SANTA CLARA, Calif. — There has been an enigma running around San Francisco 49ers practices this offseason.
The long-legged, quick-footed, hair-no-longer-braided blur wears No. 84. He still pulls his socks up high, talks with a country twang and goes by Randy Moss.
Even on a team that rarely recognizes individuals, this new presence has been impossible to miss.
“It’s neat to watch our players watch a guy like Randy, that people watched growing up,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “We have two fields. The defensive field is on the far right and the offensive field is here on the left. I can always see the defensive players looking over.”
Time to give everybody a sneak peak.
After a year away from football, Moss makes his much-anticipated 49ers debut under the lights at Candlestick Park on Friday night when resurgent San Francisco (No. 4 in the inaugural AP Pro32 rankings) fittingly faces the franchise where the wide receiver’s NFL career began, hosting the Minnesota Vikings (No. 29) in the preseason opener for both teams.
“Ah, is that right? I think I heard that,” joked Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield, who was around for Moss’ two stints in Minnesota. “Good player.”
Just how good?
Nobody quite knows for sure what to make of this 35-year-old Moss. Heck, nobody has quite known for sure for most of his career.
Will he be the Moss who caught a single-season record 23 touchdowns to help New England to a 16-0 regular-season record in 2007, the one who turned Minnesota’s Metrodome into a highlight factory and put up video-game-like numbers for most of his career? Or will it be the not-afraid-to-say-anything Moss whose effort and ability were questioned after perplexing exits in New England, Minnesota and Tennessee during a wild, rocky 2010 season?
“Well, when I first came into this league, it was more of I didn’t really understand really everything that goes on with the NFL,” Moss said. “And now that I’m matured physically and mentally, my philosophy is I do not like what the NFL does for me, I want to know what I can do to make the NFL better.”
So far, so good.
Then again, that’s the way Moss’ tenures always start.
Moss has mentored San Francisco’s remolded receiver corps — Mario Manningham, Michael Crabtree, Ted Ginn Jr., Kyle Williams and first-round pick A.J. Jenkins of Illinois — all offseason. He has attended every scheduled workout, meeting and still has teammates past and present praising his professionalism despite the way things have always ended.
“I enjoyed my time with Moss,” Vikings linebacker Erin Henderson said. “I thought he was a fun guy to be around. I thought he was a good guy to be around. He was going to say what was on his mind and what he felt and what he thought and it doesn’t go well with everybody. But a guy like me respects that and understands where it comes from and why it can be like that.”
San Francisco’s wide receivers are already trying to mimic Moss — and not just by wearing those high socks.
Manningham credits Moss for showing him tips on reading coverages and learning when to break off routes sooner. Ginn and Vikings speedster Percy Harvin both said Moss offered useful tips on how to be more patient and stay under control. For others such as Crabtree, Williams and Jenkins, just watching Moss in motion has energized San Francisco’s spirits.
“He’s a legend, man. You can’t do nothing but learn,” Crabtree said.
A chance at that elusive Super Bowl title has motivated Moss more than any milestones.
Moss is tied with Terrell Owens — who is three years older and making a similar comeback in Seattle this season — with 153 touchdown receptions, second-most in NFL history behind 49ers Hall of Famer Jerry Rice (197). Another 1,000-yard season would give Moss 11 for his career — the only one who has more is Rice with 14 — and he has a chance to be in the top five in total touchdowns, yards receiving and receptions by season’s end.
In all, Moss has 954 catches for 14,858 yards in his 13-year career, which also included a stint in the Bay Area with the Oakland Raiders in 2005 and 2006. Both years he produced little on the field until forcing a trade to New England, where he wore out his welcome after three-plus seasons. The Vikings later traded him to the Tennessee Titans after a whirlwind month Moss spent in Minnesota, and he walked away from the game after the season.
Moss said the year away from football — which he said he will reveal his reasons for when his all-telling book comes out in the next “10-15 years” — has refocused and rejuvenated his career.
“It’s just a feeling that I haven’t really felt in a while, just being around a group of young guys and it makes me feel good that I can really not look at my age, and just feel young,” Moss said. “So I have a little pep in my step. It really feels good being around the guys.”
The 49ers can sure use Moss when it counts.
When they take the field at Candlestick Park against the Vikings, it will be the first time returning since that rain-soaked NFC championship game Jan. 22 washed away a potential Super Bowl season. San Francisco wide receivers managed just one catch for 3 yards in a 20-17 overtime loss to the eventual champion New YorkGiants.
So San Francisco signed Moss to a one-year deal in hopes of giving quarterback Alex Smith — the 2005 No. 1 overall pick coming off the best season of his career — the deep threat he has so desperately needed in a tight end-friendly offense. Smith said Moss has lived up to the hype and then some, even admitting he was intimidated by the receiver until flinging that first pass.
“The great thing about being around Randy is he keeps it light,” Smith said. “He makes it fun to play out there. So that vanished pretty quickly. He’s a great communicator out there.”
What Moss has left is still a mystery.
The always animated wide receiver has wowed in practice, easily becoming Smith’s best deep threat and challenging tight end Vernon Davis as the top target in the end zone. Harbaugh, the former NFL quarterback who personally tossed passes to Moss during a private workout before the 49ers signed the wideout, also said Moss has “a knack for saying the right thing at the right time, the right joke at the right time,” and has teammates are intrigued about the possibilities.
During a practice a few weeks ago, Harbaugh walked into a conversation between defensive linemen Ray McDonald and Justin Smith on the sideline. The two were talking about Moss and how good he might be.
“Ray says, ‘I don’t think Randy Moss has lost at step,’” Harbaugh recalled. “And Justin says, ‘That’s Randy freakin’ Moss over there. It doesn’t matter if he did lose a step. That’s Randy Moss.’”