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Santana Moss Insider Article


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Updated: Nov. 23, 2005, 4:34 PM ET

Everything coming together for wideout


By Seth Wickersham


Do shoes count? If not -- if you can be considered fully clothed without them -- then it's official: Santana Moss gets the strangest massage this side of Thailand. He always keeps his clothes on, minus the shoes. After he kicks the kicks, his socks, shirt and shorts all stay. As he collapses onto a massage table on this late-October evening, which he does five days a week for the magic thumbs of athletic trainer Melvyn Williams, Moss looks less like he's prepping for a rubdown and more like he's falling on the couch for a nap.

It's not that he doesn't like massages; Moss pays Williams thousands for them. And it's not that he's embarrassed about his body, the upper portion of which is perfectly sculpted and well-inked. Moss just lays facedown on the table with his basketball shorts hiked up, wedgie-like, and his legs exposed. Williams digs in, aided by a goop that hits your nose like walking into a glass wall. What's really weird? Moss' shoulders aren't touched, or even considered. Neither are his arms or neck. Moss pays Williams for one reason: To get his legs loose and jumpy so he can play receiver for the Redskins on Sundays. Moss needs his legs. So Williams kneads his legs.

He could have used this sort of treatment with the Jets last season, when he was a walking charley horse. But for the first time in five NFL seasons, Moss is getting his body worked on every day. More to the point, after four years in New York, where he rarely lived up to the promise of his speed, Moss is working the kinks out of his career. Along with the right masseur, he's found the right team, the right schemes and the right quarterback for his laid-back personality. All at the right time.

Unlikely as it seems, the 26-year-old Moss and his 35-year-old QB, Mark Brunell, are as successful as any NFL passing duo right now. If many of the league's top tandems (Bulger-Holt, Manning-Harrison, Brady-whoever) base their success on rigid discipline and precise routes, Moss and Brunell have a different sense of timing. Theirs comes not from an ironclad playbook (three-step drop, two-step slant, check coverage, fire) but from a jazzy songbook. Moss and Brunell's riffs spit at the notion that timing is best achieved by programming a quarterback to drop back and check down, as West Coast offense preachers insist. How they've bonded, how their timing has been forged, is not from precision but improvisation, not from repetition but feel. "What's funny about our offense is it ain't nothing perfect," Moss says. "Once we see something's working, we just go out and play."

Not that Moss and Brunell can't do short and precise. Against the Chiefs on Oct. 16, Brunell dropped back three steps and whipped a wide receiver screen to Moss, who took it in stride and wasn't even grazed as he went 78 yards for six. Though the once-nifty Brunell now has feet that are less Usher and more usher, the Skins often use five-step rollouts to hit the 5-foot-10, 190-pound Moss on timed zigzag routes. But let's face it: Brunell has played in 139 games and passed for 28,768 yards, and Moss' speed creates space. They should be able to do the short stuff.

What distinguishes the duo is how they've turned timing vertical, how their flair for perfecting unrehearsed downfield routes has left defenses flat-footed and wide-eyed. The proof: Nobody in the NFL has more catches of 25 yards or longer than Moss. The Redskins, Moss says, "use everything that I can do, and they're going out there and dialing it up for me."

Fittingly, the Brunell-Moss connection began haphazardly. During the first 116 minutes and 129 plays of the season, the Redskins amassed nine points and zero touchdowns. Brunell wasn't even the starter until he replaced the injured Patrick Ramsey during the Sept.11 opener. But in 71 seconds on Sept.19, Washington's season changed.

With just under four minutes left in the game, Brunell and Moss clicked. Trailing Dallas 13-0 and facing a fourth-and-15 from the Cowboys' 39, Brunell called for Moss to run a Dino, a post-corner-post. Brunell saw Roy Williams playing the route too shallow, and hung the ball up for Moss to run under, which he did, sliding in the end zone. A series later, on second down from the Washington 30 with 2:44 left, Brunell called a scissors play, where Moss lines up outside and runs a post while the tight end runs a corner route from the slot. The pattern makes Moss a decoy, clearing space for Chris Cooley. Moss had practiced the play since April, never once getting a touch. During the week prior to the Dallas game, he even joked to receivers coach Stan Hixon, "Can I get that pass if I'm open?"

Three steps into his post route, Moss saw Williams playing tight and thought, "I might actually get this ball!" He flew past Williams for a 70-yard TD, giving Washington a 14-13 victory. Says Moss: "I'm more proud of those two plays than anything else we've done this year."

The highlights played all week, and the shock of seeing Moss at full speed rippled through the league. Here, finally, was the deep threat every scout expected when Moss came out of Miami in 2001 with the Big East indoor 60-meter record (6.83 seconds) and the Canes' record for most career receiving yards. Valium purchases among safeties suddenly spiked. Now the time was right to maximize Brunell and Moss' timing. Time for the poker.

Back in mini-camp, Joe Gibbs figured that the poker would be the Skins' most successful route. In it, the wideout tries to sell a post, and when the safety buys and sprints deep, the receiver cuts off to a curl. (Post. Curl. Po-Cur. Get it?) Free agent signee David Patten ran the pattern as a Patriot, and he raved about its effectiveness to Gibbs. It works only if the wideout is a vertical threat, which Washington didn't have in 2004. Laveranues Coles averaged just 10.6 yards a catch. As a team, the Skins had just five receptions of more than 39 yards and none more than 51. "That route," Patten says, "brings out Santana's potential."

It's a tough, turbulent play. The Redskins run it with only three receivers in the pattern, keeping everyone else in to pass protect. It's necessary -- crucial, really -- that Moss get open. Redskins coaches control what they can, telling Moss to run the poker at 18 yards or cut it off at 12 if Brunell is being blitzed, or if the coverage won't let the receiver get 18. But after that, it's out of their hands and all on Moss and Brunell. Or more specifically, on Moss. "Honestly," says Brunell, "the success of that route is more Santana than me."

In the game-winning overtime drive in Washington's 20-17 victory over Seattle on Oct. 2, Brunell and Moss ran the poker four times, completing it twice for 43 yards, including a 30-yarder on third and 10. "Regardless of how I run it," Moss says, "as long as I give Mark a clear picture of where I'm going to be, as long as he sees me before he sees the defender, I'm open."

Big plays don't come easy. On a third-and-seven against the Giants on Oct. 30, Will Allen chucked Moss at the line. Allen stayed with Moss, joining free safety Brent Alexander and linebacker Nick Greisen to contain Washington's only aerial threat. Moss, at 12 yards, broke out, then in, shaking Allen. Then he busted for the post. Alexander, no doubt aware of those Cowboys highlights, turned with him. At 22 yards Moss cut back to Brunell, only to see a roadblock: Greisen sitting in Brunell's passing lane.

Brunell waited in the pocket, patting the ball, staring hard but not too hard, as if Moss were a hot girl at the other end of the bar. This is where the route's timing, where their timing, was on display: Brunell fired at the exact moment Moss squirted through the triple coverage, resulting in a 15-yard gain.

Just as the post route led to the poker's success, the poker is leading to a revival of the post. On Nov. 13, Tampa Bay obsessively jammed Moss at the line, trying anything to short-circuit him. He caught a 47-yard post, which was called back for holding, and three plays later hauled in a 42-yarder. Both plays used the poker as a decoy; Moss faked the curl and stuck with the post (a cur-po, if you will). "We wanted to jam him, to throw him off," says Bucs linebacker Shelton Quarles. "But he's so fast, it's hard."

Profile2005 SEASON STATISTICSRecYdsTDAvgLongYAC57988517.378400Moss and Brunell's timing is more reflexive than practiced. They don't spend long hours after practice running routes or watching film together, nor do they talk often. Between series, if Moss suggests a play, he does so directly to Gibbs, not to Brunell. Early in the season, as Moss walked back to the huddle after pass plays, he noticed Brunell kept looking at him with his thumb up. Moss figured his QB was just telling him he'd run a good route. But Brunell wasn't passing a compliment. He was asking a question. Were you open? A thumb up in return meant yes.

Weird and inexact, yes. But it works. It's what Moss pictured in January, when he talked with Clinton Portis and clamored for the chance to play in Washington. Portis went to Gibbs, telling him that if he was looking for a receiver he should grab his fellow Cane. Gibbs laughed, thinking there was no way the Jets would let Moss go. But Moss wanted a new contract, and he had Drew Rosenhaus arguing his case. The Jets, meanwhile, saw a player with uneven stats who'd played just one full season in four years, much of the lost time due to hamstring and quad injuries. Meanwhile, Coles, tired of being used as a possession receiver, wanted out of DC.

Hixon watched every play of Moss' last two years in New York and found that while his numbers were up and down, so were his chances. Moss had 100 passes thrown his way in 2003 and caught 74 of them. Last year, his receptions dropped to 45, but he had only 68 attempts, and his yards per catch was 18.6, an impressive figure considering the Jets' short-passing scheme was coupled with a quarterback, Chad Pennington, who struggled to overthrow the latte line at Starbucks.

In March, the teams traded their top targets, and two months after that Moss signed a six-year, $31 million extension. Through nine games he's got 57 grabs for 988 yards and has caught 71 percent of the balls thrown his way, with first downs coming on 75 percent of his catches. During a two-game October stretch when Moss caught 18 passes for 289 yards, he had 29 passes thrown to him. "I was like, that's playing football," he says.

Busy as he is, is it any wonder that Moss' legs spend 70 to 80 minutes a night under Williams' thumbs? Moss blames bad luck for his injuries, but also himself. "Being young, I didn't know what went into football," he says. "I didn't know I had to see someone who knows about the body."

Moss had a trainer in New York working his legs, but he attended sessions sporadically. His idea of healing a pulled hamstring was toughing it out until the offseason, then keeping off it until mini-camp. And it never worked. Moss met Williams in training camp -- the masseur also treats other Redskins -- and like so much else about his move south, something clicked. Moss told Williams that a hamstring injury from three years ago was keeping him from reaching full stride, from going top speed. "I really felt like if I went too hard, it might pop," Moss says. Williams took him to his offices, 15 minutes from Redskins Park, and got him on the table. Williams' thumbs dove into Moss' legs like a scoop into an ice cream carton. "He knows what I need to do to keep my body well," Moss says, "and to keep me being the athlete that I am."

An unlikely move to a new job. A suggestion from Patten about a pass route. A chance meeting with Williams. A bond with a quarterback who started the year as a backup. Good timing, Moss has found, means success. Which means people want to tag along. Patten, ever mindful of who taught Moss the poker route, likes to shout: "Save your boy a ticket!" To Honolulu, he means.

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Cool article, but i'm kinda getting sick of reading about how every good idea we have on offense is something that SOMEONE ELSE convinced gibbs we should do. Is he doing anything to upgrade this offense? Sure didn't look like it last week.

I agree. Musgrave installed the shotgun, Patten brought our top route, and we have reverted to some of the Bronco style running to make Portis more effective. Joe Gibbs is a very smart coach but is way too paranoid. He cant even watch his team kick a field goal to go up 10. I wish he would just unwind a little bit and let things roll. I think teams have figured out they only have to cover two guys most of the time. The conservative play coupled with the turnovers and pass rush is the demise of this team. You cant play conservative when you dont have the lead.

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I agree. Musgrave installed the shotgun, Patten brought our top route, and we have reverted to some of the Bronco style running to make Portis more effective. Joe Gibbs is a very smart coach but is way too paranoid. He cant even watch his team kick a field goal to go up 10. I wish he would just unwind a little bit and let things roll. I think teams have figured out they only have to cover two guys most of the time. The conservative play coupled with the turnovers and pass rush is the demise of this team. You cant play conservative when you dont have the lead.

Very true. The conservative play calling workind the first time with Gibbs because he usually had a horse of an RB and a huge tough OL that just killed DL little by little. Joe you don't have that now. Now you have Ferraris in Moss, Portis, even jacobs and patten. Don't max protect all the time, mix it up go for the stretch run play with Portis, swing it out to him from the backfield, hit Jacobs on slants and quick passes etc. Go for it. Right now we have nothing to lose IMO with SD. its a must win game.

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