When Santana Moss sits at his locker at Redskins Park and glances around the room, he can’t help but notice how different it looks compared to when he first got there in 2005.
A lot of notable names have come and gone from the Washington Redskins’ roster since Joe Gibbs traded a disgruntled Laveranues Coles to the New York Jets in exchange for Moss. Clinton Portis, LaVar Arrington, Chris Samuels, Sean Taylor, Mike Sellers, Shawn Springs, Mark Brunell, Patrick Ramsey, Jason Campbell. They’re all gone.
Last week saw the Redskins part with another member of that team when they released tight end Chris Cooley.
Of the 53 players on that 2005 team, only Moss remains — having played for three head coaches and prepared to play with his eighth starting quarterback.
But as the Redskins prepare to kick off the regular season Sunday in New Orleans, Moss has not only survived, he is still expected to be a key figure in the offense.
His role has changed. He no longer is the starter, thanks to the arrival of free agents Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan and the anticipated breakout of second-year pro Leonard Hankerson. This season Moss takes on the role of slot receiver, meaning he will come off the bench for three- and four-receiver formations, and could see time on only half his team’s offensive snaps. But Redskins coaches believe that with the lighter load, the 33-year-old will be more effective.
Moss, whose 488 catches as a Redskin rank fifth on the team’s all-time receptions list, refuses to see the decision as a demotion. He’s simply glad to still be on the field.
“Honestly, man, things change in life, and I’m well aware of that,” Moss said. “I’ve never been a guy that was complacent about where I am. I’ve never had a hard time adapting. . . . Whether the coaches need me to be the guy I used to be or not, and be something less, at least they gave me an opportunity. . . . You see guys come and go — guys that have been here a while — that are gone now.”
Last summer, Moss signed a five-year, $25 million contract to return to the team, but his production during the season was limited. He broke his hand halfway through the season and missed four weeks of action. Once Moss returned, he didn’t seem to have the same explosiveness, and finished the year with only 46 catches for 584 yards and four touchdowns.
This past winter, Redskins brass deemed the receiver position in need of an overhaul. So they signed Garcon to be their No. 1, Morgan to compete with Hankerson as the No. 2, and told Moss he needed to lose weight and have a strong offseason and training camp. Coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan also planned on having Hankerson and two other young wideouts — Terrence Austin and Aldrick Robinson — compete for Moss for playing time at slot receiver.
Moss reported for spring practices 15 pounds lighter and coaches remarked that the 12th-year veteran seemed rejuvenated. Moss emerged from the preseason having beaten out Hankerson and Robinson, and Austin was released.
“He’s just keeping his nose to the grind, and wherever they put him, he’s able to be successful and still show he’s a dangerous receiver,” said Anthony Armstrong, Moss’s teammate of two seasons, whom the Redskins released Friday. He signed with the Miami Dolphins on Saturday.
Moss said he never wavered in his confidence over making the team, and never felt threatened by the competition.
“I’ve never been insecure,” Moss said. “So when it comes to [competition], I always look at it as, ‘You line up next to me and show me that you’re better than me.’ . . . We’re a team, so if I have to do something different than what I had to do before, then cool, because I can line up with the best of them.”
To understand Moss’s sense of contentment with his situation, one must go back to his days at Miami Carol City High School, where as a skinny, 5-foot-6 kid, he made the varsity squad, but found opportunities hard to come by.
His first year on varsity, Moss saw only three balls come his way. Not much changed the following year and Moss wanted to transfer to another school, but his father wouldn’t let him.
“It took me two, three years for the coach to finally say, ‘Okay, you’re ready now.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Coach, I been out here running my routes.’ But I appreciated it,” Moss said. “As I seen my senior year, we won the state championship and I was, quote unquote, that guy. I was like, ‘Wow.’ Dad told me to stay, and I was always humble about the situation, I never had any outbursts or anything. But it showed me that if you work hard and wait patiently, good things will come to you.”
Even after that state championship campaign, which saw Moss record 25 catches for 600 yards and 12 touchdowns, doors were slow to open for him. He got into Miami on a track scholarship and then earned a spot on the football team before finally developing into a first round draft pick four years later.
Moss got off to a slow start in the NFL as well. An injury forced him out of the first 11 games of his rookie season, and he didn’t become a full-time starter until his third season. Nine years later, Moss has made one Pro Bowl appearance and recorded four 1,000-yard seasons (three with Washington). He counts himself fortunate, especially considering his longevity both with the Redskins and in the NFL as a whole. Of the receivers drafted his rookie year in 2001, only Moss, Indianapolis’s Reggie Wayne and Carolina’s Steve Smith are still in the league.
“He’s probably one of the best guys I’ve been around that understands the game and understands his role and how he fits. That’s why he’s been able to last so long,” linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. “And he’s a real humble guy. Even though he’s been a top receiver, Pro Bowl guy, at the top of his game, he’s never been a prima donna. And that’s what you love to see in a guy.”
Kyle Shanahan said this summer that he still sees Moss as “one of the premier guys in the NFL at that [slot receiver] position.” And despite his reduced role, Garcon and rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III say Moss remains the leader of the receiver position.
“I am throwing it to Santana if I get in trouble,” Griffin said. “It’s just something that comes about with the flow of the play. If the play breaks down, Santana just happens to have more experience in following the quarterback.”
Moss appreciates the respect of his teammates, but at this point in his career, recognition isn’t something he seeks. Having made the playoffs with Washington only twice since 2005, he only wants to win.
“It’s bad. It’s real bad,” Moss said of his increasing contempt for losing. “But with that said, man, the only way to get that taste out of your mouth or conquer what you’re feeling is to go out there and do it. . . . Receivers can have a losing season as a team and have a great statistical season as a receiver. . . . My success is based on what the team does. I’m all about winning. And if you can’t win, you ain’t successful.”