Randy Moss is not a Hall of Famer because of his first six games. He’s a Hall of Famer for amassing over 15,000 receiving yards, 150 touchdowns and 10 thousand-yard seasons.
So even after his mystical rookie season in 1998 where the Minnesota Vikings revolutionized the deep ball and went 15-1, Moss had a lot of work to do to cement his legacy as one of the league’s best-ever receivers. Any comparisons of rookie receivers to Moss need to be aggressively asterisk’d and relegated to the fun-with-small-sample-sizes department.
All that said, it’s come to the attention of some that Vikings rookie Justin Jefferson is on pace to surpass Moss’s 1998 first-year campaign. Through six weeks, Jefferson has 28 catches, 537 yards and three touchdowns, and he didn’t even start the first two games. His pace sets him up for 75 grabs, 1,432 yards and eight touchdowns — better than Moss in catches (69) and yards (1,313) but well short in touchdowns (17).
It’s unfair to hold any player to Moss’s standard, but it’s impossible to ignore the numbers. Only five rookie receivers in recorded history, per Pro Football Reference, have racked up 500-plus yards in their first six games: Stefon Diggs, Amari Cooper, Anquan Boldin, Moss and Jefferson.
“We’ve been very impressed with his production, and I’m proud of him,” said quarterback Kirk Cousins, “the way he’s stepped up to the plate, the way he’s helped their offense and brought us a spark, and really handled a lot mentally that we’re throwing at him with plays and formations and adjustments.”
When asked about his Moss-like pace, Jefferson didn’t set any unrealistic expectations.
“It’s a good goal to have,” he told reporters on a Zoom call. “It’s a good thing to beat, but I’m more focused on the team and trying to win some games this year.”
Keeping in mind that Moss is Moss, and Jefferson has a long ways to go to reach that rarefied air, let’s look at the ingredients of Moss’s legendary start and see how Jefferson stacks up.
A BREAKOUT DEBUT
Moss wasted no time putting the league on notice. The 21st overall pick caught four passes for 95 yards and two touchdowns in the Vikings’ opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1998. He struck for both his touchdowns in the opening half against Tony Dungy‘s defense, giving the Vikings a 21-0 halftime lead. “We’ve got a star on our hands in the NFL,” said play-by-play man Sam Rosen after Moss’s second score.
Celebrate Social Distancing with our game-by-game video recap of the ENTIRE 1998 MIN Viking season. Here’s Game 1 & the unveiling of rookie phenom Randy Moss. He scores twice & Cris Carter scores twice- all from Brad Johnson as the Vikes crush the Bucs. @RandyMoss @criscarter80 pic.twitter.com/AnE7YvjCcL
— VikeFans (@VikeFans) April 2, 2020
Jefferson started his career with a little less fanfare after being taken 22nd overall. He didn’t generate many headlines out of training camp and watched as second-year receiver Bisi Johnson took the starting job into Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers. Jefferson was held out until late in the first half and then played most of the second half with the Vikings trailing by multiple possessions, ending his day with two catches for 26 yards.
But his debut game as a starter was on another level. Thrown into the lineup in Week 3, Jefferson erupted for seven catches, 175 yards and a highlight-reel 71-yard touchdown grab. While the Sunday afternoon loss to the Tennessee Titans in front of no fans lacked the same mystique as Moss’s debut, it was arguably a more impressive breakout game.
A PRIMETIME PERFORMANCE
There are seemingly two games from Moss’s rookie season that will stand the test of time: His three-catch, three-touchdown demolition of the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day, and his Monday Night Football masterpiece at the Lambeau Field. The latter was Moss’s first exposure on the biggest stage, which came in Week 5 of the 1998 season.
Moss caught five passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns on the road… in the rain… against an undefeated division rival. After Moss stepped across a fallen defensive back like a mere speed bump for his first touchdown, we got this line from marveling announcer Dan Dierdorf: “Randy Moss is the best young receiver I have seen, maybe ever.”
Jefferson had one opportunity on a primetime stage, also in Week 5, but his performance against the Seattle Seahawks was less iconic — he finished with a season-low 23 yards on three receptions.
But there was rain!
What made Moss so extraordinary was his ability to catch up to any football Randall Cunningham threw. Mike Zimmer famously instructed his Cowboys defensive backs to start two yards behind the receiver in practice to simulate the disadvantage they’d be at facing Moss.
Nobody’s ever been better as a vertical receiving threat, and that facet of his game was clear from the start. Moss had eight receptions of 20 yards or more in his first six games, five of them for touchdowns.
While Jefferson hasn’t hauled in rainbow heaves like Moss from Cunningham, he’s been equal or better at producing big plays, mostly in the intermediate passing game. Jefferson is tied for a league-high with eight receptions on passes 20 yards or more downfield with 10 receptions total of 20-plus yards when you include yards after catch.
“This guys is going to be a legitimate No. 1 receiver in the league, if he isn’t already,” said Packers coach Matt LaFleur. “He is explosive, you can tell he’s a smart football player, he’s got great hands, he’s tough, he’s competitive. I think they got themselves a really good player in him.”
Moss said before his rookie season that he wanted to “wreck this whole league.” Then he went out and did.
It’s tough to beat a professional athlete calling such a lofty shot and then delivering. But Jefferson hasn’t exactly been shy as a rookie. His first career touchdown turned into a dance party at the 5-yard line, and other NFL players have since copied Jefferson’s “Griddy” celebration. Jefferson’s Mic’d Up performance against the Falcons was electric, even in defeat, and on Wednesday he delivered this quote about facing talented Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander in Week 8.
“I’m good enough to go against these type of guys in the league,” Jefferson said. “I’m well capable of making those big plays and really just going out there and play my own game. Just do what I’ve been doing for the past years, so just playing with confidence and playing with that swagger.”
Where Moss has a big leg up on Jefferson is win total. The Vikings started 6-0 in 1998, and Moss was the best new player on a team that looked unstoppable. Jefferson, meanwhile, is stuck on a 1-5 team that is likely to sell at the trade deadline, and a lot of his yards in Weeks, 1, 2 and 6 came in garbage time.
There are more similarities than differences between Year 1 Moss and Year 1 Jefferson, but even though Jefferson is on pace to match or exceed Moss statistically, Moss through six games was a greater game-changer on a more dynamic football team.