FOX Sports Exclusive
Harbaugh happy to roll dice on Moss
Palm Beach, Fla.
Jim Harbaugh keeps it simple. The San Francisco 49ers head coach doesn’t talk much about his job. He drives a beater of a blue pickup truck. He dresses down, not up. And when it came to kicking the tires on a 35-year-old former All Pro and famously cranky wide receiver who was a year removed from the NFL, Harbaugh believed a hands-on approach was the best.
Who better to test drive Randy Moss than Harbaugh, who put in 15 seasons as a quarterback in the NFL?
And so the tryout began on March 12, on the practice field at the 49ers team facility in Santa Clara, CA. Harbaugh — in khakis and a black sweatshirt — and Moss playing a simple game of pitch-and-catch, with team owner Jed York, general manager Trent Baalke and others watching from the sidelines. Harbaugh admitted the audience made him a little nervous.
The only thing missing were the bottle caps in the dirt to outline Moss’ routes.
“I think we threw about 48 passes, and we were 47 of 48, I believe, in that workout,” Harbaugh recalled with a broad smile.
Moss’ return to the NFL in 2012 after his self-imposed one-year hiatus, — coming off the heels of an inglorious 2010 season that saw him traded from New England to Minnesota, waived by the Vikings and finally relegated to decoy with Tennessee — was viewed skeptically by plenty across the NFL. He worked out on March 6 with the New Orleans Saints but there wasn’t a conga line of teams eager to sign Moss, a player whose effort has rarely matched his often astonishing ability.
The 49ers? Well, they went about it differently.
When Moss arrived at San Jose International Airport close to midnight on March 11, there was no limo to greet him. There was only Harbaugh at the wheel.
“I was very appreciative of him doing that,” Moss said during a conference call. “I mean, the head coach picking a guy up — think about that.”
Harbaugh admits he felt a kinship with Moss from the start. He knows the value of a second chance, having played for five teams in 15 NFL seasons, including four stops from 1997-’01.
“Well, I had third chance, and a fourth chance, you know?” Harbaugh said of giving Moss a fair shake. “I just felt that this was a shot we wanted to take.”
Ultimately, the whirlwind 24-hour tryout resulted in Moss signing a one-year deal with a base salary of $1.75 million. In the 49ers’ minds, there is no risk: Moss gets richer if he performs. Incentives could raise his total to $4 million and that is all up to the receiver.
"Randy's got the license and we feel he's got the ability to be a contributor in the National Football League with the San Francisco 49ers," Harbaugh said during the NFL owners meetings in Palm Beach, Fla. "It's that simple. We'll watch it all play out.
"The man has an opportunity to go compete, so I'm looking forward to watching it. I'd like to be a small part of it, selfishly. I'd like to see Randy put a stamp on his great NFL career, possibly a Hall of Fame career."
On an afternoon of Harbaugh-to-Moss, a bond was forged. An uber-competitive former NFL starting quarterback got his juices going by throwing finely tuned passes to a skilled player who still has sub 4.5 speed in the 40, a 6-foot-4 receiver whose great eye and quiet hands helped him haul in some of the most breathtaking catches ever seen on a football field.
So, how did that tryout go, coach? Whose fault was it on the miss?
Harbaugh, always a pretty serious guy, stared into space and thought hard about what happened on that whiff.
“It was too far, it was a slant route that I threw out too far,” he said. “Randy made me look good a couple of times. But it was an impressive workout by Mr. Moss. That was a lot of fun.”
When you can throw to receivers, Harbaugh was asked, can you evaluate them better because you know where you’re putting the ball and you’re making them go get it?
“Yeah, for me it is. But I may be getting a little slower. In fact, I know I am. Weaker,” said Harbaugh, bursting into a rare laugh. “I threw a post to Randy, and I was feeling so good during the workout. It was going so well and I was like, ‘Damn, we’re clicking here!’ At that point we were like 44 for 45. And I’m going to throw a post.”
They had momentum. Harbaugh, 48, had his legs under him and was feeling pretty sporty. His touch was spot-on.
“I’m feeling good about myself, you know? And him. So I go back to throw a post and I took seven steps off a play-action fake. Because I was feeling good,” Harbaugh continued, getting more excited detailing every pass. “So I threw it, and Randy had to slow down on the post — not to the point where it was like a punt return he was catching. But he had to slow down enough to where he had to come to a stop to catch this post route.”
A dud. Harbaugh underthrew Moss, who did the coach a solid by slowing up to snag the ball rather than let it hit the grass.
“Randy was coming back and he kind of flips me the ball and asks, ‘Did you take five or seven (steps) on that?’’’ Harbaugh remembered. “I said, ‘I took seven — I should’ve taken five,’
“Very, very astute by him,” the coach concluded.
Moss, who isn’t easily impressed, liked what he saw. “Yes, he can still bring it at his old age. I don't know, he's probably sitting there with an ice pack or something on his shoulder right now,” he said of Harbaugh. “But he can still wing it."
Harbaugh admits he’s still stinging about his team’s 20-17 loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game — the 49ers receivers had only one catch for three yards in that rain-soaked contest at Candlestick Park on Jan. 22. So it’s no surprise the 49ers fine-tuned their roster in free agency.
Moss’ addition brings veteran experience to a group that now includes former Giants receiver Mario Manningham to complement Michael Crabtree. The 49ers also re-signed receiver and returner Ted Ginn Jr. Running back Brandon Jacobs followed Manningham and left the Giants to sign with the 49ers, giving Frank Gore some big-bodied help in the backfield.
And while other coaches across the NFL won’t give Moss a rousing endorsement — ex-Titans coach Jeff Fisher, now with St. Louis, has been forthright in saying the receiver didn’t always display the best practice habits while in Tennessee — Harbaugh is only looking forward in this new relationship.
He chooses to see a player who put up more than 1,000 yards receiving in a season 10 times, second only to Jerry Rice, who did it 14 times in a Hall of Fame career.
"We feel it's a good move for us, and we're excited to have Randy on our team," said Harbaugh, reverting back to his trademark cold sober scowl. "Our dealings with him, our research, we feel that the merits outweigh the risks. I'm looking forward to coaching him."
"What's going to tell the whole story is from now, the offseason, through training camp, those day-to-day interactions, how he competes on the field. That's going to determine the reality.
What your perception is right now, or what Bill Belichick's perception of him was, or a different coach is really irrelevant right now. The reality is, it's going to play out over the next six months and into the season."
For Harbaugh, the possibilities played out quite nicely on that practice field in Santa Clara in March. The quarterback, and the coach, saw it for himself. He latched onto a great player looking for a job.
“I'm not a free agent. I'm a guy straight off the couch, straight off the street," Moss said. "One thing I want the sports world to understand is the love and passion I have for football."
Who’s to say Moss will still have that fire in November? For now, he is giving the 49ers just that. He’s all about potential, with little money down and easy weekly payments. We’ll see who gets the better deal.