Sunday, the Detroit Lions go to Candlestick Park to play the San Francisco 49ers. It's an early season test for a pair of newly relevant teams. But much more importantly, it will be the first time that Calvin Johnson and Randy Moss have shared the field. The two receivers—Detroit's superstar and the ex-superstar now somehow in San Francisco—have spent their careers defying the conventions of their position and the logic of the game itself. Because of that, each one has been singularly fun to root for.
By now we are all very familiar with the narrative that has surrounded Randy Moss's career. We have been reminded countless times that he got by on raw talent alone, that he was lazy, and that he could have been so much greater if he had only applied himself a little more or worked a little harder. This is all true, I suppose, but only if you give primacy to some abstracted ideal of how the game is "supposed to be played."
I never saw Moss that way. Instead, I saw him as someone who refused to become a cog.
In terms of its relationship to those who play it, football is a ghastly machine. Violent and precisely constructed, it demands that those who play it fit precisely into the strategic architecture of the game. Football is, at its heart, a restrictive sport. In order to succeed in the NFL one has to run, hit, block, throw, cut, and think in the precise, regimented fashion that the machine demands. A player's ability to function within the game's ideology of managerial control is what makes him valuable, and those who try to sidestep the game's conventions and play on their own terms are eventually punished for their defiance (see Vick, Michael and his history of injuries).
Moss refused to accept this inevitability. Why should he have patterned his game to follow a coaches schematic when his physical gifts allowed him to play as an individual? What was so often labeled as "laziness" was in fact this individuality manifesting itself. Moss could run faster and jump higher than anyone else on the field, and he used those gifts to play the game in a way that nobody else could. He was too smart and too defiant to let himself fall victim to the machine. Instead, floated above it, running go routes, catching touchdowns, and whispering, "Straight cash homey."
I watched Moss do this for years, and every time I saw him cruise into the end zone, three exhausted and exasperated defenders trailing behind him, I became more convinced that I would never again see a player bend the game to his will so completely.
And then Calvin Johnson came along.
Johnson possesses all of the freakish speed, jumping, and catching abilities that Moss did, and yet there is something more raw and powerful in the way he plays the game. He is Randy Moss with an added layer of physicality. Johnson can outrun and outjump the machine just as Moss did, but he can also run straight through its guts, coming out the other side in a cloud of wreckage, springs and gears hanging from his mouth.
To wit, this play from last year's game against the Broncos:
And this play from last year's game against the Bears:
That's two plays in which Johnson found himself on the receiving end of a hit that would have left most wide receivers broken and writhing on the ground. Within the rock-paper-scissors style parameters of the game, a hard-hitting linebacker meeting a receiver head-on is supposed to yield a true result: Linebacker smashes receiver to bits. But Johnson, like Moss, has outgrown the space that he is meant to occupy within the machine, and he roams the field unconstrained.
It's their shared ability to play the game on their own terms that makes Johnson and Moss compelling. Each year we are reminded that the NFL player is nothing if not replaceable. An all-pro running back can be replaced by a sixth-round draft pick who understands how to make cuts and follow his blockers. That big nose tackle who was supposed to anchor his team's defense will inevitably find himself out of a job after getting injured and subsequently replaced by another fat guy who knows how to suck up blockers. Oh, and your favorite linebacker? He's worthless when you take him out of a 3-4 defense. We can geek out over our favorite players all we want, but more often than not their success is more the result of their ability to operate as an effective cog than it is their individual dynamism.
Johnson and Moss allow us to escape that sobering truth, though. Moss did things on the field that nobody else could, and he looked lazy doing it simply because we aren't used to seeing success in the NFL come that effortlessly. And now Johnson has picked up where Moss left off, replacing nonchalance with brute strength.
That's why I'll be watching this weekend's Lions-49ers game. I hope that I'll get to see Moss flash some of his old talent with a loping jaunt into the end zone, and Johnson truck his way through a gaggle of child-like defenders after catching a slant. I'll be watching and hoping for these things because it's always more fun to root against the machine.