Forget about those overused references to how many 300-pound players there are in the NFL now compared with the dearth of wide-bodies a couple decades ago. If you want proof positive that the NFL largely has become a big man's game, look at the size increases at the skill positions over the last 15-20 years, particularly at wide receiver.
Which is why it is somewhat remarkable that the wide receiver who is arguably the most talked-about NFL player at his position to this juncture of the '05 season is Santana Moss of the Washington Redskins, a virtual mighty mite among the mastodons. Moss isn't big -- at 5-10 and 185 pounds, he is among the league's smallest wide receivers -- but he is making plenty of big plays and gaining in stature as a game breaker.
And in a Washington offense that was too stodgy and predictable in 2004, and struggled to make vertical passing plays, Moss has demonstrated through five games that size really doesn't matter as much as some general managers, personnel directors and coaches insist that it does. All things being equal, of course, bigger is always going to be better in the eyes of those who evaluate talent. Things haven't exactly been equitable, though, when Moss has been matched up one-on-one with defenders.
In fact, the results have been downright lopsided, as Moss has frolicked through secondaries and left cornerbacks and safeties reaching at nothing more than vapor trails.
"He's got a look about him right now that kind of says, 'You can't [cover] me, man, so look out,' and that's a dangerous kind of confidence," said Kansas City safety Sammy Knight after Moss posted 10 receptions for 173 yards and two touchdowns in last week's loss to the Chiefs. "It's like he's playing at a different speed. He definitely goes against the mold of what most teams seem to be doing sizewise at [wide receiver] now, but it doesn't seem to matter. He's making so many plays."
Moss, acquired in the controversial March 10 trade in which the Redskins sent fellow wide receiver Laveranues Coles back to the New York Jets, has 33 catches for 631 yards and four touchdowns. Want some perspective on that? It's more receptions and as many touchdown catches as Moss, who battled knee and hamstring injuries early in his career, totaled in his first two years in the league.
His eight receptions of 30 yards or more are only two shy of the Redskins' total from last season. With three plays of 50-plus yards, Moss has made two more than Washington had in 2004. In Joe Gibbs' first year back from his hiatus, the vertically challenged club had one touchdown pass of more than 15 yards. Moss already has scored on plays of 39, 70 and 78 yards. And scored in all manners: making the classic, over-the-shoulder grab (twice in the final five minutes of the memorable Monday night victory at Dallas), and taking a short screen pass last week and weaving his way through helpless Kansas City defenders on his way to the end zone. His average touchdown catch is for 47.8 yards. Moss' gaudy average of 19.1 yards per reception is the best -- by four yards -- among players with at least 30 catches.
At his current pace, which admittedly will be difficult to maintain, Moss would finish with 105 receptions, 2,019 yards and 13 touchdowns. He has never registered more than 74 catches in a season; only once went for 1,000 yards in his four seasons in New York; and averaged only 4.8 touchdown catches there. Oh, yeah, the NFL record for single-season receiving yards is 1,848 yards, by the incomparable Jerry Rice in 1995.
No one is ready to start mentioning Moss in the same breath as Rice, obviously. He still has to prove he can get through a season in one piece, something he has accomplished just once in his career, and skeptics around the NFL contend he will erode as the year wears on. But for now, at least, the 2001 first-round draft choice is the most explosive wide receiver in the league with the Moss surname.
"The biggest difference," Moss said, "is that I'm getting opportunities. You can't make a play if they don't throw you the ball. The ball is coming my way now, and so things are going my way now. You get into a zone where you see little things, openings and stuff, and you feel there's a play out there waiting for you. That's where I'm at now, and size has nothing to do with that, really."
From a financial standpoint, the Coles-for-Moss trade was a catastrophe for the Redskins. In parting with Coles, whom Dan Snyder had lured from New York in 2003 with a huge restricted free agent offer sheet, the Redskins had to accept a $9 million hit on their 2005 salary cap. Then, to secure Moss for beyond this season -- since he was entering the final year of his original rookie contract -- Washington had to sign the former University of Miami star to a pricey extension worth $31 million and including an $11 million signing bonus.
But as disastrous as the trade was on the salary cap, it has been delightful on the field.
In fact, with contrarian Snyder leading the way, the Redskins essentially have gone against the trend at wide receiver. At a time when everyone else is getting bigger, the Redskins ridded themselves of two physical wideouts, Coles and Rod Gardner, in the offseason. In their stead was a pair of munchkins: Moss and David Patten (5-10, 190). The two represent one of the smallest starting duets in the league. The Carolina Panthers, with Steve Smith and Keary Colbert, are the only other franchise currently starting a wideout tandem with both players under 6-0.
No one should expect Moss' success to be the catalyst for sudden devolution at the position. Most teams still prefer the new prototype, a wideout at least 6 feet tall and in the 200-pound range, a guy who can fight through jams and get clean releases and who can ride cornerbacks off the ball when necessary. The preponderance of West Coast-style offenses, which mandate bigger and more receivers, launched a trend that isn't about to subside, even with traditionally smaller and quicker players making a splash.
"Speed and quickness are always going to be [critical]," acknowledged New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin in training camp this summer, talking about the team's addition of supersized wide receiver Plaxico Burress. "But sometimes bigger guys can power their way through coverage, too. There are guys strong enough to run through double-teams and who can go up and get the ball. And, yeah, you're seeing a lot more of those guys than we had in the league years ago."
In a league where every action mandates a reaction, the emphasis on bigger wideouts over the last 15-20 years made acquiring bigger cornerbacks a priority. But then, when virtually every defense had at least one physical, 6-foot cornerback, the league went and re-emphasized the illegal contact rule in the secondary and coverage skills became paramount once again. A lack of pure cover techniques leaguewide is at least partly responsible for allowing receivers such as Moss the opportunity to excel.
"I just feel like I'm going to out-quick most guys," Moss said.
He clearly isn't the only smaller wide receiver in the league who feels that way. Carolina's Smith (5-9, 185) is a phenomenal playmaker, the obvious go-to guy in every clutch situation for the Panthers and quarterback Jake Delhomme. Baltimore wide receiver Derrick Mason, who ranks among the top 10 pass-catchers this season and had more catches over the last two seasons than any player in the NFL, is just 5-10. And the most valuable player of Super Bowl XXXIX, Deion Branch of New England, is only 5-9.
During the offseason, the one thing people suggested the Patriots lacked was a physical presence at wide receiver. The team tried hard to land a bigger wideout, failing with some candidates such as David Terrell, but it hasn't mattered. In Branch and David Givens, the Patriots still have two excellent receivers. And it has been the lack of muscle in the running game, not the lack of size at wide receiver, that has stymied the New England offense in its first six outings of the season.
"If you've got quickness and are smart, play in a good offense and know how to get open, the size thing isn't that much of a factor," Branch said after a recent victory at Atlanta in which he consistently used double-moves to whip the Falcons' cornerbacks. "Big is good, don't get me wrong, but it's not everything. There are a lot of so-called smaller wide receivers who are playing big."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.