By Mike Wise
Monday, September 22, 2008
Santana Moss has become adept at playing contortionist in his three-plus seasons in Washington. Like yesterday, when he tucked in that slip screen and squirted his 5-foot-10, thickly muscled frame through the nooks and crannies of Arizona's defense for his second game-winning touchdown in two weeks, leaving another large foe grasping for his jersey.
Going back to that Monday night game in Irving, Tex. -- three years and three days ago now -- crawling through tight spaces has almost become Moss's calling card here. He often plays escape hatch as much as wide receiver when the Redskins are in fourth-quarter need.
"That was the game that put me on the map, that showed people who always wanted me to be a downfield threat what kind of player I could be in that moment," Moss said yesterday, a week before he was to return to the scene of that perfect Texas Stadium crime.
"I'd had a 1,000-yard receiving season already [with the Jets], but people kept waiting for me to be the guy I was at [the University of] Miami who caught all those downfield throws. That night, everybody's perception changed."
Moss ran under throws of 39 and 70 yards, lofted beautifully by Mark Brunell, in the final 3 minutes 46 seconds of a game in which the Redskins were being shut out against Dallas in 2005. After he scored the second time and Washington had implausibly won, 14-13, a state went silent, and another star wideout was born.
The reluctant possession receiver in New York became the draw-it-up-in-the-dirt deep threat Washington craved since the Fun Bunch in the 1980s.
Small, yet so swift and strong, Moss is now as elusive as a set of misplaced car keys. He lulls cornerbacks into believing they have him locked down the way he lulled the league into believing he was once an unspectacular 10-yard hitch receiver.
Until Moss eventually took off on a flier, altering everyone's thinking.
In fact, it's not too soon to consider whether he will eventually belong in the pantheon of Washington's greatest receivers, alongside Art Monk, Charley Taylor and Bobby Mitchell.
Moss, a longtime Redskins observer noted, is more explosive than Gary Clark, but he has yet to string together the number of consistent seasons Clark did in Washington. Ricky Sanders had speed like Moss, but he couldn't judge the ball in mid-air as well. Neither player from Joe Gibbs's first era caught 1,483 yards of passes the way Moss did in 2005, eclipsing Mitchell's 1963 record.
Counting a touchdown against the Seahawks in the playoffs, Moss has a touchdown in six consecutive games. Yesterday, he tied Mitchell's 1964 team record with five straight regular season games with a touchdown, which is not bad for a guy who played in an offense that did not have a wide receiver who caught a touchdown pass until Nov. 12 last season.
Moss had another seven receptions for 75 yards and that pivotal touchdown with little more than 12 minutes left against the Cardinals, one of a few pretty catch-and-runs that showed his ingenuity as much as his toughness.
He's got 19 catches for 276 yards in just three games. With the way this offense is progressing, that projects to more than 100 hook-ups with Jason Campbell in a season. Under Jim Zorn, he's become a more multidimensional threat, running crossing routes as well as deep post patterns, like the one he and Campbell reeled off for 67 yards last week to shock the Saints. He even lined up for a punt return against the Cardinals, long before he took that quick-hitter to the right side 17 yards into the end zone.
"If you get me started underneath, there is no telling what I can do downfield because now I've got the confidence and the will to just go out there and be a beast somewhere else," Moss said, beaming from the podium afterward.
He wore a red skullcap, a designer white T-shirt, baggy jeans and a diamond-studded rope around his neck that probably retailed for $30,000 or more. With his short stature, the hip-hop ensemble made Moss look all of 19. But don't let the get-up deceive.
Of all the players who profess stability and professionalism in the locker room, Moss stands out as much among wideouts as London Fletcher stands out on the defense. He works, keeps quiet unless he has something to say and is unafraid to point the finger at himself.
Less than a year ago in Green Bay, Moss's late fumble against the Packers helped doom Washington's chance of winning. Rather than sulk, dress and head for the team bus, he sat there almost inconsolable, saying it was his gaffe that cost his team the victory -- even though there were many culprits that day.
It told people less about who lost the game than it did about who Santana Moss was as a professional and a person.
"Then and now, I'm not afraid to say I'm not perfect when I do something that hurts my team," he said. "That's who I'm always going to be. It's those trials and tribulations that make the good moments great, because you remember how far you've come."
Bottom line, this was a swing game Moss and the Redskins needed badly. If Zorn and the Redskins had dropped to 1-2 yesterday, the possibility of a 1-4 start would have loomed with Dallas and Philadelphia on the road the next two weeks.
Now, there is a genuine optimism Washington could take one of the next two and be sitting at 3-2 after the first month.
Now, there is a Dallas week to spew hyperbole about, the last week at old Texas Stadium, where a diminutive wide receiver who broke all of Michael Irvin's records at Miami, shattered the hearts of Cowboys' fans in the waning moments of a Monday night game Washington had all but lost.
"I was always thought of as the going-deep player in college, and they kept waiting for me to break out as a pro," Moss said outside the locker room late yesterday afternoon. "It all happened in a blaze that night. People could see what I was meant to do."