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Moss gathering praise for model behavior, work ethic in 49ers camp

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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Worried about Michael Crabtree learning from Randy Moss? So far, so good, say the Niners. (AP)  
Worried about Michael Crabtree learning from Randy Moss? So far, so good, say the Niners. (AP)  

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The more you watch Randy Moss at work and the more you listen to his coaches and teammates, the more you start to believe that maybe, just maybe, he can make a difference with the San Francisco 49ers.

I know, I didn't like the move when they made it, but there's something a veteran wide receiver told me this summer that makes me think it could work: Moss is one of the game's "great frontrunners" and an asset when everything is going right. That's why he was no problem in New England and a headache in Minnesota and Tennessee. One team won; the others did not.

"All he wants," one GM told me, "is a ring. The guy loves the game and wants a Super Bowl ring."

Well then, he might be at the right address. First, the 49ers are good. Real good. They didn't lose a starter from one of the NFL's top defenses and padded themselves on offense at nearly every position. Second, they were only a couple of punt returns from the Super Bowl last year. Third, they didn't invest heavily in Moss. They're on the hook for $2.5 million if he makes the team -- which he should -- and it's a one-year deal. So there's little financial risk.

Granted, I didn't like the idea of pairing Moss with diva Michael Crabtree, but from all accounts Moss has been a model camper. He's the first to team meetings and one of the first to show up at work. He schools teammates on how to read defensive backs, how to run routes, how to position themselves to make catches and how to take care of themselves to prevent or reduce serious injuries.

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Basically, people insist, he's an ideal teammate.

Then, of course, there's Moss on the field. Though at 35 he's older than everyone on the 49ers but long snapper Brian Jennings, in the practices I witnessed he made more catches for scores than any of his teammates.

"I find myself saying, 'Wow!' a couple of times," said tight end Vernon Davis. "He's been in the league, what? Fourteen years? Yet he can still do some of the things he's done in the past."

"Can he run?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. "I watched him on film the other day, then I tapped Delanie [Walker, another tight end] and said, 'Man, he's moving.' He ran a go route, and he left the corner behind. I looked at Delanie and said, 'Wow, he's moving. I can't believe he can still run.'

"But he runs well. You can tell he's getting older and that he doesn't have some of the attributes he did when he was younger. But he can still get it done."

That's crucial for the 49ers because, frankly, they didn't have a wide receiver who could get it done when things mattered last year. Davis was their biggest threat, and he was marvelous. But in the NFC Championship Game loss to the New York Giants, the 49ers had one catch by a wide receiver ... and it was for 3 yards.

So the 49ers went out and found Moss, signed Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham, drafted A.J. Jenkins in the first round and, suddenly, are deeper ... much deeper ... at a position of need. Of course, that's provided Moss can do something more than he did last time he played, which was two years ago when he fizzled with Minnesota and Tennessee after New England got rid of him.

"Randy can still stretch the defense," said linebacker Patrick Willis, who should know. "He can still create a mindset with a defense where it's 'OK, where's Randy? We have to know where Randy is at all times.' And that's going to allow other guys to be able to be free."

That's the idea, and it worked in New England, where Moss set a single-season league record with 23 touchdown catches. But that was five seasons ago, and Moss not only has been out of the game one year; he finished the 2010 season on the bench in Tennessee.

Nevertheless, there's a feeling that he can make an impact with the 49ers, become a red-zone threat and beat secondaries deep when the matchups are right. Moreover, there's a feeling that he can mentor young receivers like Crabtree. While that remains to be seen, I do remember what that wide receiver told me: If you're winning, it's nothing but good with Randy Moss.

The 49ers are insistent that he can and will fit, and maybe they're right. All I know is that when you watch Moss repeatedly split defensive backs at practice to make receptions you understand what they're talking about.

"He's going to be an asset," said quarterback Alex Smith. "For a guy his size to play the ball in the air the way he does and to run like he does is a unique ability. Anytime you get in the red zone, if you want to load the box and play one-on-one with him that's a gamble -- and that makes him a real threat.

"Second, I just think the attitude and the professionalism he's brought to the receiving corps is going to do nothing but contribute to us. The guy's been in a lot of offenses and won a lot of games. I've learned a lot from him. He's a great communicator as a receiver, and that's good for our receivers to see."

Any improvement is good for San Francisco's wide receivers. No one on the club with more than 15 catches last year averaged more than 12.1 yards per catch, and no wide receiver scored more than four times. You would like to see that change, and with Moss, maybe it does.

"He's definitely going to make a difference," said Davis.

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