NEW ORLEANS — Two weeks shy of his 36th birthday, Randy Moss is a faded photocopy of the receiver he used to be.
He wasn’t the main target for Alex Smith when Smith had targets, and he isn’t the go-to pair of gloved hands for Colin Kaepernick, either. That’s Michael Crabtree’s domain.
These days, Moss is used as much as a decoy as anything else, like Gen. Patton when the Allies were planning their invasion of France. The San Francisco 49ers build dummy pass routes around him to Calais while they’re actually plotting a lob to Vernon Davis near Normandy.
That status, or lack of it, grinds at the gears of Moss’s competitive nature.
“I don’t like my role; I don’t,” Moss said. “I like to be out there playing football.”
And when it comes to football, in Moss’s mind he has no peer.
“I my heart, I really believe that I’m the greatest receiver to every play this game,” he said during Tuesday’s Super Bowl XLVII Media Day.
That would be quite the claim for anyone. For someone wearing a 49ers jersey, the same colors one Jerry Rice used to model in his incomparable NFL career, it borders on heresy.
But Moss has never lacked for confidence — confidence born out of the years when he was indeed the NFL’s best receiver.
Nine times he caught for more than 1,000 yards, including 1,632 in 2003 at Minnesota. His first year with New England in 2007, he caught an NFL-record 23 touchdowns, doing Rice’s best season one better.
Even now, though, even if it is more by word than by deed, Moss remains a riveting figure.
He was accorded one of the raised, barricaded podiums during the 49ers media session, same as Kaepernick and Jim Harbaugh and Frank Gore. While Smith — once the passer, now the passed over — stood and answered questions amid the surging sea of reporters and cameras and one guy in a purple crown and cape asking questions in Spanish, Moss sat removed from it all. A kingmaker, if no longer a king, in the NFL’s game of thrones.
For despite the fact that Moss is no longer the Moss we knew — or perhaps the Moss he still believes he is — he remains a crafty pass catcher. It’s easy to picture him making only a couple of catches against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, but it’s just as easy to picture those catches being game-changing ones.
Consider his stat line from the NFC Championship Game at Atlanta. Moss had a modest three catches for 46 yards, but one of those was on a square in for 17 yards to the Falcons’ 5 in the third quarter, setting up the Gore touchdown on the ensuing play that drew the 49ers within 24-21 after being down a frightful 17-0 early in the second.
That’s Moss’ game now. He may no longer be able to move heaven and earth, but he can prepare the ground for road grader like Gore.
“I’ve never been about self,” Moss said, straight-faced apparently. “Anything that is going to push our team to victory and hopefully win a Super Bowl, I’m willing to do.”
That willingness may be enough to get him that elusive Super Bowl ring, the ring he thought he’d win when he went through an unbeaten regular season with the Patriots in 2007, only to watch David Tyree and the New York Giants wrench it away.
“I’ll never forget that moment,” Moss said. “It’s not fun when you’re sweating and you have confetti dropping down and sticking to your face knowing you’re not on the winning side.”
Moss and his team are favored to be on the winning side again in this Super Bowl. But win or lose, it doesn’t mean he will stick around for anything longer than the current one-year deal he signed with San Francisco in March after sitting out the entire 2011 season.
“I do want to play another year,” Moss said, not saying where.
Maybe it’ll be a place where Moss can be the main man instead of the prime decoy, though that place probably doesn’t exist. Perhaps he should be content to play out his string in a favored role, with a Super Bowl ring as his crown instead of his own self worth.