EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — No team in the NFL understands how motivated receiver Randy Moss gets for big games better than the Minnesota Vikings, his club for the first seven seasons of his career and one ill-fated month in 2010.
Minnesota has been the beneficiary of many of those big moments, such as when he scored two touchdowns in his first regular-season game and when he made his “Monday Night Football” debut with five catches for 190 yards and two touchdowns against the Green Bay Packers. Heck, Moss has 17 touchdowns in 17 Monday night games.
The Vikings have never been on the other side of Moss’ flare for the dramatic other than during a short appearance in the first preseason game this season. Moss will return to Minnesota this Sunday for the first time as an opponent, trying to extend his Hall of Fame-worthy career as a secondary option in the San Francisco 49ers’ passing attack.
His longtime team and some former teammates expect to face a motivated Moss in his return to the Metrodome, where he was celebrated by Vikings fans more than any player in recent memory. In fact, his purple No. 84 jersey remains a common sight.
“Anytime you play against one of your old teams, it’s definitely a little extra motivation,” said tackle Phil Loadholt, who had a locker next to Moss’ in 2010. “We’re going to have to make sure we prepare and be ready for that.”
Moss, speaking to reporters for the first time since the start of the regular season on Wednesday, said he was looking forward to returning to the Metrodome. According to csnbayarea.com, Moss said he isn’t concerned with the reaction he’ll receive Sunday.
“One thing about praises and boos, obviously, you’re doing something right,” Moss told csnbayarea.com. “I think I can hang my hat on that. You hear the applause, of course you do. You hear the boos, but I think the boos, being negative, put more pressure on you to go out and hush that noise up. I look forward to hearing both. Like I said, I’m a 49er now, and hopefully we can go into the Metrodome and come out of there 3-0.”
Moss reflected on some of the Minnesota teammates he played with earlier in his career, mentioning Hall of Famers Randall McDaniel and John Randle. He also reiterated his appreciation of former Vikings’ coach Denny Green, who took a chance on Moss with the 21st pick in the 1998 draft when other team’s passed over Moss for off-the-field reasons.
“I’m still appreciative to this day that he gave me an opportunity with all the nonsense and B.S. that was said during the draft,” Moss said. “He gave me a chance. I’m still thankful for Dennis Green for giving me a chance to showcase my talent. As far as the past, it’s the past. I look forward, and not backward.”
And he even added a bit of classic Moss, refusing to answer a question about his playing time so far this season.
But by all reports, Moss has been a model teammate in San Francisco, which wasn’t the case for four games in 2010 when the Vikings brought him back trying to recapture former glory. In a desperate move to save a sagging season, Minnesota acquired Moss in a trade from New England. He lasted four games before he was released, the short span defined by truculence and a memorable bashing of a caterer for one of the Vikings’ lunches.
He ended up signing with Tennessee and having little impact before announcing a retirement and sitting out the 2011 season. But San Francisco, a team that was on the brink of the Super Bowl last season, saw a different side of Moss and brought him in for a visit.
“I just wanted to meet with him and talk with him,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said on a Wednesday teleconference with Minnesota media. “Was around Randy, got a great sense, and we signed him. I really felt that he loved the game and wanted a chance to compete. That’s what we had to offer. Not basing everything off of one day because one day doesn’t always tell the story. It did in this case because now we’ve been together for months, through games and through training camp and the offseason, and I love being around him.”
His impact on the field is still to be determined. He made his San Francisco regular-season debut during another big game, facing old rival Green Bay in Week 1 and had four catches for 47 yards and a touchdown in a 49ers victory. Last week at home against Detroit, the 35-year-old six-time Pro Bowl selection had one catch for 14 yards.
Harbaugh isn’t willing to say what kind of role Moss will have this season, but there’s no denying Moss has had an impact on his younger teammates. Quarterback Alex Smith said he was “pretty pumped” to hear about the Moss signing during the offseason and that he’s been most impressed with Moss’ mental approach.
“Just what a savvy football player he is,” Smith said. “He’s big. He can run. He can catch, knowledge of the game, how much he thinks out there and how fast he thinks on his feet so well. Has a great understanding of defenses and leverage, things like that. He communicates very well. It’s been great for me. It’s been good just working with him. He’s always got something coming back and talking to me, saying, ‘I’m seeing this.’ Just trying to get on the same page, and he communicates so well. So, it’s been great.”
Moss has refused to talk to the media much of this season, instead eschewing the constant circus that has followed him much of his career. The question for San Francisco and the Vikings is how much of his once dazzling level of physical talent does he still have. He was once the most feared receiver in the NFL, racking up 587 catches, 9,316 receiving yards and 92 receiving touchdowns with Minnesota, second in team history in each category to Cris Carter.
The Vikings say the game film shows he’s still a dangerous receiver if given a chance.
“He still can run,” safety Jamarca Sanford said. “He still can blow the top off coverage. He’s still a guy you have to track down and know where he’s at on the field.”
So Minnesota is preparing for a motivated Moss still capable of winning battles with his athletic ability.
“I would expect he’ll be up for this game like he is for every game,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “He still shows that if you blink, he can run by you. He has got that ability. He really seems to be rejuvenated in their offense.”
Just as he’ll be rejuvenated for a return trip to the Metrodome and another chance to impress Vikings fans.