Unlike Rice, the former Minnesota Vikings receiver did not have the luxury of playing with Hall of Fame quarterbacks for the majority of his NFL career.
Last week, former NFL wide receiver Jerry Rice acknowledged himself as the greatest player in the history of the league. It’s an understandable argument, as statistically speaking Rice owns just about every all-time NFL receiving record.
It’s also important to remember that the franchise infrastructure and leadership can contribute mightily to highlighting a player’s success.
No matter how much talent a player has, the NFL is a system league. If someone is drafted by the New England Patriots, they’ve got an immediate head start in development and stock growth compared to a player drafted by, oh, let’s say the Cleveland Browns.
Rice is an all-time great and one of the top two receivers to ever play in the NFL. But to be specific, he’s 1A to the 1 of Randy Moss.
Rice had the greatest supporting cast of his era, which included having back-to-back first ballot Hall of Fame quarterbacks through his prime.
Prior to the receiver getting drafted by the San Francisco 49ers, Joe Montana was already a three-time pro bowler. After his first six seasons with Montana in San Francisco, Rice then went on to play eight more years with the 49ers and quarterback Steve Young.
Even during the end of his career with the Oakland Raiders, Rice was the beneficiary of having Rich Gannon as his quarterback. In 2000, prior to the receiver’s arrival to the Raiders, Gannon was a First-Team All-Pro and was voted to his second-straight pro bowl.
The NFL is a sport where typically the quality of quarterback play has a direct correlation with the receiver’s level of play. Rice had great quarterback play for his entire career.
In the case of Randy Moss, he elevated the level of his quarterbacks’ play.
He started his career with Randall Cunningham under center. Before Moss was drafted in 1998, Cunningham threw for a combined 30 touchdowns and 27 interceptions during the previous four seasons.
Enter Moss to the Vikings’ roster and immediately Cunningham has his best year since 1990. Thanks to the help of his young receiver, the quarterback was selected as a First-Team All-Pro for the first and only time in his career in 1998.
Cunninghame threw for 34 touchdowns and 10 interceptions that year. Of those 34 touchdown passes, Moss accounted for half of them (17), setting the NFL’s all-time record for touchdown receptions by a rookie.
Moss then had Daunte Culpepper, who certainly had talent. Culpepper’s arm strength combined with his freakish receiver was a deadly combination on the field.
However, once number 84 was no longer on the roster, the quarterback struggled mightily.
After Moss was traded to the Raiders in 2005, Culpepper threw for six touchdowns and 12 interceptions in seven games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He threw 39 touchdowns and 11 interceptions during the previous year with Moss as his teammate.
After two years of his prime were wasted in Oakland, the veteran receiver finally got the chance to play with a premiere quarterback for the first time in New England’s Tom Brady in 2007. In Moss’ 10th NFL season, Brady was the first comparable signal caller to what Rice had in a Montana or Young.
During his first year with the Patriots, all Moss did was set the league’s all-time record for touchdown receptions in a single season (23). Along with Brady, the receiver led New England to a perfect regular season record of 16-0 in 2007.
The fact is, Moss dominated the game and forced a transformation of passing defenses despite playing with subpar to decent level quarterback play for the majority of his prime. Every single NFL team game-planned for the talented receiver and they still couldn’t stop him.
Whether it was single coverage or double teams in the secondary, when the ball went up in the air, Moss was going to come down with it and there was nothing anyone could really do about it.
He was so dominant that eventually his last name was used as a verb across the nation for referencing highlight reel catches, as Moss made it a routine part of his game.
“If he only put in more effort.”
There’s a common belief that Moss slacked off on the work required to be the best. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
The receiver’s arrival in the 1998 season transformed the Vikings from a team with 8-8 and 9-7 records and early playoff exits during previous three years to contenders making deep runs in the playoffs.
Moss also made the jobs of his fellow offensive personnel much easier. Opposing defenses were forced to use more conservative packages in efforts to prevent the inevitable deep ball play to the dangerous Minnesota receiver.
Beyond his freak talents and beyond his ability to raise the level of his quarterback’s play, something that seldom gets recognized is the amount of team deficiencies that Moss covered up. Namely the god awful Vikings defense.
From his sophomore season in 1999 through the year before he was traded to Oakland, Minnesota was a bottom 10 team in total defense. In four of these seasons, the Vikings’ defense was among the NFL’s five worst.
During that same time period, Minnesota produced a total of just three defensive Pro Bowl players.
The Vikings went to the NFC Championship in the 2000 season despite having a defense that was the fourth-worst against the pass, bottom 10 in points allowed, and gave up the third-most first downs in the NFL according to Pro Football Reference.
In other words, as soon as Minnesota would score, the team’s defense would then let the opposing offense march right down the field and give up a counter score with little to no resistance.
In 2003, the Vikings needed to win a Week 17 matchup against the Arizona Cardinals to clinch a berth into the playoffs.
Up 17-6 in the fourth quarter thanks to a field goal and a Moss touchdown catch, Minnesota’s defense gave up two unanswered touchdown passes to the Cardinals. The Vikings’ season ended thanks to Arizona’s miraculous, game-ending 27-yard score on 4th and 25.
Moss was regularly forced to bail out Minnesota with his play on the field. The former Vikings receiver not only put in the work to be great, but he singlehandedly carried the franchise on his back and made them relevant during his seven years with the team.
Moss proved that he can dominate and put up great numbers with anyone throwing the football. If he was given the structure of the 49ers that Rice had, there’s a good chance that every NFL receiving record would be shattered by the former Minnesota pass catcher.
Conversely, it’s not a certainty that Rice could take on the workload of an entire franchise to the tune of what Moss dealt with during his time with the Vikings.
In terms of talent, playmaking ability, dominance and impact on the game, Randy Moss is the greatest receiver in the history of the NFL.
For more on this topic, check out my latest video podcast where I further discuss this Rice vs Moss.