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When going got tough, Moss ran go route out of town

The NFL had never before seen a talent like Randy Moss.

And "The Freak" will be remembered as the most talented receiver in the history of the game. That he'll retire -- assuming this sticks -- as less than the best ever is something that is largely on Moss himself.

In the end, Moss wound up shooting his way out of just about every home he knew. Remember:

» In Minnesota, a spotty 2004 was punctuated by an early departure from a regular-season loss and a ticket out of town.

» Moss' effort was questioned in 2006, his final year in Oakland.

» The mercurial behavior resurfaced in 2009 and '10 in New England, before he was traded.

» He landed back in Minnesota, where he lasted less than a month after publicly lashing out at the coach and privately lambasting the team's food service. He was subsequently shipped to the Titans.

Technically, he didn't wind up wearing out his welcome in Tennessee. But perhaps that's the saddest twist to this tale. By then, no one was really paying attention anyway, as he faded away on the bench of a 6-10 non-contender.

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He retires tied with Hines Ward for eighth all-time in catches (954), fifth all-time in receiving yards (14,858) and tied with Terrell Owens for second all-time in touchdown catches (153). Moss authored perhaps the most spectacular rookie season ever by a skill-position player (Eric Dickerson has a very strong case, too), and arguably the best year a receiver has ever posted (though Jerry Rice's 1995 was pretty damn good too).

But if you really want to know about Moss, read into those seasons.

Yes, Moss was the fear-striking linchpin of those, the two highest scoring offenses ever. One team was 16-0, the other was 15-1. Neither won it all, though Moss did catch what would've been the title-winning touchdown for New England in 2007 had Eli Manning not led his Giants back down the field for the championship on the ensuing drive.

The larger point here is that, for those teams, there wasn't a ton of adversity. And when that was the case, with Moss, there was no one better.

The flip side of that? This was a player who, at best, chafed and, at worst, disintegrated when the situation around him starting cracking.

I was covering the Patriots as a beat writer when Moss was traded to New England in the spring of 2007, and soon after, I wrote a magazine piece on him delving deep into his past. At almost every turn, folks who knew Moss would say, "He just wants to win. Put him in a winning situation, and he's fine."

And that's just it. On those near perfect teams he played on Minnesota and New England, Moss was the greatest downfield threat the game has ever seen.

But Moss is also smart enough to see when he's in a situation where he can't win, and instead of fighting through it, he too often shut it down. How is it that this transcendent talent, at the age of 27 in the final year of his first go-round in Minnesota, had just 767 yards in 13 games? How is it that, at 29 and in his last season as a Raider, he couldn't muster more than 553 yards in 13 games? How is it that, last fall at 33, his career ran head-on into a brick wall, and he could muster no more than 393 yards?

It's hard to come up with any other reason for that than this: When the going got tough, Moss ran a "9" route in the other direction.

If you don't believe it, consider what happened in New England, the one home he had with a) a completely stable environment, b) a constant chance to win at a very high level and c) one of the great quarterbacks of all-time as a teammate.

Near the end of the 2009 season, Moss was part of a quartet of tardy Patriots involved in a snowstorm-driven incident dubbed "LateGate." A fed up Bill Belichick tossed the four players from the building, and the following weekend, Moss was silenced by Carolina and called out by the Panthers defensive backs for giving up on plays and shutting it down when they got physical with him.

That week fast-tracked Moss' eventual departure from New England.

In the offseason, he made noise about his contract, fired his agent, and said he wanted to seek new opportunities. After a season-opening win against the Bengals, he turned up the volume on his feelings about 2010 being his final year in New England, and less than a month later he was traded.

The Patriots went 11-1 after they dealt him, and Brady became the first player ever to win The AP's MVP award unanimously.

Meanwhile, Moss wilted in more difficult circumstances in Minnesota and Tennessee.

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Does all this mean Moss is a bad guy? Absolutely not. Despite having a rap sheet, the receiver is liked by almost all his teammates and has an affinity for giving back, particularly to children. Yes, he had his issues when he was younger, but they also go a long way to explain why he's distrustful of so many people, and why so few get to see the better side of him.

As a football player, too, he wasn't just talented. He was also smart, understanding the nuances of his position and the game, which made him even more difficult to defend.

Is Moss one of the five best receivers ever to play? That argument absolutely could be made and would be justified.

But it is inaccurate to say he retires as the greatest. And with the knowledge that he positively could have been, that really is a shame.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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