In the air again

Times Staff Writer

Good fortune didn’t just fall out of the sky for the New England Patriots.

It came in for a soft landing at a nearby airport.

Receiver Randy Moss, who wound up being a deal-of-the-decade acquisition, was so intent on joining the Patriots that he chartered a private jet so he could make it to team headquarters and meet with owner Robert Kraft.

That was on a Sunday morning, the second day of last spring’s NFL draft, just before the Patriots traded a fourth-round pick to Oakland in exchange for Moss.


The Raiders got the 110th selection; the Patriots got a player willing to give 110% in order to salvage his career and reshape his legacy.

“I’m very blessed and fortunate to be in this position to be able to go out and do what I love to do, and that’s play football,” Moss said after the Patriots finished the regular season 16-0, becoming the first team in 35 years to win every scheduled game. “There’s certain things in life that you don’t want to pass up, and this was an opportunity that I didn’t want to pass up.”

Kraft saw that desire during his hour-long interview with Moss, branded in Oakland -- and, before that, Minnesota -- as an enormously talented malcontent, a what’s-in-it-for-me phenom on the downside of his career.

“He said, ‘Look, I want to come here, I want to win, and I want to be part of the Patriots family,’ ” Kraft recalled Tuesday in a telephone interview. “The whole time I talked to him he looked me right in the eye and he didn’t look away. And I believed him.

“I’ve learned in life that you have to take people as you find them. You listen to everyone, but in the end you do what your gut is. I know that [Coach Bill Belichick] felt that he was someone he could count on,” and Kraft said he too was convinced after his meeting with Moss.

It’s far from the first time the Patriots have taken a risk that’s paid off. Few people considered Belichick an elite coach before the Patriots hired him to replace the fired Pete Carroll in 2000. Since, the Patriots have won three Super Bowls, and -- despite the so-called Spygate scandal -- last week Belichick was named coach of the year by the Associated Press.

The Patriots will take their next step toward a perfect season when they play host to Jacksonville on Saturday night at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.

Finding some way to contain Moss will be a top priority for the Jaguars, who advanced to the playoff’s divisional round with a victory Saturday at Pittsburgh. Moss broke Jerry Rice’s longtime single-season record with 23 touchdown catches.

“They were a great team without him,” Jacksonville Coach Jack Del Rio said. “It just added another weapon to be able to add another guy like that, a future Hall of Fame kind of guy, to be able to add that kind of talent like that to your team when you’re already strong. It just makes it difficult to defend.”

Maybe so, but not many teams envisioned Moss fitting into their own systems as well. In hindsight, a fourth-round pick was dirt cheap for him.

This type of player gamble has worked before for New England. In 2004, critics said the Patriots made a mistake signing running back Corey Dillon, who at times was very impressive in Cincinnati but had a reputation for being prickly and self-centered. But Dillon silenced the cynics, rushing for a career-high 1,635 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first season with the Patriots, playing a key role in New England’s third Super Bowl victory.

The Moss deal has been all that and more. It’s the type of transaction that reshaped the landscape of the league, and the only trade that came close in terms of importance this year was another New England deal: the acquisition of receiver Wes Welker from Miami.

“I’ve always been a fan of Tom Brady,” Moss said earlier this season of the Patriots quarterback, last week named the NFL’s most valuable player. “I’ve always said, ‘Peyton Manning has his receivers, why can’t Tom have his?’ Now that Tom has his, we’ll see.”

By all accounts, Moss this season has been a consummate team player, and his public comments reflect that. Consider his approach when dealing with the football he caught to break the touchdown record: It also happened to be Brady’s 50th touchdown pass of the season, breaking the league record of Indianapolis’ Manning.

So who deserved that pebbled-leather memento? Moss suggested they divide it down the middle.

“Tommy was telling me, ‘No, you keep it,’ ” Moss said. “Well, we both did it. I give my kids one half, and you give your son the other half.”

That might be a King Solomon-type solution, but Moss feels more like Moses on the field -- parting a defense down the middle. That’s why he often celebrates in the end zone by bending at the waist and doing an imaginary breaststroke as if dividing two defenders.

“At the beginning of the year, you guys talked about how I lost my step and really wasn’t into the game of football,” Moss told reporters recently. He said he surprised himself in the opener against the New York Jets, when, despite a nagging leg injury that bothered him in training camp, he scored on a 51-yard touchdown.

“I didn’t think that I was able to do that, to run like that, because I’m coming straight off a hamstring injury -- so for me to be able to part the defense like I did, that’s basically me parting the defense,” he said. “That’s where it came from.”

So the player who once divided locker rooms now does it to defenses, allowing the Patriots to uncross their fingers and exhale.

“He’s done everything we’ve asked,” Kraft said. “I’m a big fan of his.”



Century mark

Players with 100 or more career touchdown catches (* active):

*--* Player Seasons TD Jerry Rice 1985-2004 197 Cris Carter 1987-2002 130 Terrell Owens* 1996-2007 129 Randy Moss* 1998-2007 124 Marvin Harrison* 1996-2007 123 Tim Brown 1988-2004 100 Steve Largent 1976-1989 100 *--*