NEW ORLEANS-- A leap-out-the-stadium, pass-catcher extraordinaire in his prime, Randy Moss believes no other player compares at his position in NFL history. He said so Tuesday. Yes, Jerry Rice included.
"I really do think I'm the greatest receiver to ever play this game,'' the San Francisco 49ers veteran said in response to a question from USA TODAY Sports at Super Bowl XLVII media day.
Few people know Moss better than former NFL receiver Cris Carter, a longtime mentor who doesn't concur with his former Minnesota Vikings teammate's assessment. But Carter, now an ESPN analyst, agrees that Moss - the once-spectacular vertical downfield threat more often used as a decoy in the twilight of his career - came into the league with the potential to unseat Rice's generally acknowledged claim to the crown.
If, only if.
"He didn't have enough good habits early (in his career) to be the greatest ever,'' Carter told USA TODAY Sports. "You have to be a grinder - mentally and physically. Jerry wasn't the most talented, but he clearly was the best receiver ever. I really think Jerry Rice wanted to be the greatest; I don't think Randy Moss (did). I don't think you can accomplish something you never think of - or aspire to be. (Otherwise), Randy would have been the guy to carry the torch.''
In 2010, the NFL Network selected Rice as the greatest player, regardless of position. The Hall of Famer is the league's all-time leader in touchdowns (208), receptions (1,549) and yardage (22,895). Rice's 49er teams won three Super Bowl rings.
Moss has yet to be fitted for his first chunk of championship bling but, "For me to be here is just like a dream,'' he said. "I never would have thought of this in a million years that this would happen.''
Rice, 50, also an ESPN analyst these days, addressed Moss' comments on-air Tuesday by saying, "I let my career speak for itself.''
Some might argue that, before Moss can claim he is the greatest receiver in NFL history, he first would have to be viewed as the best receiver to ever play for the 49ers.
"I think back when Jerry was playing - and no disrespect to Jerry Rice because he's arguably the greatest - but for me to revolutionize the game (because of modified defenses designed to thwart him), that's what I really (hang) my hat on,'' Moss said.
Moss did not deny that a lack of proper focus and dedication to his craft early in his career hindered him reaching his full potential. It is unclear whether Moss will continue his career after Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens but he indicated he would like to play a 15th NFL season in 2013.
"I don't like my role - I really don't,'' he said. "(But) I understand my presence. I don't have to always touch the ball for us to score. I had to grow to understand it.''
Can you blame him? This is the same player who morphed into his own verb - how many players can say that? Many of Moss' young 49ers teammates relate to him because, at one time, they were him when playing video football games.
"He is (responsible) for the legendary slogan, 'You got Moss'd!'" said 49ers fullback Bruce Miller, 25. "We used to say it all the time.''
While Moss claimed Tuesday that, "I don't really regret anything,'' he wondered what might have been in his heyday. With issues on and off the field, Moss clearly squandered some of his freakish abilities despite racking up impressive statistics and a library of highlight-reel plays.
"I think I would have put a little more focus in my preparation,'' he said. "My focus (now) is somewhere where I really haven't seen it. I'm not braggin' on myself. (But) it feels weird now that my focus . . . wasn't like that earlier in my career. If I would have put that much effort back in the day, it might have been different.''
Reflects on career
During a wide-ranging chat five days before his second, and perhaps final, opportunity to earn a Super Bowl ring, this was Randy Moss Unplugged: Engaging, expansive, thoughtful - almost downright charming at times.
It was a side Moss rarely permits the media to view, much less convey to the public. He began the league-mandated interview session by playfully admonishing, "Listen, I don't know how many questions I'm gonna give ya'll.''
Eyes rolled. But Moss patiently fielded 73 queries, including topics relating to:
•His lack of widespread appeal: "I haven't been an ass-kisser and (I didn't) sell my soul to anyone else. I've always done it my way. I don't try to be better than the next man or try to break any laws or rules. ... I know there are some people who like me but I know there are lots out there who don't. I don't know (why) and don't really care.''
•His chances of election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame: "To get into the Hall of Fame is definitely a prestigious honor but that doesn't make me ... that's not going to break me.''
•Why he believes he is misunderstood: "I don't think I've really expressed how much I love to compete. I've been in fights in practice. ... When I hear people talk about how talented I am - how easy I make it look - I can honestly tell you that it's very hard work.''
•His legacy: "I still hear, 'You got Moss'd!''' It's hard to believe it's me they're talking about. I try to stay focused, humble and grounded. (But) you hear that little phrase, that little slogan, (and) it's just hard to believe. I'm overwhelmed by it.''
Perhaps his legacy has become important to a player who once infamously uttered: "I play when I want to play,'' a mostly misconstrued comment because Moss does what many NFL receivers do - they do not go full speed all the time, depending upon their assignment.
Moss, who celebrates his 36th birthday next month, detonated himself out of New England early in the 2010 season. In 2007, it was Moss who scored the go-ahead touchdown for the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII with less than three minutes remaining before the New York Giants rallied to win.
A money squabble with management - that being coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft - sent Moss packing again.
"He really loved New England,'' Carter said. "But he's a man of principle. He (told me), 'I took a pay cut and did everything they asked.' He probably was most upset about playing hurt. He had a really bad shoulder ... and played through it. Nobody knew.''
The Patriots traded him to the Vikings, the franchise that drafted him in the first round in 1998. That season, Moss snagged a rookie-record 17 touchdown catches as the franchise came within a field goal of advancing to the Super Bowl.
By the time he returned to Minnesota, Moss had bombed out with the Oakland Raiders during a two-season stint (2005-06). Belichick and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady resurrected his career and Moss became a monster again: He caught 51 touchdown passes in 52 games.
But a month after he was traded, the Vikings released Moss after when he criticized coaches and teammates. The Tennessee Titans signed him but they had no intention of bringing him back in 2011. Moss finished what appeared to be his final NFL season with desultory career-lows in receptions (28) and yards (393).
Moss went home. And mourned.
"I literally did cry - I really did,'' he said. "I love this game of football so much. I don't like everything that comes with it. But going out between the white lines is something I've done since I was 6 years old. For me to walk away from the game knowing I wasn't ready, mentally or physically, it really hurt, man. It depressed me.''
When Moss announced last February that he would play in 2012, former teammate Carter said, in part: "It's not an age thing. It needs to be addressed. I believe it's the elephant in the room: It's that thing called quit. And Randy - not like any other superstar I've met - he has more quit in him than any of those other players.''
Moss initially ignored the biting remarks but ultimately couldn't resist taking a jab at his old friend during one of Carter's lowest moments, just after the former receiver again was rejected by Hall of Fame voters.
In a Tweet, Moss wrote: "its sad how u stroked ur own ego when u were suppose to b my mentor!then u wonder why karma bites u in the ass! #goodlukwithhof.''
Carter said the two mended fences earlier this year when Moss reached out to him in the Bahamas when the two, unbeknownst to one another, were staying in the same hotel.
Moss as mentor
These days, Moss easily could hum the old classic song, "Ain't Misbehavin.''
By all accounts, he has been a supportive 49ers teammate who has helped mentor and lead a talented group of young players, which primarily is why coach Jim Harbaugh brought him aboard.
One 49ers' player Moss immediately took under his old wing was Michael Crabtree. The young but underperforming receiver responded with his best NFL season.
"I pulled him to the side - 'Crab, I don't want you to feel intimidated because they brought me here. Embrace me like I'm going to embrace you . . . Let me teach you,' '' Moss says he told Crabtree. "It's not a credit to me - it's a credit to him.''
His teammates noticed. "Leadership,'' has been his greatest contribution, said 49ers cornerback Tarell Brown.
"He really shows guys how to work, how to be a true professional, how to come in every day and get better at your craft. That's what some of (our young) guys needed. He is a great teammate, a great person and an even greater man.''
Moss said he is a different person these days - wiser, more mature and a father who cherishes his family. He said he left the game because his children needed him more. But Carter told USA TODAY Sports that said there were other reasons, too, including Moss' health.
"But the No. 1 thing were some unresolved childhood issues with his mother,'' Carter said. "Now, all those things are resolved. He told me, 'I feel like a free man.' ''
In any case, Moss still values his privacy as he continues to spar with the concept of fame, which he eschews. "I just want to be a normal person,'' he said. "I don't know if I ever will get to do that.''
"When I first came into this league, I didn't have a lot of guidance,'' he said. "I really didn't know how to accept what was coming my way - from endorsement deals to media coverage. The only thing I wanted to do was play football. And I still feel that way.
"I didn't come into the league to pose for no cameras or do no photo shoots. Just a young country boy from Rand, West Virginia, man. I just wanted to play football.''
By Jon Saraceno