Mike Zimmer: Never Again
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer spent 13 seasons as a coach in Dallas, which meant his team was in the national spotlight 13 times on Thanksgiving Day.
The Cowboys went 7-6 on the holiday when Zimmer was on the staff, but there’s a loss that stands out among the rest. It’s one that lives in infamy, and thanks to a few clicks on YouTube, in perpetuity.
The year was 1998 and Moss, ticked off about not being drafted by Dallas, was out for payback.
On Moss’ third touchdown of the day, he streaked by the Dallas sideline as Zimmer, who was then the Cowboys defensive backs coach, could only watch with his arms crossed, making an unplanned cameo in Moss’ highlight flick.
“That was one of the worst days,” Zimmer recalled with a chuckle. “The size and length that he had was unbelievable.
“It made it really difficult because you had to double team him on every play, but now you’re opening things up in other areas,” Zimmer added. “If you didn’t pay attention to him, he’d beat you in a hurry. He was an unbelievable athlete.”
Moss had three catches for 163 yards and three scores that day, but that wasn’t the only time he perplexed Zimmer.
Moss lined up against a Zimmer defense six times in his career and produced staggering results — 29 total catches for 607 yards and nine touchdowns.
Zimmer tried to prepare his defense any way possible, including having scout team wide receivers line up two yards in front of the line of scrimmage in practice to simulate the effect of Moss’ speed and quickness.
Zimmer said Moss ranks in the top tier of greatest wide receivers of all-time, but ranks first on his list of wide outs who gave him the biggest headaches.
“At his position? Probably,” Zimmer said. “Quarterbacks and running backs are pretty good, but as a wide receiver, he was definitely really hard to defend.
“He had unbelievable hand-eye coordination and ball skills,” Zimmer added.
There’s also one other thing that Zimmer is sure about. He’s glad he no longer has to game plan for No. 84 in Purple.
“I’m glad he’s retired,” Zimmer said with a laugh. “I never want to play against him again.
“When he had the ball in his hands,” Zimmer added, “he could do anything he wanted.”
Brian Billick: 'Keep Throwing It To That Guy'
Brian Billick hardly watched film on Moss before the 1998 NFL Draft. He didn’t think there was a chance the Vikings could get him at No. 21.
But once the wide receiver landed in Minnesota, the former Vikings offensive coordinator knew he had something special.
Carter reiterated Moss’ talent to Billick.
“Cris Carter, he used to run a workout session down in Fort Lauderdale. Randy goes down there, and Cris calls and he says, ‘Brian, you have no idea how good this kid is,’ ” recalled Billick, now an analyst at NFL Network. “I said, ‘I know, Cris, his ability, and I watched the tape…’ And he says, ‘No, Brian. You don’t understand. You have no idea how good this kid is.’ When Cris Carter is blown away, it says something.”
Billick’s offense scored a then-record 556 points, averaging 34.8 points per game.
And in an offense that featured Moss, Carter and Reed at receiver, Smith at running back, Andrew Glover at tight end and future Hall of Famer Randall McDaniel at guard, Billick said he simply tried to stay out of the way of all the talent.
Billick said Moss’ performance on Monday Night Football against Green Bay in 1998 will forever be etched into his memory.
“Denny Green was so great to coach for because he didn’t intrude on your play-calling,” Billick said. “But after the first two passes to Randy (against Green Bay), he flipped over (to me on the headset) and said, ‘Brian, I’m not telling you how to do your job, but I’d keep throwing it to that guy.’ ”
Moss finished with five catches for 190 yards and two touchdowns.
Billick became Baltimore’s head coach in 1999 and won Super Bowl XXXV with the Ravens.
But he cherishes the one season with Moss and the chance to see his gifts up close.
“Randy Moss is the most talented receiver in the history of this game. Period. ” Billick said. “I can only speak to my reference point, but since I’ve been in this game as a player, coach and now analyst, he is the most gifted wide receiver in the history of the game.”
Tony Dungy: 'Wake-Up Call'
Even from the very first game of his NFL career, Moss wanted to take the ball deep and take the top off the defense.
The coach on the opposing sideline for Moss’ regular-season NFL debut was no dummy.
So when Tampa Bay Head Coach Tony Dungy and the Buccaneers rolled into the Metrodome for Week 1 of the 1998 season, they had a strategy in place.
Moss dispatched it rather easily, catching four passes for 95 yards and two touchdowns.
“You saw the preseason tape, and he was catching balls on everyone,” Dungy said. “I remember we made a specific note that game that he catches the deep ball and has speed, and you can’t let him get behind you.
“He caught two long ones that day for touchdowns even though that was something we had preached all week,” Dungy recalled. “We had a good secondary and guys who were smart players and understood, but he was just deceptively fast, and I don’t think you really got that sense until you played against him. That first game was a wake-up call for our guys.”
Because the Vikings and Buccaneers were together in the old NFC Central, Moss faced Dungy’s defense eight times over the first four years of the wide receiver’s career.
Moss’ stat line against Dungy from 1998-2001: 32 catches for 617 yards and seven touchdowns.
Dungy and the Buccaneers defense became synonymous with the Tampa 2 scheme, a zone coverage that focused on giving safety help to cornerbacks to protect against deep threats such as Moss.
Dungy said the scheme was not designed specifically for Moss, but the wide receiver was certainly in mind when the Bucs implemented it.
“You had to very careful not to get in 1-on-1 situations because they looked for him on the deep ball,” Dungy said. “We kind of said, ‘We don’t even want to get in these 1-on-1 situations because even when he’s covered, it can be a big play.’
“You’d rather shade the safety that way or play some type of zone and not let the quarterback think he could take a shot,” Dungy said. “Randy was valuable even if the stats said he didn’t catch a lot of balls that game. He dictated what coverages Minnesota got.”
The Vikings, of course, went 15-1 in 1998, winning the division before falling short in the NFC Championship.
Besides the playoff defeat, Minnesota’s lone loss came down in Tampa Bay to Dungy and his defense. Moss had two catches for 52 yards and did not score.
Even now, almost 20 years later, Dungy said he still takes pride in that 27-24 victory.
“To slow them down enough, that was a big accomplishment,” Dungy said. “We played as well as we could play and won by three points.
“Not many teams were going to beat them that year,” Dungy added. “I really thought that was the Super Bowl year for them. That was one of the best offenses I’ve ever had to face.”
Bob Pruett: 'If Y'All Don't Take Him...'
Bob Pruett’s message was loud and clear.
The former head coach at Marshall University had a front-row seat for Moss’ college career, a two-season run that saw him terrorize opposing secondaries and become one of the nation’s most popular players.
So when Marshall held its Pro Day in the spring of 1998, numerous NFL teams rolled into Huntington, West Virginia, to probe Pruett about his star wide receiver.
Some coaches didn’t listen.
“There were two coaches sitting in my office on Pro Day,” Pruett said. “They said, ‘Tell me about him.’ And at the end of that conversation I looked at them and said, ‘If y'a’ll don’t take him and he’s still available, it’ll be the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in the draft, and it could eventually cost you your job.’
“Two seasons later, they both were gone,” added Pruett, who opted not to name the coaches.
Pruett had gotten to know Moss through the recruiting process a few years earlier, when the coach was the defensive coordinator at the University of Florida.
A former player at Marshall, Pruett returned to his alma mater to be the head coach for the 1996 season, staying until 2004.
Pruett compiled a 94-23 record during his tenure, and it just so happened that his first season was Moss’ first season, too.
“I got to know him, and I’m also from West Virginia,” Pruett said. “We got along well, and he fit right in.”
Moss put up staggering numbers with the Thundering Herd.
He totaled 174 receptions for 3,529 yards (an average of 20.3 yards per catch) with 54 receiving touchdowns. Moss had 15 career 100-yard games and once racked up 288 receiving yards on just eight receptions.
Pruett succinctly summed up Moss’ career by saying the wide receiver put Marshall University on the map.
“I love him to death,” Pruett said. “I’m so proud that I had the privilege of coaching an athlete like that. He was great for the state of West Virginia and great for Marshall University.
“He’s got phenomenal talent,” Pruett said. “If you’re composing a wide receiver or building one like a robot, the skills Randy had are exactly how you’d do it. He’s tall, could jump out of the gym, could run faster than the wind, great hands.
“And Randy would come to work. He wasn’t a problem. Any issue you had with Randy, it was because he didn’t feel like you were using him,” Pruett continued. “He felt like he could score, and he could. He scored 55 touchdowns in two years for us. It was very simple. If they had one (defensive back) on him, we’d check out of what we were doing and throw him the ball. Our guy was better than your guy.”