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Moss Appeal Randy Moss has been better than advertised, on and off the field. Will he turn out to be the NFL's Michael Jordan?

As they prepare for a live interview at the Minnesota Vikings'
practice facility in Eden Prairie, Minn., Randy Moss and Cris
Carter fall easily into their roles, Moss, the reed-thin
21-year-old with the ice-cold glare and the challenging
demeanor, Carter, the muscular 33-year-old with the world-weary
eyes and the air of unwavering confidence. "You want the rook to
hold the mike?" Carter says to an off-camera interviewer. Moss
sits quietly, watching how Carter operates--the easy charm, the
gentle joshing. "See, the rook can't hear out of his left ear
and can't see out of his right eye," says Carter.

"Yeah, but I get it done somehow," says Moss. They crack up.
Carter begins asking Moss questions, not only to add levity to
the interview but also to offer his own subtle audition for a
post-football career. "See, I'm gonna be like Ahmad Rashad
talking to my man Jordan," says Carter.

It's not much of a stretch to say that Moss's rookie season has
been Jordanesque. He planned to show the 19 teams afraid to
draft him because of his cloudy past that they were wrong, and
so far he has in no way offended the good people of Minneapolis
or in any fashion defiled the Land of Jesse the Body. He
planned, soon after meeting elder statesman Carter, to make the
Vikings wide receivers the catalysts for Minnesota's Super Bowl
assault, and they have been, leading a high-flying offense that
broke the NFL's single-season scoring record and helped produce
a league-best 15-1 regular-season record and Sunday's 41-21
victory over the Arizona Cardinals, a game in which Moss caught
four passes for 73 yards and a touchdown. Most memorably, the
6'4" Moss planned, in his own inimitable phrase, to do "whatever
I can to rip this league up," and that's exactly what he has
done, putting together a rookie season for the ages (his 17
touchdown receptions not only led the NFL but were also the
highest rookie total ever), one that has him being compared with
everyone from Don Hutson to Jerry Rice, the latter being one of
his, uh, backups on the NFC Pro Bowl team.

Beyond that, Moss has--not single-handedly, to be sure, but
preeminently--galvanized and glamorized the Vikes, giving them
the league's highest phat factor. Next to Moss, Deion Sanders is
old-school, Barry Sanders ancient, Rice downright prehistoric.
Fueled by Moss Appeal, the Vikings have gone from 24th (in 1997)
to 14th in sales of licensed merchandise and will certainly
crack the top 10 if they make it to their first Super Bowl in 22
years. "There's so much Moss stuff and Vikings purple in there,
it looks like backstage at a Barney concert," NFL spokesman
Brian McCarthy said recently after he looked into an office at
league headquarters in New York loaded with NFL merchandise. For
years Green Bay Packers items outsold those of the home team
eight to one in the Field of Dreams gift shop in the Mall of
America in Bloomington, Minn., just a few miles from the
Metrodome. Now sales are running four to one in favor of Vikings
merchandise. Moss's 84 is Starter's hottest-selling jersey
seller not just in Minnesota but all over the country; the
company has shipped more than 100,000 of them since
mid-November. Says Minnesota general manager Tim Connolly:
"Randy Moss is exactly what the NFL needs."

Could you imagine anyone saying that back in April when teams
were avoiding Moss as if he was a strain of Ebola? Given Moss's
masterpiece of a season, his slide to the 21st pick goes into
the Draft Day Hall of Infamy right next to June 19, 1984, when
the NBA Portland Trail Blazers used the second selection to take
center Sam Bowie, thereby gift-wrapping a certain tongue-wagging
guard for the Chicago Bulls to take at No. 3.

The self-flagellation has been particularly intense in Dallas,
where Moss most wanted to play. "I was so stuck on the Cowboys,
it wasn't even funny," he says. Moss finally got to Dallas on
Thanksgiving Day and led the Vikings to a 46-36 victory with
three catches of more than 50 yards, all of which went for
touchdowns. Watching this performance was particularly painful
for Cowboys wideout Michael Irvin, who blames his own
well-publicized brushes with the law for the Mossed opportunity.
"With everything I'd been involved in, we couldn't draft Randy
Moss," said Irvin, who called Moss after the draft to apologize.

Irvin's teammate Sanders threw in these sentiments: "I'm happy
every time Randy Moss catches the ball and every time a team
that passed him up has to think about it."

It's important to remember, though, that there were good reasons
not to take Moss, not the least of which is that many teams are
reluctant to draft receivers high. Rice, whose college pedigree
at Division II Mississippi Valley State was similar to Moss's at
Marshall, was taken 16th by the San Francisco 49ers in 1985.
Perhaps Moss's impact will change that philosophy, just as
Michael Jordan's changed the NBA axiom that you always draft a
dominant center before a talented guard. But it would've taken a
brave soul indeed to take Moss in the top 10, where a draft pick
might command $6 million a year instead of the $1.4 million for
which the Vikings signed Moss. His transgressions were real: In
1995 he pleaded guilty to two counts of battery for kicking a
schoolmate during his senior year at DuPont High in Rand, W.Va.,
and was sentenced to 30 days. In the spring of '96, after a
redshirt freshman season at Florida State, he tested positive
for marijuana. Later that year he and his girlfriend became
involved in a domestic dispute. Charges against both were
dropped. Some team executives still believe that Moss is a
ticking time bomb and that the true test for him will come in
the off-season, away from the structure of practice and games,
when, as we've so often seen, idle hands do the devil's work.

Hands are the object of comparison between Moss and Carter, who
are sitting in the equipment room at the Vikes' practice
facility. "About the same size," says Moss, examining the long,
valuable digits of his left hand, "but Cris's hands are a little
better than mine right now." That's probably true. Carter, a
future Hall of Famer who had fewer touchdowns (12) than the
prodigy this season but more receptions (78 to Moss's 69), is
known for being one of the softest-handed receivers in football,
not to mention a specialist in that highlight-video staple, the
one-handed catch.

"See, the rook is in the embryo stage of one-handed catching,"
says Carter. Moss sort of smiles. He rarely does more than sort
of smile. "See, I told Randy he wasn't even allowed to speak
about the one-handed catch until he made the Pro Bowl."

"I guess I got my free pass to talk about it now, don't I?" says
Moss, who had learned earlier that day that he'd made the Pro
Bowl. (On Jan. 1, Moss was a near-unanimous choice on The
Associated Press's All-Pro team.) During the 26-16 win over
Tennessee that completed the Vikes' regular season, Moss got his
first official one-hander, on a two-point conversion, leaping
over helpless Oilers cornerback Denard Walker as easily as he
might reach for a ring on a carousel ride.

Though Carter plays at being Salieri to Moss's Mozart, he's too
talented to make that analogy work. Carter is more like the
uncle from the wrong side of the family, the one who has been in
trouble--Carter partied himself out of his first NFL stop,
Philadelphia, by overindulging in booze and cocaine--but has
seen the light and can now offer enlightened counsel.

"He plays the biggest role of anyone," says Moss, when asked
what Carter has meant to him. "Randall [Cunningham] and
[noseguard] Jerry Ball and my brother [Eric, a Vikings offensive
tackle who spent the season on injured reserve] are important,
but I play off this man right here. Cris is the main guy."
That's about as gooey as the rook will get in front of the vet.
Though they're practically inseparable on the field, they don't
spend much time together off it. "Hey, I'm an old, boring,
married guy," says Carter. One trip they are looking forward to
taking together, besides to Miami for the Super Bowl, of course,
is to Honolulu for the Pro Bowl. "What I'm anxious for Randy to
see is how hard Jerry Rice works every day, every practice,"
says Carter.

But isn't the Pro Bowl a time for basking in all-star glory and
just generally kicking back? "It is," says Carter, "for
everybody except Jerry Rice."

It seems absurd to compare Moss with Rice, but there is simply
no other pass-catching standard to which Moss can be held.
Though he's still learning the ropes, he caught three more
touchdown passes this season than any other receiver and his
average yards per reception ranked fifth. "I don't think it's
out of line to say that Randy has the potential to be the
greatest receiver ever," says Brian Billick, Minnesota's
offensive coordinator. Leaving out the categories of speed and
work ethic--Rice will never match Moss (who has run a 4.25 40)
on the former, and Moss may never match Rice ("Jerry has the
best work ethic in the history of the game," says Vikings coach
Dennis Green) on the latter--how do they compare?

--Explosiveness? Edge to Rice. "What makes Jerry special," says
Green, who was Rice's receivers coach with the 49ers from 1986
through '88, "is his first 10 yards. He gets a defender out of
his backpedal faster than anyone. Randy is good at it, real
good, but he can get better."

--Hands? Edge to Rice. Green Bay safety LeRoy Butler describes
Rice's as "phenomenal." Moss's may be phenomenal, too, but at
this point they are less reliable than Rice's; it is not pushing
it to compare Moss to Nomar Garciaparra, the Boston Red Sox
shortstop who makes the spectacular play but sometimes botches
the easy one. Going up and tipping balls away from a defender
and into his own hands, Moss has no peer.

--Athleticism? Big edge to Moss, who has the speed, the 39-inch
vertical leap, the height (Rice is 6'2"), the knack for
screening off a defender, the eye-hand coordination, the whole
package. "If the ball is underthrown, Moss is going to go up and
get it," says Carolina Panthers cornerback Doug Evans. "If it's
overthrown, he can catch up to it with his speed."

--Route running? Edge to Rice, who has been threading his way
through double coverage for 14 seasons and who has had the
advantage of working with Joe Montana and Steve Young, in an
offense that for more than a decade has defined efficiency. But
do not write off Moss as purely a burner; he runs excellent
routes and will only get better under the tutelage of teammates
Carter and Jake Reed.

--Toughness? Edge to Rice, maybe the best in history at going
over the middle, blindsiding linebacker or leg-chopping
cornerback be damned. A persistent murmur about Moss is that
he's a little leery of contact, and, well, there was that
pantywaist slide he made in front of a couple of Ravens
defensive backs during a 38-28 win in Baltimore on Dec. 13. But
don't get the idea that the kid is soft. He is an outstanding
blocker who will go after the big linebackers. And if there's
one thing about Moss that has impressed Vikings veterans and
coaches this season, it's his ability to fend off "press
coverage"--the close-quarters, bump-and-run tactics that
aggressive defenses have employed to try to take him out of his
game. "It takes speed, quickness and physical strength," says
Billick, "but it also takes mental toughness. I've never seen
Randy frustrated or threatened or panicked." Says Carter, "You
know that deer-in-the-headlights look that rookies get? Randy
doesn't get it."

--That je ne sais quoi that defines a great receiver? Call it a
tie. That may sound ridiculous since Rice has three Super Bowl
rings, but Moss has had only one season to prove himself as
something special and has done so. On a team with another truly
great receiver and a couple of good ones, Moss has emerged as
the Man, the one who keeps defensive coordinators awake at
night. New Orleans Saints cornerback Alex Molden says that in
the week before his team's Nov. 8 game against Moss and the
Vikings (which Minnesota won 31-24), Saints defensive backs
worked on special drills that involved knocking down passes
instead of challenging for the interception. "That's the most
attention we've given any receiver this year," says Molden.
Also, Moss is getting calls that rookies don't get, such as a
phantom pass interference penalty made against Walker in the
third period of Minnesota's regular-season finale.

Then there is Moss's penchant for making big plays in big games.
"Monday Night Football, the frozen tundra at Lambeau Field, our
archrivals," says Billick, doing a little John Facenda as he
describes the evening of Oct. 5 in Green Bay. "I remember
looking over at Randy in the locker room and thinking, Jeez,
this is like a scrimmage for this kid." Moss burned the Pack for
two long scores (52 and 44 yards) and had 190 yards on five
catches. Then he pulled off that three-TD, 163-yard,
why-the-hell-didn't-you-draft-me? performance in Dallas.

Those performances, along with his preternatural air of
confidence, suggest a variation on a model we know so well.
Asked if he had any thoughts of becoming a Jordanesque crossover
marketing phenomenon, Moss says, "I've thought about it a little
bit and...." At that point Carter, the mother hen, cuts in, "Of
course, Randy doesn't think he can be Michael Jordan."

"No, that's not what I'm saying," says Moss.

Good thing, because for all his instant stardom, Moss is in no
way like the Jordan who left Chapel Hill, N.C., as a grinning
conglomerate-to-be. Moss is raw, uncomfortable in the spotlight,
distrustful of his public, standoffish (at best) with the media.
But at this point in their history, the Vikings--with four Super
Bowl appearances but no title--need a Jordan between the lines
more than they need one outside the lines. It does not strain
credulity to suggest that, in Moss, that's exactly what they have.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY CARLOS GONZALEZ/STAR TRIBUNE Fan favorite Moss has become a Metrodome hero and a hot merchandise seller. [Randy Moss embraced by fans in stands at game]

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Razing Arizona In the Vikings' demolition of the Cardinals, Moss had four catches and a touchdown. [Randy Moss running with football away from defender]

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER [Randy Moss catching pass beside defender]

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Smashing duo All too aware of the hazards of fame and fortune, Carter (left) has helped keep Moss's eye on the ball. [Cris Carter and Randy Moss playing Ping Pong on miniature table]

Mixed Reviews

A look at how the 20 players selected ahead of Randy Moss
(right) in last April's draft fared during their rookie seasons.

Only QB to take every snap; led league in attempts, second in
completions, third in yardage

2. RYAN LEAF, QB, Chargers
Lowest-rated passer this decade was plagued by off-field
problems too

A holdout until September; had five sacks in regular season, two
in playoff win over Dallas

Defensive rookie of the year had five interceptions and drew
comparisons to Deion

Ran for 497 yards before tearing ACL in his left knee during
Chicago's ninth game

Disappointing backup had three sacks in 13 games

7. KYLE TURLEY, G, Saints
Started 15 games for league's 28th-rated offense

8. GREG ELLIS, DE, Cowboys
Had 63 tackles, three sacks during solid but unspectacular season

9. FRED TAYLOR, RB, Jaguars
His numbers--1,223 yards rushing, 44 catches, 17 TDs--would have
made him top rookie most years

10. DUANE STARKS, CB, Ravens
Moved into starting lineup at midseason; finished with five

11. TRA THOMAS, OT, Eagles
Allowed only one sack in last 10 games

Had 30 tackles and one interception in reserve role as outside

13. TAKEO SPIKES, LB, Bengals
Season-long starter led club with 112 tackles

14. JASON PETER, DE, Panthers
Late signee was slowed by several injuries, had 45 tackles and a
sack in 11 starts

Part-time starter had 43 tackles, one interception in 12 games

16. KEVIN DYSON, WR, Oilers
Inactive for the first two games; caught 21 passes for 263 yards
and two touchdowns

17. BRIAN SIMMONS, LB, Bengals
Started 12 games, had 78 tackles, five sacks

18. ROBERT EDWARDS, RB, Patriots
Slowed after a fast start; rushed for 1,115 yards, caught 35
passes and scored 12 touchdowns

Playing opposite Reggie White, tied for first among rookies with
eight sacks

20. TERRY FAIR, CB, Lions
Led league with a 28.0-yard kickoff return average; started 10

"With everything I'd been involved in, we couldn't draft Randy,"
says the Cowboys' Irvin, who apologized to Moss.

"You know that deer-in-the-headlights look that rookies get?"
says the Vikings' Carter. "Randy doesn't get it."