We all know that the Minnesota Vikings have been struggling with their passing attack in 2010. The quest to fix that problem took an unlikely turn with the return of arguably the greatest receiver ever to put on purple, Randy Moss.
The whys and hows and whats of the trade may never be sorted out, but we can definitely look at both teams — and Moss — and get a sense of what the impact will be on the football field. Having tracked it all since the start of the 2008 season, we feel like we might have some unique perspective in what is the most-covered NFL news event of the year.
The Vikings have gone after Moss in the hope that he can give them what Sidney Rice did last season. The Patriots obviously don’t think they need what Moss can bring, getting a third-round pick for a player that has scored exactly fifty touchdowns in his fifty-two games as a Patriot.
For Minnesota, Rice was Brett Favre‘s safety net — if he was in trouble, he could throw it to Rice, and Rice would make something happen. Favre has said himself that Rice allowed him to throw it to him even if he was covered, and not having him in the lineup this season goes a long way to explaining why Favre has already thrown more picks than he had by Week 14 last season.
This is the key to the Moss trade. Rice gave the Vikings what Moss gave them before he was traded away in 2005 — the ability to make a quarterback look better than he is by fighting for a ball in the air, and keeping it away from defenders.
Does Moss still have that ability?
Moss: Breaking him down
On the surface, Moss and Rice look like they had similar seasons last year. They saw a similar number of snaps, were separated by fewer than 60 receiving yards in the regular season, and had only one catch separating them. The difference came in how those catches came about. Rice received a PFF grade of +22.0 for his receiving work, Moss just +7.2.
Rice was thrown at 120 times in the ’09 regular season and only one interception came from those throws. Moss was thrown at 15 times more, but seven interceptions came from the throws intended for Moss.
The only players in the NFL to have more interceptions recorded when they were the primary target were Calvin Johnson (12), Carolina’s Steve Smith (11), Antonio Bryant (10), Reggie Wayne (10), and Terrell Owens (eight). Four of those five players were playing with quarterbacks (or multiple quarterbacks) who threw for 19 or more interceptions on the season. Tom Brady threw 13 interceptions last season, which means more than half of them were intended for Moss.
Of those 138 targets, Rice dropped just three balls last season. Moss dropped eight. In 2008 he dropped 11, and this season he has already registered a drop in each of his opening four games. Moss is no longer a safe target for quarterbacks looking to get rid of the ball; if anything, he is becoming more of a risk as time goes on.
Much was made of Moss getting off of Revis Island in Week 2 this season with a beautiful one-handed catch for a touchdown, but that doesn’t tell the story of that game. Moss was thrown at 10 times, recorded just one 4-yard reception outside of that touchdown, and dropped a ball. Not only that, but Brady was picked off twice in the game when throwing towards Moss.
This season, Moss has been thrown at 23 times, and recorded just nine receptions. His yards-per-reception average remains healthy at 15.4, but just three plays account for 101 of his 139 yards. His average yards per target is a flimsy 6.04 yards. The first big catch came on a quick screen against the Bengals in Week 1. The second was that one-handed catch over Revis against the Jets in Week 2. Without taking anything away from a spectacular catch, Revis was visibly troubled by his hamstring, and the Jets have since suggested there was a blown coverage on that play. His longest play from scrimmage this season was a 35-yard touchdown against the Buffalo Bills, beating coverage from Reggie Corner in the slot. Moss lined up outside with Aaron Hernandez behind him, and Corner never got into a good position, trailing the play the entire way.
How good has he been since 2007’s explosion?
We were only in our trial phase in 2007 when Moss and the Patriots had their legendary season, but there’s little doubt that he was one of the 10 best receivers in the game that year.
But judged solely by our rankings, Moss has been a good, not great, receiver since the 2008 season. In 2008, he graded 49th out of 111 qualifying players based on his performance in the passing game. In 2009, he ranked 22nd out of 107. Thus far in 2010, with Week 4 yet to be completely graded, he’s firmly in the bottom 20 percent of the league.
In 2008, he outproduced his raw standing. He ranked 19th in yards after the catch, 21st in yards. His obvious strength was touchdowns (11), and without interceptions being thrown his way (three), he produced like a top-1o wideout. However, the negatives were fairly clear. He dropped one out of every 10 passes, a very high number, and only forced four missed tackles, a very low one.
The four green spikes came against Kansas City, St. Louis, Miami and Oakland — two poor pass defenses (KC, STL), one average (OAK) and one excellent (MIA). The three red games came against the Jets, Carolina and Baltimore — all top-10 coverage teams that year.
Moving on to 2009, which was a step forward for Moss as Brady returned to the lineup. He improved his yards per target and touchdowns and decreased his drops, and led the league in touchdowns. Seven interceptions were thrown on balls his way, sixth most in the league, but it was offset by overall production.
However, it was a tale of two halves for Moss. After a so-so start, he had four extremely good games — but just one of them came over the season’s final eight games.
His rating by week graphic tells the story:
Tack on the four sub-par games to start 2010, and that’s 11 games out of 12 without a standout performance. Receivers go through an ebb and flow, but when you have gone three-quarters of a season with almost no big impact — and have been noted for a lack of focus and intensity when unhappy in the past — you have to take notice.
What will the Patriots do?
Moss departs a team sitting at 3-1 this season, and the Patriots expect to contend come playoff time. Teams that expect to contend do not trade away parts of their team that they feel to be important components to success. In the past few seasons there have been three wide receivers change teams in the middle of the season: Roy Williams, Chris Chambers, and Braylon Edwards. Not one of those receivers was given up by a team with a winning record.
There’s a lot of talk about the coverage Moss draws. “Doubled every play,” etc. But the bottom line is that he doesn’t draw any more or any less coverage than most receivers. Going deep against a Cover 2 or 4, you are going to get covered by two players. That’s not unique to Moss, that’s just how the coverage works.
How has the Vikings’ passing game changed without Rice?
In 2009, Favre and the Vikings were incredibly good at throwing the ball 20+ yards in the air. In 56 attempts, they completed 23 for 808 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions. Those are flabbergasting numbers — that’s 14.4 yards an attempt, with no turnovers. Compare with New England, which was 18 of 65 for 699 yards (10.8 yards per attempt) and four interceptions.
But in 2010, with Rice hurt, the Vikings have looked lost in the deep game. Favre is 4 for 12 going deep, for 110 yards and an interception.
Favre is getting decent protection — 60 percent of the time, he’s faced no pressure, which is about average and similar to last year. Two-thirds of the time, he’s throwing the ball less than 10 yards, which is also about the same as last year. Clearly, the Vikings are trying to do the same things they did in 2009, but without Rice they haven’t been able to. Adding Moss certainly makes a lot of sense for them in that he adds a deep threat to a team that relies on this.
Moss is one of the most dominant receivers ever to play the game, and he can still make plays in the NFL. However, he’s a negative in the blocking game, doesn’t possess open-field ability beyond his deep patterns, and has been poor thus far in 2010.
His reputation as a dominant receiver still causes some teams to pay him a lot of respect and soften coverage more than his play dictates they should, and his catch against the Jets shows that he is still capable of the spectacular.
For a receiving corps in need of help, Moss should upgrade the Vikings, but if they think they have just traded for someone who can directly replace what Rice brought them last season, they may be sadly mistaken.
As for the Patriots, they obviously feel like the negative Moss of 2010 is what they will continue to get, and will take their chances with a young group of targets.
Vikings at Patriots, Halloween afternoon in Foxboro. Will this be bigger than the M*A*S*H finale? We can’t wait to see.
Moss’ numbers from 2008-present: