By Rich Levine
Are the Patriots a better team without Randy Moss?
Its a question weve asked ourselves over and over since the moment Moss left town. And with the Vikings officially waiving No. 8184 on Tuesday, its a question thats now more prevalent in Patriots circles than jokes about Tom Bradys hair.
Of course, the chances of Moss ending up back in Boston are slimmer than the man himself. Check out any experts list of potential suitors, and the Pats dont even merit a mention. It looks likes it will be Washington, Tennessee, St. Louis, Miami or Seattle. Personally, Id love to see Moss leave football all together and start reviewing local restaurants for the Star Tribune (Catch Phrase: I wouldn't feed this crap to my dog!!), but either way, regardless of the likelihood of Randys return, public reaction to the mere possibility has been interesting.
Some revel in the idea of Moss re-joining the troops.
They believe, due largely to Sundays heartfelt press conference, that Moss has learned his lesson. That he finally appreciates how great he had it in New England. That hes ready to walk the company line and that, if given a second chance, theres no way he let the team down. Basically, wed be looking at 2007 all over again.
For others, the prospect of Moss coming back is about as enticing as a bubble bath with Rex Ryan.
They think that Randys a cancer, and that hell never ever change. That he sets a bad tone off the field, and doesnt always give full effort on it. That his presence plays mind games with Tom Brady and pigeon holes the offense. Basically, they believe that the Pats are better off without him.
Which brings us back to the original question: Are they?
On one hand, theyre 3-0 sans Randy, and those three wins came against three quality teamsdespite what their respective records may say (Bill Parcells just choked on his cigar at whichever horse track hes currently betting at). And at the same time, you cant disregard the positive vibes that have taken over the organization in the post-Moss Era. The Pats are a more upbeat, optimistic and fun-loving team now than they were on October 6. No one can deny that.
But heres where it gets a little tricky. Yeah, the Pats have been solid over the last three weeks. And on the surfaceconsidering they were 3-1 with Randy, and 3-0 without himyou can say that the Pats have been better since he left.
But at this moment, can you really say that theyve been better BECAUSE he left.
Was it Moss absence that facilitated victories over Baltimore, San Diego and Minnesota? Or have other factors come into play?
First of all, call me crazy, but I havent been in love with the Patriots offense over the last three weeks. I realize that the Ravens, Chargers and Vikings boast three of the more daunting defenses in the league (although Ryan Fitzpatrick might disagree on the Ravens part), but has this been the fair, balanced and uber-efficient offensive attack that the anti-Moss camp imagined after he left?
Ill admit that, at the time, I was all googily-eyed over the idea of Brady morphing back into the my favorite receiver is the open receiver quarterback that led the Pats to three titles. But I, or anyone else, would be nuts to suggest that thats how everything has played out.
The first category you look at is points, and you notice that three of New Englands four lowest scoring outputs have come since the trade.
Of course, thats not completely surprising. First, there's the defenses they were playing. Plus, we already knew that without Moss, the Pats offensive wouldnt be as explosive. But what we thought wed see was an offense that was far more efficientan offense that was less predictable, more creative and could sustain longer, more methodical drives to help keep the defense off the field. But so far, that hasnt been the case.
Three of Tom Bradys four worst completion percentages have come since Randy left. Three of his four worst QB ratings have come since Randy left. Bradys thrown as many interceptions in last three games as he did in the previous four.
Thereve also been numerous drives over the last three weeksspecifically, the first two in overtime against the Ravens and the possession that should have sealed the deal in San Diegowhere the Pats needed to move the ball, and just plain couldnt.
Thereve been possessions like in the second quarter in San Diegowhen Rob Nincovichs fumble return gave New England the ball on the eight yard line with a chance to go up 14-3where the Pats have been handed huge opportunities, and instead of capitalizing, have actually gone backwards.
You can cite the 13-play, 84-yard, five and a half-minute drive that put them over the top against Minnesota, but that was about the Law Firm; Brady completed two passes for 23 yards. Was Green-Ellis running the ball on Vikings because Randy Moss wasnt lined up wide right?
And in terms of keeping the defense off the field, the Patriots time of possession in the last two games have been their two worst all season. They held the ball for 25:35 against San Diego, and 24:52 against Minnesota. There has been more pressure placed on the defense these last two weeks than at any time all year. Sure, there are other factors that come into play on time of possession (like all the short-field situations in San Diego), but either way, by no means can we say that the Patriots offense has been rejuvenated by the absence of Randy Moss.
In fact, the offense would be considered a huge problem right now if it werent for another tiny, little difference between Randy Moss Patriots and the team you see today: They have a defense!
A defense that gave them three chances in overtime against Baltimore, that kept giving them possession after possession in San Diego and was just tough enough at the end to save us from another week of Fourth and 2 drama. They have a defense capable of containing Ray Rice, Anquan Boldin, Philip Rivers and Adrian Peterson (and, I guess, Randy Moss); a defense that hasnt allowed more than 20 points since September.
They have an honest-to-goodness NFL defense. The only thing that would have been more surprising than that back in August is the fact that Randy Moss was just cut by the Vikings.
Has Randy's absence really played into the instant maturation of Devin McCourty, the emergence of the Nincoviches, Deadricks, Cunninghams and Arringtons of this no-name unit, the fact the fact that Jerod Mayo has finally realized his ridiculous potential? Of course not.
Ultimately, what these last three weeks have shown is that the Patriots can win without Moss. At least in October. And for the Moss haters, those three wins are already enough to write off the move as a smashing success. But in reality, it's far too early.
Were victories over Baltimore, San Diego and Minnesota a direct byproduct of his departure? Do we think the Pats would have lost these games with him? Are they actually a better team for not having Randy? Right now, I dont think you can say.
Maybe the offense just needs time to adjust. Maybe it will take a few weeks for Brady to re-discover his old style. Or maybe Deion Branch's hamstring never heals, Wes Welker needs another year to regain that legendary quickness and the Pats offense never completely finds its way. And with the way the defense is playing, maybe that won't even be a huge deal. We don't know.
All we know for sure is that the Patriots are a better team today than they were four weeks ago, and for now, thats reason enough to just sit back and enjoy it.