Before the Super Bowl Randy Moss got some headlines for saying that he’s the greatest receiver ever to play the game. Not surprisingly he caught some flack for that, probably because he forgot that his current team used to have a guy named Jerry Rice play the position pretty well. Some people also have personal reasons for bumping Moss down; they feel that he didn’t always play his hardest or that his personality wasn’t so hot. In his last article for the season, TMQ went so far as to say that Moss doesn’t even break his top 10. That seems a little harsh to me. So how good has Randy Moss been?
One thing to note from the start is that Moss said that his contributions go beyond his stats. Great receivers presumably make it easier for his teammates by drawing double (and occasional triple) teams from the defense, and a guy like Moss might be particularly valuable because he is/was such a deep threat; he could and did score big touchdowns at any time. Unfortunately we can only really look back at the statistics to see what Moss did and how it compares to other receivers, though, so that’s what I’ll stick to.
I’ll be using football-reference’s player season finder for most of the stats here. For example, you can see which receivers (I included guys listed as tight ends) have had the most catches in their careers since the NFL merger. Moss currently sits at 9th on the list, 14 catches ahead of Reggie Wayne. Assuming Moss doesn’t retire, he’ll likely get the 18 catches he needs to move past Hines Ward and there’s some chance he’ll get the 42 to catch Isaac Bruce. He only had 28 receptions this year, so that’s iffy and he might need two more years to get there. Terrell Owens is in 6th with 96 more catches than Moss, so 7th is probably the best Randy will hit. Still, that’s pretty clearly in the top 10.
It’s unlikely Moss will stay that high though. Reggie Wayne had over 100 catches just last year and could catch Owens next year or shortly thereafter if he stays healthy and Andrew Luck keeps looking his way. Andre Johnson is the next highest active receiver and is about 160 receptions behind Moss. He should also make up that difference in two years if he stays healthy; a little further back are guys like Jason Witten, Anquan Boldin, Steve Smith, Wes Welker, and Larry Fitzgerald. Particularly when you consider their roles in their offenses and the tendency for more and more passing these days, you have to think they have reasonable chances to catch Moss in the near future. Looking farther ahead you might pick Roddy White, Brandon Marshall, Marques Colston, and (Lions fans willing) Calvin Johnson as guys who could get there if they play long enough. What’s important, though, is that none of that is important. Moss got to his spot and can’t help what other guys have done. When he retires, he’ll likely have the 7th most catches of anyone in NFL history. That says something about his longevity and quality.
We can look at Moss’ 15,292 receiving yards, good for 3rd on the all-time list. He’s about 640 yards behind Terrell Owens, so that might take two more years, and he’s not going to catch Jerry Rice (it’s likely no one will; they would need nearly 23,000 yards). But Moss has a lot going for him in terms of yards. While Reggie Wayne was right behind in terms of catches, he’s only 14th in yards at 13,063. In other words, particularly compared to Wayne, Moss got big chunks of yards per reception. To put it in perspective, Wayne would need 2,229 yards on those 14 catches he needs to catch up to Moss in both categories. Moss has 5 of the top 100 single seasons for receiving yards in NFL history despite only having 3 of the top 100 single seasons for receptions. Thus it’s a little surprising that if we look at guys who have at least 100 career receptions, Moss isn’t even in the top 100. I’ll get back to that.
Of course the money lies in touchdowns. “Sure, guy X may be the best player ever by your fancy advanced statistic, but he doesn’t get in the end zone” (is something you might see somewhere on the internet). That isn’t an issue for Moss, who is second all-time in receiving touchdowns. The closest active player is Tony Gonzalez (who may not be active much longer), who is 6th all-time – and 53 touchdowns behind Moss. Reggie Wayne has literally half of Moss’ TD total and is 17th. Moss not only has the record for receiving touchdowns in a year, but he’s also 7th, 8th, 18th, 51st, and 52nd. If you use touchdowns per game as a criterion, Moss even beats Jerry Rice on that count.
All these numbers tell me, at least, that Moss has been very good and had a hugely productive career. They all also rely on longevity. That’s obviously important, but makes it hard to compare to guys who didn’t play as long or who haven’t been in the league that long yet. So let’s try limiting these searches to the first 10 years of a player’s career. Ten years is plenty of time and even potentially hurts Moss a bit by taking away his last two years in New England, which were pretty productive (both over 1000 yards and 10 TDs). Moss is still second in touchdowns, and only 7 behind Rice (but 14 ahead of 3rd place Marvin Harrison). He’s 4th in yards, including being ahead of Andre Johnson (who just completed his 10th season), behind Rice, Holt, and Harrison. Both of those are despite being 7th in receptions; still good, but not as relatively high. This is also why Moss tends to lag behind a bit in yards per game; he just didn’t catch enough balls, relatively speaking, to get him high on that list (he’s 7th in the 10-year list and 17th in the career list).
We can limit ourselves even more and see what happens. Looking at the first five seasons of a career, Moss is 3rd in yards per game, 2nd in touchdowns, 2nd in yards (ahead of Rice; 41 behind Torry Holt), and 3rd in receptions. In short, Moss was dominant in his first five years, dominant in his first ten, and pretty dominant at everything except for receptions for his career. If there’s one thing you would complain about, it’s his yards per reception. In the first five years he’s 12th with 16.29 yards per catch, in the ten year group he’s 12th but with 15.75 yards per catch, and in the career group he’s 14th with 15.57 yards per catch; those numbers were based on sorting the other searches by yards per reception. So obviously Moss slowed down a bit with age, but so does everyone; from 5 years to career he lost three quarters of a yard per catch but only fell two spots. I think what’s interesting though is that this is actually evidence that Moss did more than just go deep; if you do a different search, even requiring that players have at least 100 receptions or the like, Moss falls out of the top 100 for yards per catch behind a bunch of guys who were mostly only deep threats, like Flipper Anderson and Willie Gault. Moss could certainly go deep, but he was also just explosive. He could catch a short pass and take it the rest of the way.
To sum up: Randy Moss will finish his career in the top 10 of every meaningful receiver statistic. His first five and first ten seasons are all top five except for receptions in the ten year group. He led the league in receiving touchdowns five times, and one of those was good enough to lead the league in touchdowns period. He was top five in yardage seven times. He’s even thrown the ball 8 times; in perhaps the most unfair comparison you’ll ever see on this site, his career QB rating puts him ahead of guys like Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Joe Montana, etc. He is an all-time great and I’m not sure how you would argue it.
Of course, he lacks the ‘intangibles’. He had some personality issues, police issues, and for a guy who’s second in all-time receiving yards he apparently didn’t try especially hard. He also doesn’t have a Super Bowl ring. But I think Dan Marino is plenty of evidence that you can be widely accepted as great if you have enough stats without a ring. And Moss probably did benefit his teammates quite a bit with his ability to draw the defense. Is Moss the best receiver ever to play the game? It’s hard to argue that he’s better than Jerry Rice, or perhaps even a guy like Reggie Wayne or Marvin Harrison. Of course, he never had a Peyton Manning or Steve Young throwing him the ball either. If you had to pick the 10 best receivers to ever play in the NFL, I don’t know how you’d make that list without Randy Moss.