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Randy Moss: a cure for Phillipsphobia

Though they've probably never met, the lives of Randy Moss and Lawrence Phillips briefly crossed paths one afternoon last April. Hours into the 1998 NFL draft, Randy Moss, the story so far in this year's NFL season, looked up at the draft board to find names like Brian Simmons, Robert Edwards, and Vonnie Holliday. The name that he was looking for--his own--was nowhere to be found. Moss was projected to go as high as in the top five in the draft; in the end, he was the 21st pick. The drop, which cost Moss about $4 million, was shocking.

PHOTO COURTESY SPORTS ILLUSTRATED

The lanky wide receiver, a Heisman Trophy finalist with out-of-this-world numbers at Marshall College (53 touchdowns, 4,528 total yards in two years), was arguably the most potent offensive threat available in the draft pool--yet he almost plummeted into the second round. Why? Call it yet another case of Phillipsphobia.

In 1995, Lawrence Phillips, the explosive running back who led Nebraska to back-to-back championship seasons, was the sixth selection in the NFL draft--about where Moss was expected to go last April. No one had doubts about Phillips' ability to adjust to the NFL game; many expected him to dominate it. Most, however, questioned his off-the-field problems. As a junior, Phillips was a leading Heisman candidate, too, until he was suspended during the season after pleading no contest to assaulting a former girlfriend.

Despite his behavior, the St. Louis Rams insisted that Phillips could be rehabilitated. They rolled the dice and signed him to a multi-year contract. But during his brief 19-month tenure as a Ram, Phillips was arrested three times and spent 23 days in jail.

The Phillips project turned out to be a bust. After being picked up and released by the Miami Dolphins, Phillips' problems persisted, and as recently as last Friday, the now unemployed Nebraska native was charged yet again, this time with a first-degree misdemeanor battery charge. If convicted, Phillips could be sentenced to major time.

Phillipsphobia, n.: the fear of taking a chance on an off-field risk and getting burned. It has paralyzed many NFL franchises; great collegiate players like Warren Sapp and Jason Peter were also taken much lower in the draft than projected. Phillipsphobia was certainly in the air when 20 teams decided to bypass a player that many agreed was the most talented athlete in the pool. None of the teams were willing to take the gamble--none of them, that is, until the Minnesota Vikings had a chance at pick number 21.

Moss has always possessed the hands of Jerry Rice and the leaping ability of Michael Jordan. It's only been a question of whether he'll make good use of them. The answer was never clear. Moss was initially headed to Notre Dame to play under Lou Holtz until he became involved in a racially motivated fight at his high school. Florida State's Bobby Bowden agreed to give him a chance until he was arrested for marijuana. Moss then turned to Marshall, where, as a sophomore, he had domestic battery charges filed against him after a violent outburst with his girlfriend. Can you feel the Phillipsphobia yet?

Still, the Vikings gambled--and it paid off in huge ways. The Moss pick may turn out to be the best risk taken since the movie Titanic; since day one as a Viking, Moss has simply been spectacular. In a preseason game this year against the New Orleans Saints, Moss, still quite unfamiliar with his routes, toasted the defense with six touchdowns. Even though the Vikings had a bye last weekend, the young receiver still leads the league in touchdown receptions and ranks fourth in yards. And while Phillips was in the back pages of the sports section last week for his latest incident, Moss was all over the front page with a dazzling effort against division rival Green Bay in the greatest spotlight of all--Monday Night Football at Lambeau Field. He tore up the highly-touted Packer secondary with 190 yards in receptions, and his Vikings remained the NFC's only unbeaten team.

Phillipsphobia may be more unnecessary paranoia than anything else. There are many other Moss-like cases: Sapp, who has come clean off-the-field, is regarded as one of the finest defensive linemen in the game. Still, franchises shouldn't wipe their consciences clean of this fear. In Moss' case, the team may have fit the player perfectly: Randy's half-brother, Eric, is a lineman on the team, and All-Pro receiver Cris Carter has served as an effective on and off-field mentor.

But in the end, taking a gamble on a troubled player is almost like having a quarterback blindly throw up the ball high into the air for grabs--that is, without Randy Moss there to bring it down.

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