The year was 1998 and Moss was a rookie wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings. He came into the league with hype but a checkered collegiate past. In just the fifth game of his pro career, he put everyone, including the Green Bay Packers, on notice.
On a stormy Oct. 5 Monday night at Lambeau Field, Moss had the breakout of breakout performances, catching five passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns. He also had a 75-yard touchdown called back by a holding penalty. The Vikings beat the Packers 37-24 to end Green Bay's 25-game home winning streak.
As most everyone knows by now, Moss went on to one of the great receiving careers of all-time — 14,858 yards and 153 touchdowns — playing for four teams.
Following a one-year "retirement" from football, Moss, 35, is back. He makes his debut with his new team, the San Francisco 49ers, this Sunday at Lambeau Field against the Packers.
Whether Moss can return to anywhere near his old form remains unknown. He is listed as a starter on the 49ers' depth chart, so there is at least the implication that he will be a much bigger factor than when he left the NFL in 2010. In that season, he fizzled out with just 28 catches for 393 yards and five touchdowns. He played in 16 total games with three teams – the Patriots, the Vikings, and the Titans – leaving many to believe his freakish skills were gone.
Packers players, however, are remembering a much different Moss this week. "The one that can go vertical and get up the field," said safety M.D. Jennings.
Jennings, in just his second season, has never played against Moss. But Tramon Williams has. Williams, the No. 1 cornerback for the Packers, remembers the 2010 meeting in which the Packers beat Brett Favre, Moss and the Vikings at Lambeau Field in a thriller but has a fuzzy recollection of whether he even defended Moss. That might begin to explain how much of a nonfactor the enigmatic receiver was at the time. Moss caught just three passes for 30 yards with a touchdown in that game, one of his worst outings against the Packers.
Similarly, Moss has been invisible in the preseason for the 49ers with just three catches for 24 yards. But Williams will use other factors to prepare this week with limited recent video on Moss.
"The only thing you can respect is what a guy has done in this league," said Williams. "He's played at a high level since being in the league, so that's the only thing you can respect."
Many of those high-level performances came against the Packers. From 1998 through 2004, his first stint with the Vikings, Moss had seven 100-yard receiving games and 14 touchdowns in 15 games (which includes a playoff game).
"I think I played in Lambeau maybe 14, 15 times," Moss told reporters in San Francisco on Wednesday. "I've played there a lot of times. It's in the teens, double digit. I've had success on that field, won and lost. I just don't like people bringing up the old stuff (such as his mooning of Packers fans in the 2004 playoff game). I try to have fun with the fans, try to have fun. But at the same time, I want to go out and compete. So, I think it's a good thing that my comeback or whatever you want to consider it — Lambeau's a nice place to start it."
Moss ranks fifth in NFL history for career receiving yardage and is just 274 yards behind third-place Isaac Bruce and an even 1,000 yards behind No. 2 Terrell Owens. With 153 touchdown receptions, he's tied for second with Owens.
"Just going off the history of Randy Moss, you know he's one of the top receivers in this league to ever play," said safety Morgan Burnett. "So once he's out there, you have to key in on him."
Part of keying on Moss will be to give his other teammates their due respect. Packers coach Mike McCarthy noted Monday how the 49ers have changed the personnel on the perimeter of their offense — not only with Moss, but with free agent acquisition Mario Manningham, formerly of the Super Bowl champion Giants. They also added a potential dynamic weapon out of the backfield with draft pick LaMichael James of Oregon.
Those additions, plus holdovers Michael Crabtree, Ted Ginn and Vernon Davis, had Burnett saying this about defending Moss: "You just have to trust your technique and trust the defense that is called and do your job to the best of your ability. Randy Moss is a great player. He's been doing it now for a while in the league. He still has his speed and big play-making ability, so you just have to focus in on playing your defense and be accountable to your other 10 teammates that are out there."
Before Wednesday, Moss last held a news conference with the local media on July 27, the start of training camp. For a guy who has delivered some of the best sound bites during his time in the NFL, he has been eerily quiet thus far in his return.
But McCarthy will not be fooled.
"Randy Moss is definitely a special player," said McCarthy. "Everybody remembers when he burst onto the scene. I remember him, definitely. I was in Kansas City and we had a chance to practice against him as a rookie and the impact that he had for the Vikings, particularly the vertical game. So he's played a long time, very productive. Haven't really seen him this preseason, so I don't really have a strong opinion on where he is today, but he's a unique talent and you definitely have to be aware when he's on the field."
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at email@example.com