- Wright Thompson, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Robert Kraft stopped his sentence mid-thought, looked down from the stands and smiled. His star players were lined up at podiums for Super Bowl media day, but one voice boomed above the others. Above the buzz in the stadium, you could hear Randy Moss. He sounded happy.
"I'm enjoying every second of it," Moss said of his first Super Bowl experience.
Nine months ago, the talented and enigmatic Moss wondered whether his football life was over. He'd had the worst season of his career with the Raiders and he'd admitted losing interest in the game. No team seemed to want to trade for him. After six Pro Bowls, a spraying water bottle, one infamous early exit and varying degrees of effort, was this how it would end?
"I'm not sure he'd have gone back," said Frank Offutt, whose daughter is mother to Moss' children. "He might have thrown his hands up and quit."
Then, on draft day, New England traded for Moss. The team had carefully considered the options. Was Moss on the field worth Moss off it? Bill Belichick took the pulse of team leaders, who supported the addition. The risk was minimal -- giving up only a fourth-round pick. Management felt sure the Pats would affect Moss, not the other way around.
It was Moss himself who convinced Kraft.
"He told me he just wanted to come and win, and it wasn't about the money," the owner said. "You know he took a big pay cut to come to us. And a lot of players say that it is not about the money, it is about respect; but it's about the money. In his case, he came to us and wanted to be part of a team that could win, and he said to me, 'Mr. Kraft, I have made a lot of money, more money probably than I need. This is about winning.'"
The New England experiment had to work for Moss. He'd been traded for the 110th overall pick -- the Raiders used it to get a player named John Bowie from Cincinnati -- and the Patriots wouldn't hesitate to cut him loose if he caused problems. That's what it had come to; the greatest receiver of his generation swapped for an unproven rookie from a basketball school. Succeed, and revive his career. Suffer the same old problems, and end it. Those were the stakes. As he began, his former offensive coordinator in Oakland pronounced Moss' best days behind him.
"Randy Moss is a player whose skills are diminishing, and he's in denial of those eroding skills," Tom Walsh told the Boston Globe. "Randy was a great receiver, but he lacked the work ethic and the desire to cultivate any skills that would compensate for what he was losing physically later in his career."
Instead of showing his skills were in decline, Moss reinvented himself, breaking the single-season record for touchdown catches with 23. He didn't destroy the locker room, instead becoming part of the culture, and the word "team" now litters his interviews. He finally seems happy.
"How I approached the game when I was younger," he said, "it was very angry -- not at anyone in particular, just the game of football. Now, I still carry that same chip on my shoulder, but now I do understand that I'm a little bit older."
In the past, when faced with double- and triple-coverage, he'd taken plays off, complained, letting his frustration affect his effort. Now, having seen over the edge of his career, he handles periods of drought better.
"My process of playing four quarters and not receiving the ball or even seeing the ball," he said, "I think earlier in my career, I would have probably tried to voice my opinion in certain plays and certain ways to get open. Now I know that I'm a little bit older anything that will contribute to a victory, I'm willing."
Everyone wants to know why. One year after his worst season, he has his best. What's the explanation? Was he not trying before? Is it all a benefit of having Tom Brady throw the ball? That's R.W. McQuarters' theory. "Oakland wasn't winning," the Giants cornerback said, "so people forgot about Randy Moss. But Randy Moss was still Randy Moss."
Maybe Moss finally realized he had to get it together or lose football forever?
"I think everybody learns," Offutt said.
Certainly, Moss' success is a combination of things. Brady thinks it's due in large part to an overlooked part of Moss' repertoire. Most of the attention is focused on his speed, or height, or jumping ability. Not as many people talk about his intelligence.
Offutt says Moss is a closet math wiz. He can process numbers well and is hell on wheels at a blackjack table, constantly updating the odds in his mind. Offutt noticed this about Moss when the receiver was just a high school student in West Virginia.
"He had this amazing mathematical gift of doing things with numbers in his head," he said. "I've been an engineer for years, and he's doing things in his head that I do. And he's 17, 18 years old."
Brady said this intelligence translates onto the field.
"I think the thing people don't realize about Randy is his understanding of the game," he said. "He is the smartest offensive football player I've ever been around, from his understanding of the receiver position, his understanding of football, how to get open, how to manipulate his routes, to how to change up his speed."
Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One year after "quitting" on the Raiders, Randy Moss has become one of the NFL's most unstoppable players. Wright Thompson explains the change.