If the Randy Moss experiment is going to blow up in San Francisco this season, it will likely happen by the end of training camp, which gets underway in Santa Clara this week with veterans reporting today and the first full team practice on Friday.
Depending on who you ask, Moss is either a prima donna who plays when he wants to play or a misunderstood talent who is guilty of being defiant, impulsive and aloof, at times, but not a locker-room cancer.
If he’s the former, coach Jim Harbaugh will recognize it in a matter of weeks, if not days, and that’ll be the last we see of No. 84. More than likely, though, Moss and Harbaugh will gel, and the Niners will see how hardworking the 13-year veteran can be when he’s inspired.
In four seasons at Stanford and one in the NFL, Harbaugh has shown that he has a special genius for motivation, mentorship and building chemistry. He’s a locker room guy who knows what strings need to be pulled with which players and he’s already earned Moss’ respect.
In the past, Moss, who reported to camp a day early on Wednesday, has redefined the wide receiver position — stretching the field like no player ever has before — when he’s been around the right people. In Minnesota, Moss received tutelage from Cris Carter, a recovered addict who resurrected his career by outconditioning his peers and perfecting the details. Under Carter’s wing, Moss became the fastest receiver to 3,000 yards and 45 touchdowns in NFL history.
And everyone knows what happened in New England when Moss joined the well-oiled Tom Brady-Bill Belichick machine in 2007: a record 23 receiving touchdowns in one year, a perfect 16-0 regular season and three-year numbers (47 TDs, 3,765 yards) that nearly matched his first three campaigns in Minnesota (43 TDs, 4,163 yards).
The problem with Moss is that when he’s frustrated, he sulks, detaches and quits. He doesn’t tear his team apart by calling out his quarterback (like Terrell Owens) or his coach (like Brett Favre), instead he walks off the field, tells reporters, “I play when I want to play” or demands a trade because he’s hurt that his team thinks he’s expendable (New England in 2010).
Moss’ transgressions usually occur when he’s stuck in an already-dysfunctional environment. Take the, “I play when I want to play,” quote. He blurted that out while the Minnesota Vikings were imploding under Super Bowl expectations in 2001; Carter was chewing out quarterback Daunte Culpepper on the sideline in front of TV cameras and the locker room was mourning the death of lineman Korey Stringer.
The same was true of Moss’ now-infamous return to Minnesota in 2010 — Favre and Brad Childress had divided the locker room long before he re-adorned the purple. Bringing Moss into an environment where players were publicly questioning the coach wasn’t a well-conceived plan.
And you can’t really single Moss out for being a cancer with Al Davis’ Raiders, either. If that franchise was good at anything, it was extracting the worst out of its personnel.
None of these teams fell apart because of Moss; he just exacerbated pre-existing drama, and that’s why San Francisco is the perfect place for him to finish his career. Harbaugh doesn’t allow drama to infect his locker room and if he senses that Moss is capable of quitting on his guys — so long.
Now, can Moss’ 35-year-old body withstand the rigors of a full 16-game NFL schedule? That’s an entirely different question.
Paul Gackle is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at