Starr: The Randy Moss Solution

April 30, 2007

Dear Mark:
I hope you and your Patriots pals enjoy Randy Moss, that sulky, underperforming jerk.

Your pal,
Dan, the Oakland Raiders fan

May 2, 2007

Dear Dan the Raiders fan:
Sorry to take so long getting back to you. But since Randy escaped the “bad boys” haven in Oakland and landed in the bosom of the righteous, my New England Patriots, I’ve been extremely busy. Me and my buds—the gang from Section No. 132 at The Razor in Foxboro—have been making plans for the now inevitable “Welcome Back Christian Peter” celebration.

Remember Peter? He was the University of Nebraska defensive tackle drafted by the Patriots, back in 1996. He had lots of tackles on his college record, as well as a long record of problems with the law, including eight arrests and one third-degree sexual-assault conviction. When Myra Kraft, the dynamic and philanthropic wife of owner Robert Kraft, got wind of Peter’s history, she gave her husband an earful. Kraft echoed her sentiments to Pats management, which then unceremoniously dumped Peter before he even donned the uniform.

That was still a couple years BB—Before Belichick—but it was really the beginning of the Patriots’ “character” movement. The team was sending out an unequivocal message: we don’t want no stinkin’ felons or even misdemeanorons on our team. What has been so neat about that approach, as implemented by Coach Belichick, is that having players with character has translated into championships—count ’em, three of them. How cool that the best guys made for the best team.

It has taken more than a decade, and a host of off-field incidents, for the rest of the league to catch up with the Pats on this character issue. Their cause got a boost when NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, recently suspended a couple of miscreants, Tennessee’s Pacman Jones and Cincinnati’s Chris Henry, for their frequent close encounters with law enforcement. And former superstar running back turned ganja mystic Ricky Williams will apparently have to jump through plenty of hoops to find his way back from exile in Canada to the NFL Promised Land. As a result, every NFL team went into the draft last weekend wary of guys with what those ESPN analysts kept calling “red flags” on their résumés.

Still, with the league in avoidance mode on “red flag” guys, the Patriots smartly recognized a unique opportunity in what, in business parlance, might be called distressed assets. So not only did the team trade for Randy Moss, arguably the most talented wide receiver ever and unarguably one of the poster lads for bad behavior on and off the field. But in the first round of the draft, they took a safety from the University of Miami’s Brandon Meriweather, who was last seen stomping on some kids from Florida International in an on-field brawl.

Moss’s life has been one continual red flag. He did jail time in high school for battery, and later got kicked off the Florida State team, which is really hard to do. Moss went on to play college ball at Marshall and might have been the first pick in the 1998 NFL draft—he wound up going 21st to the Minnesota Vikings—had it not been for all his baggage. Since then, he has put up some remarkable numbers—including more than $100,000 in fines by the league for assorted acts of malice and buffoonery. It would be too much to suggest he’s a reformed character just because he hasn’t been charged with a crime in almost five years. Still, all his most recent problems can be termed attitudinal—a pronounced indifference to team goals and his reluctance to exert himself on plays that are not designed to showcase him.

But New England doesn’t lack for character guys capable of delivering Moss an unequivocal message about how you do things the Patriots way. What the Patriots lacked last season, when they came up just a few measly yards short of another trip to the Super Bowl, was folks to catch passes from Tom Brady. Even before signing Moss, the Pats were in the midst of what every NFL analyst regards as the best off-season of any team, having signed a mother lode of free-agent talent, including three wide receivers.

But the 30-year-old Moss is in a class by himself. Consider the record, as the Web site Cold Hard Football Facts did. The entire 2006 roster of Pats receivers has played 406 NFL games and caught passes for 11,977 yards and 61 touchdowns. Moss alone, over his nine seasons totaling 138 games, has caught passes for 10,700 yards and 101 TDs. When the Raiders traded for Moss two years ago, they gave Minnesota a prized, young linebacker and a first-round draft choice—and would have owed him $20 million in salary over the next two seasons. The Pats surrendered only a fourth-round pick for Moss, and he quickly agreed to take a giant pay cut—a one-year $3 million deal (with incentives). If Moss misfires, the Patriots can cut him adrift without having lost much more than a little face.

A Boston Globe online poll indicates that more than 86 percent of respondents applaud the Patriots’ acquisition. So apparently do the bettors; the Pats have now emerged—on a leading online gambling site—as 6-5 favorites to win Super Bowl XLII. For those who fret that the deal represents some backsliding on the character issue, Pats owner Kraft was reassuring: “I just want to make it crystal clear that we have not changed our philosophy in any way. Our mission statement is to win football games.” So there it is, Dan the Raiders fan, from on high. We still don’t want any stinkin’ felons or misdemeanorons here—unless, of course, they can help us win another Super Bowl.

Your pal,
Mark the Patriots fan

P.S. Fyi, after being booted out of Foxboro, Christian Peter went on to play six solid seasons—without incident—in the NFL, and is now reportedly pursuing a career in business. It turns out that some guys just need a second, third or, in Randy’s case, 17th chance.