By Mike Wise
Monday, October 3, 2005
Standing next to Santana Moss after a football game is akin to standing next to a semi-famous actor before a Lakers game in Los Angeles. First, you realize it's him. Then you whisper to yourself, "Don Johnson is soooo tiny." Or, "Look how little Sylvester Stallone is. He's Frodo in Bruno Maglis."
Same thing goes for Moss, the Mini-Me of NFL wideouts. Even in goatee and black nylon skullcap, he still looks like he should be asking Lemar Marshall for his autograph rather than signing the name tags of FedEx Field employees yesterday after he had bailed out Joe Gibbs's team again.
Looking at his size, how an itsy-bitsy wide receiver listed at 5 feet 10 and 185 pounds -- but truthfully goes maybe 5-8, 170-175 -- can be the single largest reason why his new team is unbeaten in a he-man league is almost unfathomable. How is it that the close games this franchise lost last season are suddenly turning into victories this season? What about the knock on Moss when he was acquired for Laveranues Coles, that he didn't like to go across the middle and absorb punishing hits from linebackers, that he had a little softness in his game?
"If you look at my career and don't listen to what people say -- if you actually see what I do on the field when given the chance -- that's how you should judge me," Moss said yesterday, outside the room where the team holds its postgame news conferences. "I make the most of what it's given me. Always have.
"I mean, my high school [Carol City in Miami] was an option team. The coach told me I might not get the ball but once or twice a game, so, you know, I had to make the most of things."
Little man. Impossibly big plays.
It is no coincidence that Moss ran under another Brunell prayer late in the game yesterday and Gibbs's team moved to 3-0 for the first time since -- heraldic trumpets, please -- that 1991 Super Bowl season. The reason the District and beyond is in a tizzy over its NFL franchise again is because Moss has made monstrous catches in yardage and importance since the team acquired him from the Jets for Coles in the offseason.
Yesterday, it was a 30-yard grab-and-run on third down by Moss -- which began as a crossing route and was Brunell's longest completion of the day -- that set up Nick Novak's field goal in overtime. But Moss may have made an even more important catch on that game-winning drive. Backed up at the Redskins 23 and facing a third and 10, Brunell rifled a pass to Moss on a square-in pattern. But Moss lost his balance making the turn and was falling down, face-first, when he came back for the ball. Before he hit the ground, he used his thumb and index fingers to make a perfect diamond. He tucked the ball in, textbook-style -- "like a pitcher's mitt," Moss said, smiling.
Of the six times Brunell looked for Moss on third-down conversions, Moss hauled in five first downs. In three games, he has 15 catches for 342 yards. He is the sole ingredient Gibbs did not have a year ago, a big-time playmaker. Gibbs wouldn't compare him to a Ricky Sanders or Gary Clark -- even though Moss may be the best wide receiver around here since Clark. But he did allow that "Santana, to me, has phenomenal deep-ball reaction." Gibbs explained: How, no matter where Moss's body is while the ball in the air, he somehow twists and contorts to snatch the pass with ease.
It seems like a year ago now, but against Dallas, Moss ran under two desperation Brunell bombs within 71 blinding seconds of each other. Moss twice got behind Pro Bowl safety Roy Williams, hauling in 39- and 70-yard scores on national television. The Redskins staggered the Cowboys and thrust the little man into instant franchise lore.
Suddenly, Moss had exactly twice as many touchdowns (two) in his Washington career as the complaining Coles and his smarting turf toe had all of last season. Coles may have caught 90 balls a year ago, but he averaged just 10.6 yards per catch. Moss had half that many catches with the Jets last season, but his 45 receptions averaged out to 18.6 yards per catch.
A year ago, Washington was 31st in the league -- second to last -- in yards per completion. Its offense was among the worst in converting 20-yard plays or more from scrimmage. For that very reason and the fact they no longer wanted Coles here, Gibbs and Vinny Cerrato, the team's vice president of football operations, went out and got Moss. The results have been as immediate as they have been startling.
Brunell completed only seven passes for 20 yards or more all of last season. His 15 passes to Moss this season? A whopping 22.8 yards per catch.
Whether it was the reemergence of Brunell, Gibbs having the chance to be 3-0 again or the anticipation of Moss going deep, the stadium had a genuine buzz going unlike any in recent history. Maybe it's because the fans have suffered so long. They have had the worst team Daniel Snyder's money could buy for several seasons, free agent busts and numerous coaching changes. And as colleague Tom Boswell observed a couple of weeks ago, there was a sense of history and belonging at RFK Stadium that just didn't translate to the new place in Prince George's County, a few stoplights down from a Wendy's. Especially when the team was losing.
But yesterday, walking into FedEx Field was walking into Ann Arbor or Tallahassee. No one fumbled the game away, no coach was on the hot seat. There was not even a quarterback quandary to dissect.
There was a big game and a big-play receiver to help win in overtime. The difference? Santana Moss wasn't here a year ago.