By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 7, 2006
On the cusp of spring nearly a year ago, Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder packed his private plane with his team's offensive nerve center and headed south. Coach Joe Gibbs and his assistant coaches flew to Miami to pick up Santana Moss, the wide receiver they had just acquired from the New York Jets for Laveranues Coles.
The Redskins play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers today in the NFC playoffs in no small part because of Moss, but last March he was no sure thing. Moss himself has long been frustrated by the Jets' perception of him as nothing more than third receiver. And despite erratic quarterback play and overall offensive weaknesses, Coles had caught 90 passes for Washington in 2004, twice as many as Moss's 45 catches with the Jets.
But before the trade Gibbs had canvassed people he trusted about Moss, and the word of one player stood out. Running back Clinton Portis told Gibbs if he made the deal for Moss, the Redskins' offensive troubles in 2004 would be over. Moss could do things offensively that a Gibbs offense craved. And how did Portis know this? Because the two had been teammates at the University of Miami.
"I told him the only person I ever saw cover Santana in the slot was Phillip Buchanon," Portis said of the Houston cornerback who was a teammate of Portis and Moss at Miami. "Phil was my roommate. Santana was my homeboy, and it was impossible to cover Santana in the slot. Phillip was the only guy who could do it. I knew once we got him here, that slip screen was perfect for him. That deep ball, with his adjustments, he'd been doing that forever. The catches that were impossible to make, he'd been making them forever."
And so the Redskins added another Hurricane to their roster to go with Sean Taylor and the since-departed Michael Barrow. There is a fraternity of former Miami players, mostly Florida natives, who are now in the NFL pushing one another, training together in the offseason, lobbying for one another, but never pampering each other. Over the last 20 years, no school has produced more NFL players, or more first-round picks. When the 2005 season began, only six teams -- Detroit, Kansas City, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Tampa Bay -- did not have at least one Miami alum on the active roster.
"You feel it, because you know if anything happens, there's a guy you can go to," Taylor said.
For the Redskins, the benefits have been obvious. Taylor has been a fixture at safety since being drafted. Ten months after the plane trip, Moss has been transformed from a question mark to a player coaches describe by using words like "blessing" and "godsend." And Portis returned to the elite plateau of 1,500-yard rushers whose company he kept in Denver. The two did not only produce extraordinary seasons as the Redskins returned to the playoffs for the first time since the 1999 season but Portis and Moss broke the club single-season rushing and receiving records, respectively. Portis rushed for 1,516 yards, breaking Stephen Davis's 2001 club record of 1,432, while Moss's 1,483 yards surpassed Bobby Mitchell's 1963 mark of 1,436 (in 14 games).
For both records to fall in the same season has only one precedent, the Dallas Cowboys of 1995, when running back Emmitt Smith rushed for 1,773 yards and Michael Irvin totaled 1,603 receiving yards.
"Isn't that something?" Moss said of Irvin, whose receiving record he broke at Miami. "Another Hurricane, just like me."
When Moss arrived at Miami, he quickly noticed the parade. Irvin, the great Cowboys wide receiver, would return covered in jewels, driving luxury cars, as would Kevin Williams. Miami has had a first-round draft pick for the last 11 years.
"When we were in college, we just wanted to know what they had. We were young, you know. They had the glory, all those things," Moss said. "Michael Irvin, seeing those guys like Kevin Williams. Even if they weren't the biggest stars, every guy that was on this level had something to show for it. That was the thing, being a young guy. And one thing that school gave us was seeing that those guys went there, we had the opportunity to do what they were doing."
While it is fun to turn a highly competitive, billion-dollar industry into a local block party with players they have known in some cases since grade school, Portis says the Miami influence is built largely on peer pressure.
"When we're all back in Miami and everyone is relaxing, everyone had a teammate," he said. "When we came through The U, everyone was hungry. I don't think any of us were the top recruit. Santana went to school on a track scholarship. When I went, they wanted me to play defensive back, so I think everyone who went in had something to prove. You were going against other guys. They instilled in you to want competition, you don't run from competition."
If Moss was first blinded by and then hungry for the bling, Portis recalls Miami wanting to prove he couldn't just climb the depth chart but sit atop it.
"After my freshman year, competing with James Jackson, knowing he was going to the NFL, I knew I could do the same," Portis said. "James had a lot of talent, but I believed I had just as much talent as James did. In talking to Dan Morgan and Bubba Franks and the guys I practiced against. By my sophomore year, I knew it was my time.
"At the time I was coming out, it was really an insult to go in the second round because all those guys were going in the first. So I played with an attitude, to prove that I should have been in that elite first class," Portis said. "It wasn't me wanting to compete with the rest of the world, but the guys you knew. It's hard to compete against guys you don't know, but knowing Edgerrin [James], Willis [McGahee], knowing we all came from the same backfield made me want to beat them out. If I can beat them out, I knew I was in good company."
It is a stunning list of Miami alumni in the NFL that provides both a comfort zone for one another as well as the ultimate benchmarks for competition and rivalry. A Miami all-star team could easily compete against a Pro Bowl squad composed of the other schools. The list includes James, Morgan, Jeremy Shockey, Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Warren Sapp, Reggie Wayne and Antrel Rolle. With Moss and Santana driving one another to greater performances, the Redskins appear to the biggest beneficiary.
"Going through college with Santana, knowing his dedication, and knowing how he works and what he stands for and knowing that having him on this team he's going to want to outperform me motivates me because in the offseason, I'm going to talk all kinds of noise about him," Portis said. "We're just competitors."
Said Redskins running back coach Earnest Byner: "That's the thing about having Santana here. He's so driven and so professional that he motivates Clinton. They push each other, in a good way."
Besides what both Moss and Portis refer to as having the "Miami attitude," Moss said his emergence in Washington is also a byproduct of his belief in Gibbs's word, a trust whose foundation was laid as the two spoke that day in Snyder's jet.
"Coach Gibbs didn't even talk football when they picked me up," Moss said. "It was all personal conversation. They know what you can do on a football field, or what you've done on a football field, but they don't know the person. You never get to meet the person. You only meet the player."
Gibbs did most of the talking, Moss recalled. He wanted to know if Moss was married. He told Gibbs no, but that he was still involved with the mother of his two children, Santana Jr. and Saniya. Moss also grew more impressed with the way Gibbs treated his best friend, Bo Rogers, who was also on the flight. At one point, Rogers asked Gibbs about NASCAR, about the differences between running a racing team and a football club. The Hall of Fame coach spoke to Moss's best friend so easily and earnestly that Moss thought Gibbs's personality was genuine. Months later, Gibbs would show his commitment to family by allowing Moss to miss time for both his son's graduation from preschool and his daughter's first birthday.
"That just let me know what kind of person I was dealing with," Moss said. "I learned that family was important to him. That's what you got out of those conversations. He's a good guy at heart. You want to bend over backwards for a person like that."
Moss and the Jets had been far apart on contract negotiations and, pessimistic about the prospects of returning to New York, Moss had asked his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, to engineer a trade. Ironically, it was by watching Coles that Moss believed the Redskins might be the right fit.
"I knew they weren't going to bring me here and [merely] keep me dressed. I mean, the guy had 90 passes that he caught and 100-something that were attempted," Moss said of Coles. "You think I'm going to shy away from that opportunity? When you look at my last year [in New York], I had 60 attempts and 40 [actually 45] caught. So if you can do that with 40 or 50 balls, just imagine what you can do with 90 caught balls. I told myself this was going to be special."
Gibbs had reason to be uneasy on the plane ride. It was true that Coles wanted out of Washington, but he had been quite productive. (This season, with a revolving cast of mediocre, injured quarterbacks, Coles still had 73 receptions for a woeful Jets team). Also, Moss cost the Redskins approximately $9 million against the salary cap. Both men had something to prove, Moss that he was the deep threat Gibbs had envisioned, and Gibbs that his intuition and research on Moss were correct, that he had not missed and blown the budget at the same time.
"I became convinced of Santana talking to Clinton and other coaches. A lot of times, guys have great athletic ability but their attitude toward things kind of kills it off," Gibbs said. "I had a real confidence, too, because Clinton had been so high on him. I don't think Clinton would just want to be on a team with someone. The two people he's highly recommended were Sean Taylor and Santana, so that says a lot."