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Wednesday, January 5, 2005
Moss leaves early, teammates at a loss

Associated Press

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Criticism of Randy Moss over the years has grown tiresome, mostly because it often emanates from sources unfamiliar with the Minnesota Vikings and unwilling to look beyond the surface.

This week, it's all warranted.

Whenever Moss became embroiled in controversy, manufactured or otherwise, teammates were always there to back him up and refute public perception that he's a bad guy.

Following his childish, selfish departure from FedEx Field on Sunday -- while Minnesota lined up for a desperation onside kick -- the Vikings were subjected to questions about their best player's abandonment of the team during a crucial moment in a season that's become increasingly disappointing.

This time, the responses didn't really sound like support.

Coach Mike Tice: "I understand his frustration, but we can't let our frustrations make us make poor decisions of poor judgment."

Wide receiver Marcus Robinson: "He's going to do what he's gonna do, and it's not a reflection on me or anybody else. That's Randy Moss. He can do basically what he wants to do."

Center Matt Birk: "It shouldn't happen, and if it happens again there might be some problems."

It didn't matter that they had almost no chance -- in the 2 seconds that remained on the clock -- to recover the kick, try a ridiculously long field goal to tie, or complete another Hail Mary touchdown pass to beat the Washington Redskins.

It was the message sent to everyone that his exasperation with Minnesota's second straight season-ending slump was more important than anybody else's.

When he chooses to speak to the media in organized settings -- an event, sadly, that's much rarer these days than a curse-based rebuke of reporters -- Moss is potentially full of insightful comments. Few players in professional sports can match his mix of candor and charm.

The problem, though, is that he does this only when he wants to.

Vikings players recently hosted hundreds of area homeless and low-income people at a Christmas party -- complete with dinner and games for all the kids -- on their indoor practice field. Guess whose idea it was? Yep, Randy's.

After partially tearing his hamstring in the second quarter at New Orleans, Moss was whooping it up on the sideline in the second half -- unable to play, but fully capable of cheering his teammates on to victory over the Saints.

In a wide receivers meeting last week, Moss implored the other guys at his position to play with the same passion they showed in the game before against the Green Bay Packers.

How many times, after a touchdown reception, have we seen him find a wheelchair-bound kid for which to give the ball? When Terrell Owens catches one, your TV set turns into a dance video.

Observations like these lend credibility to the stories we've seen over the past few seasons about Moss' newfound maturity and development into a locker-room leader. It's a side of himself, however, that Moss has long been unwilling to publicly acknowledge.

His frequent refusal to grant interviews for local media outlets simply solidifies his portrait among fans as a petulant, overpaid, out-of-touch, self-centered athlete. If he ever wanted to open up, Moss would have everyone eating out of his oversized hands.

But he doesn't. He throws an ill-advised pass on a reverse option that's intercepted late in a game, leading to a home loss to the Seattle Seahawks and leaving his teammates to talk about the play. He walks off the field early and won't answer questions about the offensive struggles that surely caused his rash decision to stalk away.

Moss wants to win, and he wants badly to help his team win -- a trait not all of his All-Pro-caliber peers can boast. It's that burning desire, many believe, that leads to a lot of these issues. It gnawed at him that the first injury of his career essentially cost him five games, three of which Minnesota lost.

Perhaps in part because of a childhood that most of us wouldn't wish for, Moss never figured out how to grow up. In his first season in the league, he dominated it. Since then, for whatever reason, he's never consistently felt a need to bring his attitude up to the level of his talent.

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Dave Campbell can be reached at dcampbell(at)ap.org