"When you get off to a bad start as a quarterback in the National Football League, there's two things, of course, you can do: You can get really conservative and worry about making a mistake, or you go out there and you toughen up and be aggressive and tell your guys, 'I might throw six today. Just be ready.'"
-- Phil Simms, CBS
Analysts predictably were all over Randy Moss after the Patriots' season-ending loss to the Ravens on Sunday, a game in which one of the best big-play wide receivers in the NFL did next to nothing in an offense that already was missing its most prolific wide receiver.
Some of the blame, though, has to fall on the quarterback throwing him the ball. If the Patriots are to remain an elite team going forward, Tom Brady simply has to find a way to get the ball to Moss even if opposing teams are scheming to stop him.
Moss can't just be a decoy receiver. Moss caught more passes for 40 yards or more than any receivers in the NFL other than DeSean Jackson, Andre Johnson and Miles Austin, but he only seemed to be able to go deep against teams without elite safeties.
If Brady isn't going to throw to Moss down the field, he isn't going to throw to anyone down the field -- and he certainly didn't on Sunday.
After a slow start to the season in which he averaged fewer than 10 yards per completion in each of his first two games, Brady averaged 10 or more yards per completion in each of the Patriots' final 14 games, including a loss at Miami in which Brady hit Moss deep downfield in the first quarter and averaged 18.5 yards per completion.
On Sunday against Ed Reed the Ravens, Brady averaged 6.7 yards per completion -- by far his lowest number of the season.
It wasn't a matter of not throwing the ball. It was a matter of not throwing the ball anywhere near Reed -- and that's where his connection with Moss starts to get more than a little scrutiny.
Brady threw the ball in the area of Reed three times in the first quarter, the third being the pass for Sam Aiken that Dominique Foxworth broke up and Reed plucked out of the air, the second of the three interceptions Brady threw on Sunday.
From that point on, he just did not throw at Reed.
Only once the rest of the way -- a total of 39 pass attempts if you include plays nullified in some way by penalty -- did Brady throw the ball even close to the Ravens' ball-hawking safety. Moss caught just five passes in the game, but the only one that could be considered a deep ball came in the final two minutes when Reed was content to sit back in a prevent defense and allow Moss to operate underneath him.
Other than that? Here's what the Brady-to-Moss connection produced:
* In the second quarter, Moss had breathing room in the back of the end zone with Reed four or five yards away from him, but Brady threw the ball away rather than take the chance;
* In the third quarter, Moss curled back toward the sidelines, well in front of Reed, and caught a pass at the first-down marker for 14 yards;
* Later in the third quarter, Moss caught short, quick passes for six yards, five yards and four yards, respectively.
That's it. Statisticians said Brady threw the ball in the direction of Moss seven times on Sunday, but two of those attempts were throw-aways either at Moss' feet or well over his head. In terms of passes with actual intention, Sam Aiken and Sammy Morris were targeted just as much as Moss was.
Even on Reed's interception, Brady was throwing the ball to Aiken. Moss just happened to be on the same side of field as Aiken, giving Reed an opportunity to get over quickly and snatch the deflected pass out of the air.
(Just to be clear: Aiken had never had more than 11 receptions in an entire season before injuries and ineffectiveness forced him into an expanded role with the Patriots this year. Only once before this season had Aiken ever caught more than two passes in an NFL game.)
This isn't a "Good pitching always beats good hitting" situation. Hall of Fame-caliber wide receivers ought to be able to compete with Hall of Fame-caliber safeties. San Diego's Vincent Jackson certainly found his share of seams against Reed when the Chargers met the Ravens in Week 2.
That means Moss has to find ways to get open against safeties like Reed -- but that also means Brady has to trust Moss to come away with the ball even when he's going up against Reed.