We recently were tasked by one of our newest writers, Ameer, to write a couple of paragraphs for our latest Round-Table about a theoretical situation that has been the topic among many Vikings fans, often at the bar or after a few drinks, for years. If we could change one thing, whether it be a trade, a draft pick, a play or a coaching hire, in Vikings history that could change the trajectory of the team or even a single game, what would it be? I thought long and hard and decided to go with a moment that I vividly remember and that really helped frame my perception of what it meant to be a fan of the Vikings. So, after about ten hastily/angrily written paragraphs I knew I had to expand on my entry and write an entire article about it. So here it is, my pick for the one move I’d change if that time machine I built in my garage ever ends up working and not just shocking me terribly.
For people my age (I turned 35 this month… Hooray?) there is one moment that defines how dark being a Vikings fan can be. and that moment was the Randy Moss trade after the 2004 season. While we were all inducted into the Vikings fandom after the 1998 NFC championship game, a game in which I vividly remember my friends younger brother (we were around 13 at the time, his brother was 10 or 11) angrily weeping after the Vikings lost to the Bucs earlier in the season, (their only regular season loss). Luckily I wasn’t around when they blew the NFC championship game to the “Dirty Bird” Falcons, however, I did witness my dad’s reaction. He punched the vegetable tray that we had set on the ottoman in front of us and then threw some newspapers at the wall, newspapers that our portable phone happened to be inside of for some reason. After he realized he had broken the phone he disappeared on a walk for about three hours. I’ll always wonder where he went and how many stray cats he murdered.
So, it wasn’t all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows during the Moss era but that wasn’t his fault. I’d argue that with the right ownership the Vikings could’ve been a dynasty during the Moss era. Unfortunately, one of the final terrible decisions that, then owner, Red McCombs made, out of spite either for Moss or the fan-base that had made him even richer, was to trade Moss. Had the new owners, the Wilfs, been able to keep Moss (as they’d told McCombs), the sky would’ve been the limit for the franchise and I’d have to have come up with a different name for our sister-site purplePTSD.com (and those that lost their shirts either by burning them in a heap in their driveway or by betting on the purple and gold (even with a Sugarhouse casino promo code)) would have a wider wardrobe either by not having burned their Vikings gear or the money they made on those bets).
Let’s delve into that.
Now, while it was widely reported at the time that the Vikings might be shopping the best wide receiver in team (and league) history, but most of us didn’t really think it would happen, especially as McCombs was also shopping the team and you’d have to think that the prospective buyers would’ve rather had a team with Moss than without it (as he single-handedly helped the Vikings sell out every game after he joined the team, a year after attendance was so low that there were multiple potential “blackouts” on Fox for the local audience). As alluded to above, it’s actually been reported that the Wilf’s had specifically asked McCombs NOT to trade Moss, for obvious reasons, and McCombs had confirmed that he wouldn’t… Only to do just that. Because he was just the worst.
Despite the fact that there was talk of the potential trade, (and thus the trade didn’t completely come out of nowhere), it still came as a major shock to many of us who really didn’t think it would happen. It was such a shock to me, in fact, that I punched the wall next to my bed and broke my hand.I woke up to a ton of missed calls and texts that were all about the team trading Moss. I thought my friends were attempting to “Punk” me, which was the slang at the time (something we’d all say while playing hoop and stick on the brick roads of SE Minneapolis). After getting back from urgent care and taking enough Vicodin to abate my rage/kill an elephant with a problem, I delved into exactly what the team had given up for my favorite player ever in the hopes that I could find something, nay anything, to consider a silver lining.
Now, deep down I knew that it was going to be impossible for the Vikings to get any sort of return on that investment that’d come close to what Moss had given the Vikings. After seven seasons Moss had produced more than any receiver, ever. 90 touchdowns, over 9,100 yards for an average of 13 touchdowns and 1,300 yards a season (he also only missed three games over those seven seasons, the three in his final season and also cleared 1,200 yards in every season except his last (where he had 767). 2004 was a “down” year for the then 27-year-old Moss, who had a few injuries that he was dealing with all season (as well as the dreaded “Randy Ratio” that a lot of fans widely mocked).
Had he not been injured he very well could’ve had the best season of his young career, which was saying something. He started the season with eight touchdowns over just five games but then sustained a hamstring injury in week six while playing against the Saints that stuck with him for the rest of the season. He actually missed three games that season due to that injury but despite that still had 13 touchdowns in 13 games, and also played through that and an ankle injury while the Vikings faced the dreaded Packers in the NFC wildcard game.
If you’re a Vikings fan you’ll be aware of how that game ended and what Moss did to the fans at Lambeau. That “Disgusting act” helped turn a lot of the fanbase against Moss thanks to Joe Buck, who apparently thinks that pretending to show one’s butt is a sex crime. While the fans at Lambeau were known to moon the buses of incoming opposing teams, that wasn’t as widely reported and so that “W” that Moss and company had put down at Lambeau was just a footnote, and even his quarterback Dante Culpepper basically said during an interview at the Pro Bowl that he didn’t need Moss anymore. Now, Culpepper had just had his best statistical season in 2004 as well, posting 39 touchdowns against just 11 interceptions and he would’ve been a shoo-in for MVP had Peyton Manning not had 49 touchdowns that same year. But he completely underestimated the impact that Moss had had on that record-breaking season.
However, Moss’ impact despite “just” having a third of those touchdowns can’t be overstated. Even while injured Moss had a gigantic impact on the defensive schemes of opposing teams (to the point that there were entire defenses invented just for him), allowing for his teammates to run against single coverage, for the run game to have a gigantic advantage, for Culpepper to essentially just toss the ball up and end up with a high percentage in completed passes, with tons of yardage and touchdowns. That’s the part of the Randy Ratio that people didn’t understand or wrote off as some sort of addendum after the idea was widely mocked.
The ratio essentially was thought to mean that Moss was to receive the ball 40% of the time on offense, which is something you shouldn’t really openly talk about as a head coach but that was Mike Tice. The reality was that Moss was to be part of the play 40% of the time, in that even when he was a decoy it’d count as a play for the Ratio. Now, considering how successful the team was in 2004 at doing just that, perhaps people should give Tice and company some credit for devising that ratio as in their defense they did have the most dangerous football weapon in the history of the entire NFL and it’d been criminal for them not to, you know, use him?
Either way, you slice it, losing Moss changed the trajectory of multiple franchises. His replacement, 7th overall pick Troy Williamson of South Carolina was objectively terrible. Sure he had some speed, but he was nowhere near as fast as Moss (4.32 vs. a sub 4.2), nor was he as tall (6’2″ vs. 6’4″), able to make plays on jump balls (37″ vertical jump vs. an insane 51″) or able to actually CATCH. In Williamson’s defense he had gigantic shoes to fill and it would’ve been hard for anyone to step in and actually take over for the most iconic wide receiver in the history of the Vikings, one who had reignited “Purple Pride” (Ugh) in the bold North and who had created the most dangerous offense in the history of the league, as well.
However, had the Vikings NOT traded Moss things could’ve turned out way differently. For example, perhaps Culpepper wouldn’t have had to scramble as often and his knee wouldn’t have been completely destroyed by Panthers defensive back Chris Gamble. Now, in retrospect, a lot of people point to that game as the reason that 2005 fell apart and while that’s partially true, I’ll let the introductory sentence from an Associated Press article about that injury explain just how the 2005 season was going before that week 8 loss:
“The demoralized Minnesota Vikings surely believed their already dire situation couldn’t become any worse…”
Looks like things didn’t work out for the Vikings. Who were 2-5 after that 38-13 loss to Carolina. Somehow they ended the season 9-7 after backup quarterback Brad Johnson helped the squad win their next six games (and seven of their final nine). Regardless, their wide receivers that season were Nate Burleson, Koren Robinson, Marcus Robinson, Travis Taylor, and Troy Williamson. Ouch. Keep in mind this is only a few years after they had the best 1-2 punch in NFL history in Randy Moss and Cris Carter at the position.
When making arguments for who is the best wide receiver in the history of the NFL I always go back to the fact that the two that are always in that conversation, Randy Moss and Jerry Rice, had completely different careers in terms of their supporting cast. Rice started his career with Joe Montana and then had Steve Young, two of the best quarterbacks in the history of the NFL slinging him the ball. Compare that to players like Todd Bouman, Spurgeon Wynn, Gus Frerotte, etc. Moss actually elevated the play of all of his quarterbacks to make guys like Randall Cunningham (who spent the previous year installing cabinets or counters) and/or Jeff George look amazing.
People forget about that ’99 team, but they did make the playoffs with George at the helm, after a regular season that was one of his best and that had his best yards a completion (14.7 which was yards better than his career average). They faced the Cowboys in the wildcard after a 10-6 season and won that game easily, 27-10, and George had 212 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions with Moss catching over HALF of those yards with 127 on 5 of 6 targets and 1 touchdown.
We can find countless examples of Moss’ excellence. Detractors will point to off-the-field incidents that show that Moss had to go, or even on-the-field examples like the “Play when I want to play” quote (that was taken out of context as he was saying that no one but himself can dictate his motivation and hustle) or the most important example in this context, when he walked off the field with 2.5 seconds left against the Washington Redskins. To explain the context there you have to understand the state of the team that year. Now, the Vikings had a great offense per usual that season, one that had a young quarterback that was breaking team records and looked to finally be the solution the team had been looking for since Fran Tarkenton after years and years of adding aging star quarterbacks like Warren Moon, Randall Cunningham, and Jeff George to fill the void left by an inability to draft and develop a young QB.
Despite that, the Vikings defense was awful. It was that discrepancy between the offense and defense that everyone from those on the team to people who wrote about the team and the fans realized would make it really hard to actually win a Super Bowl unless the team decided to invest in the defense. The Vikings owner Red McCombs attempted to dispel this reality by literally stating that he wasn’t investing in the defense via free agency because he felt that the Vikings defense was already championship caliber. He said that despite the fact that he was fined by the NFL for being so far under the salary cap that he didn’t hit the bare minimum amount needed in terms of payroll spending (he had attempted to cook the books by adding signing bonuses to the regular salary side of the ledger).
Moss and all the players were aware of this and it was another apparent loss against the Redskins that clearly was too much for him. The Vikings had begun the season 5-1 and things were falling apart, which was not new to the Vikings as they had started the previous/2003 season 6-0 and had failed to make the playoffs after finishing the season 9-7. Despite their collapse, they had a shot to make the playoffs that year, but thanks to this play, their season ended and a legendary take by KFAN’s Paul Allen was born:
Had the Vikings kept Moss there’s really no telling what could’ve happened once the Wilf’s, who have been the best owners in my lifetime, took over. They’ve shown a commitment to excellence, and that they’re willing to actually invest in the team. They clearly want to win a Super Bowl WHILE making tons of money, something that the previous owner thought was impossible. While they didn’t end up winning the Super Bowl in 2007, the Patriots of that year showed what could happen when Moss had a complete team around him (not to mention an amazing quarterback). They replaced the 1998 Vikings as the team with the best offense in the NFL history, Moss and Brady broke the record(s) for the most touchdowns in a season and they reached the Super Bowl, something Moss never was able to do in Minnesota here. Even in 2008, with a back-up quarterback in Matt Cassel, the Patriots went 11-5 and Cassel made enough of a name for himself to linger around the league for the next TEN seasons.
But, because this is the Vikings we instead ended up with a half-decade of crap until Brett Favre arrived to bring the Vikings, yet again, to the cusp of making the Super Bowl. With Moss reunited with the purple and gold the 2010 Vikings had one of the most exciting rosters in team history (with Moss, Favre, Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin playing in three glorious games together), until Brad Childress cut Moss without running it by management because of an interview he gave about his time with the Patriots and because he apparently doesn’t like Tinucci’s catering. He apparently said, gasp, that he wouldn’t feed that food to his dog. Wow. Hate crime alert.
It was that move that was the catalyst for Childress being fired despite signing a hefty extension in 2008. While he did stick around for a while afterward, it was reported that the Wilf’s wanted to fire him immediately as they had finally gotten their man back only to lose him to yet another egomaniac who took his role as the “Sheriff in town” (as he was hired to clean the team up after the Sex Boat scandal) much too seriously.
Either way, it’d be fun to think what the Vikings could’ve done with Moss if it wasn’t so depressing. Even writing this piece made me pop a second Zoloft and use my Randy Moss Beanie Baby to soak up my tears. Regardless, it’s safe to say that this move had the most negative consequences of any that I can vividly remember (the Herschel Walker trade happened when I was about five) and I think I’ve laid out a pretty strong case as to why.