs. Email him and follow him on Twitter at @sethwickersham.