Photo: Jeff Gross/Getty Images

NFL receiving legend Randy Moss celebrated his 40th birthday this week, and he could be heading for the Pro Football Hall of Fame as early as next year. Moss holds the NFL’s single-season record for receiving touchdowns (23) and is second all-time with 156 regular-season touchdown catches. Across 14 seasons, he posted a remarkable 15,292 receiving yards, and his stats stack up with the best ever at his position.

Despite Moss’ remarkable college stats at Marshall (3,529 yards and 54 touchdowns over two years), though, plenty doubted him ahead of the 1998 NFL draft. That led to him sliding out of the top five, and then out of the top 10. Some even criticized the Minnesota Vikings for grabbing Moss with the 21st overall pick, well behind where most projections had him. Here’s the key part of one such column, from Bob Sansevere of The St. Paul Pioneer Press on April 26, 1998, titled “Expect Moss To Find Trouble Before Pay Dirt”:

Don’t be surprised if Randy Moss runs into trouble more often than he runs into the end zone for the Vikings this season.

Moss may not harm other people; his damage is more likely to be self-inflicted.

Sansavere goes on to attribute these criticisms to Moss supposedly missing an 8 a.m. pre-draft meeting with Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh. Sure, that’s not great (and Moss’ past of a misdemeanor battery charge over a high school fight, a failed drug test while serving that sentence, and scholarship revocations from Notre Dame and Florida State may have colored impressions of him further, although Sansavere doesn’t cite those incidents), but concluding that missing a meeting means Moss would cause more harm than good was a pretty hot take.

The prediction about that season didn’t work out at all either, as Moss made 69 catches for 1,313 yards and 17 touchdowns (the latter a still-standing rookie record), earned a Pro Bowl start and a Offensive Rookie of the Year nod, and helped the Vikings to a 15-1 record and a NFC championship game appearance. Sansavere’s column also included the line that “coach Dennis Green will become even more arrogant and uncooperative toward the media because he knows this is his last season with the Vikings”;  helped by Moss and by the team’s success, Green would coach Minnesota until 2002.

Sansavere was far from the only one who thought Moss wouldn’t work out well in the NFL, though. In fact, many coaches and executives were so bothered by Moss’ past off-field incidents that they publicly said they wouldn’t select him even before the draft. Here’s Dick Vermeil of the St. Louis Rams, in a March 29, 1998 St. Louis Post-Dispatch piece by Jim Thomas headlined “Vermeil, Rams Still Don’t Want Moss”:

With the draft only three weeks away, Dick Vermeil hasn’t changed his mind on Marshall wide receiver Randy Moss

   “He’s on our (draft) board in the ratings now,” Vermeil said last week at NFL owners meetings. “He won’t be on our board on draft day.”Why?

   “It’s just because of the problems he’s already had,” Vermeil said. “I don’t need any more problems. No reflection on Lawrence Phillips . . . I just don’t believe in taking Georgia Frontiere’s and Stan Kroenke’s money and making that kind of investment.”

…”I’ll tell you this: If he was a New York stock and had been going down all those times, would you invest a $6 million signing bonus in it? Would you put $6 million of your savings in that stock?

   “Hey, I hope he’s successful. I hope he’s a great kid. I hope he solves all his problems. I really do. I’m not against him. I just can’t justify to our people drafting a person with continual problems.”

In Vermeil’s defense, the Rams had been recently burned by drafting Phillips (who had arguably a worse background, one that involved multiple violent assaults against women) sixth overall in 1996 and then cutting him in 1997 after he was arrested three further times, spent 23 days in jail, and allegedly showed up for a game intoxicated. It’s understandable why they may have been leery of spending another first-round pick on someone with perceived behavior issues, even if Moss’ alleged issues weren’t close to Phillips’. Still, St. Louis wound up using their sixth-overall pick on defensive end Grant Wistrom, who had a fine NFL career (132 games for St. Louis and Seattle), but never made a Pro Bowl and was nowhere near Moss’ level. They might have been better off drafting the “person with continual problems.”

The Rams were far from the only team to declare they didn’t want Moss, though. Here’s New England Patriots’ director of player personnel Bobby Grier, in a April 14, 1998 Boston Herald piece by Steve Conroy, titled “Moss off the board”:

Bobby Grier didn’t tip his hand yesterday about what he will do in Saturday’s NFL draft, but he made it clear what he won’t do. He will not draft Randy Moss, the 6-foot-5 Marshall wide receiver with a history of off-field problems.

If the Patriots keep their picks and remain at Nos. 18 and 22 in the first round, Moss, considered the best receiver in this year’s crop, will likely be gone by the time they pick.

Even if he plummets, Grier said the Pats won’t take him.

“I’ve learned my lesson,” said the Pats’ director of personnel. “We don’t move them down on the board, we move them off the board now.”

Grier, of course, was referring to the 1996 drafting of Nebraska’s Christian Peter in the fifth round. When Peter’s off-field transgressions were made public a few days after the draft, the Pats decided to drop him.

It wasn’t just football people, as columnists got in on the action too. Here’s a hot take from The Delaware County Daily Times published April 18, 1998 (the first day of the draft) and titled “Eagles’ future better without Moss’ past”. Sadly, there’s no author listed for this one in NewsBank’s archives, but the vitriol here is impressive regardless of who it’s from:

The Eagles have the No. 11 pick in the NFL Draft today, and that means they have a mandate: They must take no chances.

Randy Moss, just to pick a handy name, is a chance.

With a past including the abuse of drugs and women — and as such a pain in the tonsils that not even Bobby Bowden could stomach him at Florida State of all bastions of tolerance — the Eagles cannot afford to draft a player with such a past.

All the scouts say he can catch footballs. So what? Every team in the NFL has two or three receivers who can catch footballs.

Randy Moss may never give a coach or a girlfriend trouble again. But the good thing about finishing 6-9-1 last season is that the Eagles will now draft so high that they don’t even have to worry about that. A good player will be available to them no matter what, and chances are the guy never will have been kicked off a football team.

The Eagles wound up doing fine with their pick, drafting offensive tackle Tra Thomas, who’d play for them for 11 seasons, make three Pro Bowls and earn an All-Pro nod. Still, not every team has “two or three receivers who can catch footballs” the way Moss could, and having Moss might have been even more helpful than Thomas.

What about the litany of coaches and GMs who discussed Moss after the draft, saying they had no intention of taking him? Here’s then-Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson to Jason Cole (then of the Palm Beach Sun-Sentinel) on April 20, in a piece headlined “JJ Will Take Shannon Over Moss Any Time“:

The Dolphins think they found a receiver with just as much potential in Larry Shannon of East Carolina in the third round.

“With Larry Shannon coming to our football team by the way, he’s probably a step faster than Randy Moss,” Johnson said. “So he’s bigger, he’s taller, he’s faster. Sometimes everybody gets all carried away, for instance, with Moss and I don’t want to be talking about somebody else’s player. I’m just going to make an example. Some of these people get so carried away. I’d like to pull them aside and say, how many films did you grade in coming to your evaluation?

“I say, `Well, did you ever even see him play?’ . . . Oh, you’ve seen three or four highlights . . . You actually watched SportsCenter and that’s how you made your evaluation of this player. And so we have a lot of scouts, a lot of coaches do a tremendous amount of research. We’re paid to do it. We’ve been doing it our entire lives and I don’t know that somebody in the media can watch SportsCenter and make the evaluation for us as far as who we should have picked.”

Maybe Johnson should have let someone from the media make the pick based off watching SportsCenter. Shannon spent two years with Miami, but only appeared in two games and didn’t record any statistics. In fact, he never recorded a NFL catch, and was out of the league by 2002. Both Shannon and Moss were listed at 6’4”, 210, too, so “bigger and taller” certainly weren’t true either. Shannon was a third-round pick, of course, but the Dolphins’ eventual first-round pick of RB John Avery didn’t work out well either; Avery was out of the NFL by 1999, although he went on to a nice XFL and CFL career.

Plenty of other coaches and executives also bragged about their wisdom in avoiding Moss, though. Mike Ditka, then of the New Orleans Saints, told Sheldon Mickles of The Advocate (based in Baton Rouge, LA) in a “Moss too risky even for Saints” piece from April 21, 1998 that he was willing to sign and draft guys with much more serious legal problems (Lamar Smith, convicted of vehicular assault,  Andre Royal, charged with public drunkenness and simple battery after allegedly groping a stripper, and Julian Pittman, who pled no contest to charges of burglary and credit card theft), but not Moss:

While character has been a major theme for head coach Mike Ditka since he was hired 15 months ago, the Saints actually haven’t been afraid to pursue players who’ve had scrapes with the authorities – until Saturday, when they couldn’t ignore Moss’ well-documented past.

    In Ditka’s eyes, the difference between Smith and Royal and Moss is a case of bad judgment vs. bad character.

…When asked if Pittman’s legal situation was a concern to the Saints, Ditka admitted it was.

    “It’s always an issue because I speak very highly of character,” he said. “But I don’t think this denotes bad character, I think it denotes bad judgment. When you get involved with alcohol, it’ll cause you to do stupid things.

…”With Moss, there was more history and more incidents,” said Bruce Lemmerman, the Saints’ director of college scouting.

Pittman was then accused of sexual battery in a Tennessee bar that May, violating his probation. He was out of the NFL by 1999. Good judgement there, Ditka. The Saints’ first-round pick of offensive lineman Kyle Turley (of recent ESPN filibuster fame) seventh overall worked out okay, as he played for them for five years and earned two All-Pro nods during his career, but he was no Moss.

It wasn’t just coaches congratulating themselves for not taking Moss, though. Many media members agreed and praised teams for not selecting him. Consider this take from Jay Mariotti in the Chicago Sun-Times:

Enis played three seasons for the Bears and one for the Browns, finishing with 1,497 rushing yards before a knee injury forced him to retire at 24. He battled injuries and wasn’t great when he did play, and eventually lost the Bears’ tailback job to James Allen. Good call on that one, Jay.

It is worth noting that some of those who passed on Moss certainly did regret it. Here’s Dallas Cowboys’ owner and general manager Jerry Jones to ESPN’s Tim MacMahon in 2010:

“I apologize, I apologize, I apologize,” Jones said earlier this week regarding his decision to not draft Moss in 1998. “I don’t believe that’s going to do any good. He’s too much of a competitor.”

The Cowboys did fine with their eighth-overall pick, choosing linebacker Greg Ellis, who’d play for them for 11 seasons and earn a Pro Bowl nod. Still, like everyone else, they probably would have rather have had Moss. About the only players in that draft who had a better career than Moss are Peyton Manning and perhaps Charles Woodson (depending on how you judge it), and Moss certainly worked out better than the likes of Enis and Ryan Leaf.

Moss wasn’t even the first receiver off the board, as Tennessee took Kevin Dyson 16th. Dyson was involved in some great plays, including the Music City Miracle, but only had 2,325 career receiving yards. Like just about everyone else, the Titans probably should have picked Moss. Hindsight is 20/20, though, and draft mistakes happen regularly, but what stands out in the Moss situation is how many teams boldly proclaimed they didn’t want him and were right not to draft him. They were proven wrong about that.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing.