An AFC scout recently joined Santana Moss' teammates, observers of the Washington Redskins and others around the NFL in asking an ever-popular question:
What were the New York Jets thinking last spring when they traded Moss to the Redskins for Laveranues Coles?
"He's better than I thought," the scout said Tuesday. "Whenever a guy gets traded, you wonder because you don't trade a great player. You would think teams wouldn't get rid of a player like that."
Through his first five games, Moss has proven to be a steal, ranking second in receiving yards (631) and yards per catch (19.1), tied for fourth in touchdowns (four) and 10th in receptions (33).
The Redskins' pass offense, ranked 29th last year, has been jump-started by the Mark Brunell-Moss combo and ranks eighth this season (246.2 yards).
"I don't think anybody could dream that," coach Joe Gibbs said. "Guy comes in first year, tries to get used to everybody, and for him to be this productive, we couldn't be more impressed."
Moss tied a career high with 10 receptions for a career-best 173 yards Sunday against Kansas City. Next up is San Francisco's last-ranked pass defense.
"I'm proud of whatever I do out there," Moss said yesterday. "I knew what kind of player I am so it was just a matter of me getting to be that player. Right now, the system is allowing me to be that player."
The Redskins' offensive staff is giving him touches and Moss has used those chances to establish himself as a legitimate No.1 receiver, somebody who should be mentioned with Messrs. Owens, Holt, Harrison and the other Moss. He has been that productive (three 100-yard games), that clutch (see Redskins 14, Dallas 13), and that consistent (at least 87 yards receiving in each game).
Moss is on pace for 106 catches, 13 touchdowns and an NFL-record 2,019 yards. The yards are a long shot but the reception and touchdown totals are realistic. An average of 10 passes per game are being thrown Moss' way.
"I've been making these plays all my life," he said. "But you have to play the role the team wants you to play. In New York, I had to play that role to fit into that offense and that team. Over here, I'm getting opportunities."
With the Jets, Moss' big play ability was somewhat negated by New York's philosophy of throwing underneath and intermediate passes. His best year was 2003 when he made 74 catches for 1,105 yards and 10 touchdowns. Last season, his numbers dipped to 45 catches, 838 yards and five touchdowns, and he was traded for Coles.
Moss had one season remaining on his rookie contract but the Redskins extended the deal for six years and $31million (nearly $11million guaranteed). The team also absorbed a $9million salary cap hit for trading Coles.
The 2-4 Jets rank 26th in passing and Coles has 26 catches for 289 yards, only one touchdown and a sub-par reception average of 11.1 yards.
"Clearly Moss has been an explosive player and they're doing a good job using him," an NFL general manager said. "If you have 10 receptions [in a game], that means they're throwing the ball to you. The Redskins have obviously found a weapon and made a priority to use him.
"Through five games, the guy's a star. Will he be able to maintain that? We'll have to see."
Moss is confident he can continue his performance. The Redskins have moved him around to create matchup problems and he has shown to be equally effective running quick slants, outs and deep patterns. And the more he does, the more likely his name will be linked with the league's top receivers.
That was the Redskins' plan last spring when Coles expressed his desire to be traded. They were intrigued by Moss' hands and yards-per-catch.
Coles and Rod Gardner dropped too many passes last season and the Redskins averaged 10 yards per pass play. The number has jumped to 12.3 this season. The Redskins had nine pass plays of 30-plus yards last year; Moss already has seven receptions that have gained 30 or more yards.
"His per-catch average [now 16.6 in his career] was our main reason for getting him," receivers coach Stan Hixon said. "What he's showed us here is that he has really, really good hands and he runs even better routes. I haven't seen anybody cover him 1-on-1 yet."
Moss' next challenge is when opponents began to alter their game plan to account for him, which will be good news for the Redskins' other weapons.
"You've got to have a plan against him now," the scout said, "and that takes away from your effectiveness in basic schemes because you might have to change a thing or two and that frees up other players."