“After you retire, you’re always trying to justify not wanting to play,” Cris Carter said after un-retiring to join the Miami Dolphins. “All of us, who go into the next life knowing we’ve got something left, still want to play, in the back of our mind.”
Of course, every receiver believes he still has “something left,” as Carter says. Jerry Rice, at the age of 42, believed himself to still be a capable receiver, noting at his retirement press conference “guys are pretty much amazed that I can still run the way I can run.” More recently, Hines Ward, despite posting the worst statistics of his career, maintained that he had “a few more good years in me left.”
Randy Moss believes this too. “I think you can hear from my last workout with the Saints and here today with the 49ers,” Moss claim. “I think I can still play at a high level.” Whether or not history agrees with Moss is a different story. A look at the NFL Career Receiving Yards Leaders yields mixed results::
Obviously, all of these receivers had prolific seasons with the exception of Harrison. However, receptions and yardage do not tell the whole story. The more important statistics are Defense-adjusted Value Over (DVOA) and Approximate Value (AV).
DVOA, according to Football Outsiders, is a method of evaluating players (and teams) based on situation. No two 10-yard receptions are equal. That is, a receiver catching a 10-yard pass on 3rd and 20 is not really helpful to the team, whereas a 10-yard reception on 4th and 1 is exponentially more beneficial. DVOA attempts to measure this. It does so on a percentage scale: 0.0% is the average. In general, 30 percentage points in either direction is the cap. So, in 1998, Jerry Rice was an average receiver (Rice was 35 in 1997, but he tore his ACL that season, so I’m using his stats from when he was 36). Henry Ellard, on the other hand, was probably the best receiver in the league when he was 35. (For a complete explanation, go here)
AV is slightly easier to read, though the algorithm is equally as confusing. Developed by Doug Drinen at Pro-Football-Reference.com, AV gives a single numerical value to a player’s season. As explained by BloggingtheBoys.com, AV weighs “position specific metrics (i.e. yards or points scored/allowed) with an indicator for durability (total games played and seasons as their team’s primary starter) and quality (Pro Bowl and All Pro nominations) and then normalizes all this at a team level.”
The metrics rank players on a scale from 0 to 25. The breakdown of the scale is as follows:
AV tells us that Cris Carter’s 2000 campaign was the best ever for a 35-year-old receiver. Tim Brown was the second best (For a complete list of AV for almost every 35 year old, go here). But, after 2001, it seems receivers aged much more quickly. That is, the older the receiver the less consistent their production. More recent examples also confirm this.
Isaac Bruce, Terrell Owens, and Joey Galloway might have had statistically respectable seasons, but DVOA and AV suggest such stats were more likely a result of their respective offenses, rather than individual talent. I’m not sure how Derrick Mason did so well. That stat line belongs on Ripley’s Believe or Not.
The 49ers need a primary receiver. Whether or not they are expecting that position to be filled by Moss is not entirely clear. What is clear is that Moss is the best receiver on the roster, even at his age. This, combined with their acquisition of supplementary receivers like Ted Ginn and Mario Manningham, suggests that the No. 1 receiver position is Moss’s to win. Were Moss to prove himself worthy of the position in training camp, the 49ers would need him to have a season that is on par with what Carter produced in 2000. Unfortunately, that is not entirely likely.
Still, if anyone can do it, it would be Moss. He’s off-season training regime is on par with other receivers that have succeeded late into their 30s. Though receivers generally lose speed as they get older, doing so doesn’t necessarily make them slower. “You’re gonna lose speed. That’s natural. It’s how your body’s made up,” Irving Fryar pointed out. “The first part of my career, I ran 4.2. By the time I was with the Eagles, I was a 4.4 or a 4.5. But I was able to play like a 4.2 guy, because I was smarter, I reacted quicker, and I could do things without even thinking about them.”
This is the case with Moss. As noted by a Tennessee Titans’ official, Moss “still has the skills part of it. The athlete part is diminished, but the hands are there, the smoothness is there. And I’ll tell you this: He is a smart football player.”
Moss is certainly an intelligent football player. He doesn’t solely rely on his speed to get open. “What Randy does is try to lull you to sleep,” said cornerback Al Harris. “He’ll run at different speeds sometimes to make you think he’s part of the play or not part of the play. Then, when he thinks he has you, he just runs past you.”
In relying on savvy and intellect, Moss has the potential to duplicate his previous success with the 49ers. Whether or not he will is unknown. But Moss’s failure will ultimately not have much to do with his age. It was Moss’s immaturity that burned him out of New England and Minnesota, and it is that same immaturity that will likely cause him to fail in San Francisco. So if the 49ers need Randy Moss to be their a go-to-guy, they better hope he acts according to his years — all 35 of them.