Randy Moss was a freak of nature. He redefined the WR position as many people, particularly Minnesotans and division foes knew it, with his uncanny ability to outrun defenders on deep routes and snatch the ball at the last second for long touchdowns. But after the 2004 season -- and following a fake moon at Lambeau, a signature moment in so many ways during the second of what is still two playoff victories this decade for our purple -- Moss and his baggage (overblown, in our mind, in retrospect) were shipped to Oakland. As part of the trade, the Vikings' received the No. 7 overall pick in the 2005 draft, which they used on South Carolina speedster Troy Williamson. Conventional thinking was they had to replace the void at deep threat left by Moss' departure.
We'd love to say, "and the rest is history ..." but as everyone knows, the only thing that's history is Williamson in a Vikings uniform. He could run, but he couldn't catch. The ball had a better chance of hitting him in the face than sticking to his slippery hands or Teflon chest.
Two years later, the Vikings drafted another South Carolina wide receiver. This one wasn't a speedster (he ran a 4.51 40 at the combine, compared to Williamson's 4.32), and he wasn't taken No. 7 overall but rather 44th overall, in the second round. And yet, with 2008 free agent WR Bernard Berrian -- another speedster who can outrun defenders but only if his health holds up -- having less of an impact this season because of injuries and the emergence of that lesser-heralded South Carolina receiver, the Vikings have their best deep threat they've had have had since Moss left in the middle of the decade.
We're talking, of course, about Sidney Rice -- who has 964 yards receiving this year and 731 in his past 6 games. His longest catch in a game has been at least 30 yards on seven occasions this year. And, while this is harder to quantify, he's proving that in today's NFL catching a deep ball is less about blazing speed than it is about body position, ball awareness and hands.
Think about deep passes: how many of them do you see completed in the classic manner, where a speed-burning wide receiver gains a step or two on a slightly slower cornerback, and a QB hits that receiver in stride? Not very many, right? So many things have to happen to execute a play like that. More often, a deep completion is imperfect. It's sometimes underthrown (maybe purposely, as you've seen on back-shoulder fades) or simply thrown up for grabs because single coverage dictates a receiver has the advantage over a smaller corner who lives in constant fear of a flag.
This is where Rice comes in. He has enough speed to run past safeties and make a deep ball a true 1-on-1 matchup. But far more importantly, he adjusts beautifully to balls in the air (see yesterday's back-shoulder grab near the end zone), has the size and strength to position himself to catch jump balls and also has the uncanny knack of being able to hold onto the ball even despite minor contact.
We'll take that over a track star in a football uniform any day.