The Purple Point Machine

With an easy schedule and the league's most exciting rookie added to an already potent offense, this year's Vikings need to deliver on suddenly high expectations

As for Moss, no first-year player since--gulp--Tony Mandarich has generated so much national hype in a preseason, and naturally Vikings fans can't help but wonder if the Moss they've seen so far is too good to be true and will somehow wind up a Mandarich-sized bust. Twenty other clubs had their doubts about him, primarily because of so-called character issues, a dicey evaluation indeed when applied within the world of pro football. There's no intent here to minimize Moss's already well-publicized problems--a battery conviction that led to a month of jail time and, while he was on probation for that offense, a positive test for marijuana. Where his talent is concerned, however, no question marks exist. He's a rookie, so he'll experience some on-the-field lessons as all rookies do, and he won't be the second coming of Jerry Rice immediately. But as anyone who saw him light up the Chargers for four catches, 59 yards, two touchdowns, and one Lambeau-style leap can attest, if Moss avoids injuries and, er, trouble, he's as can't-miss a prospect as you'll find in the league this year.

Billick simply shakes his head when assessing Moss's training camp. "Constantly in practice, Randy will do something, and I'll be like, 'No, no, you've got to--OK, that'll work.' 'No, no, Randy, you can't go into that--OK, maybe you can do it that way,'" Billick says. "He's a phenomenal athlete, with the speed, size, and jump ratio that I've not seen in the 10 years I've been in the NFL."

If there's any reason to mitigate the optimism surrounding Moss's skills, it might be that he still has to prove he can stand up to the punishment and intimidation tactics that are sure to come his way. But even as a rookie, the 6-foot-4-inch, 197-pound Moss won't line up against many cornerbacks who are as big as he is. And if this exhibition season accomplished anything for the Vikings, it did allow Moss to test himself against exactly the kind of defensive backs that on paper should give him fits--Carolina's Doug Evans and Kansas City's trio of Dale Carter, James Hasty, and Mark McMillian, some of the best bump-and-run, physical corners in the league.

At Carolina, Evans did effectively use his hands and body to screen Moss from the ball on one deep sideline pattern, but on another, there was Moss, cleanly blowing by Evans, yet not quite able to haul in a slightly overthrown pass from Johnson. Against the Chiefs, Moss inflicted most of his damage on the second unit. Carter, however, did hand him golden opportunities to make an ass out of himself for the first time as an NFL player, invitations Moss coolly declined. The Pro Bowl corner woofed and poked mercilessly at Moss the entire time they were on the field together--and even after Carter had left the game, he ran off the visitors' sideline in the third quarter to once more get in the rookie's face after Moss drew a 27-yard pass-interference call against the Chiefs. But Moss, delivering only a few quiet words in Carter's direction, avoided the pushing and/or shouting matches the accomplished seventh-year veteran was undoubtedly trying to goad him into. So far, so good.

For his part, Moss has nothing but nice things to say about Carter and Hasty, adding that thus far they're the most physical cornerbacks he's had to face. "They showed me a lot of things to expect from other corners. They didn't really try to get in me too hard, they just wanted me to get the feel of how things are going to be. I learned from them, and I just give them a lot of credit."

One of the biggest questions facing the Vikings is how much credit to give their own defensive backs. Sunday's opener should be revealing in that the Buccaneers acknowledge they must improve their passing game to make it to the Super Bowl, while the Vikings, in that nowhere-to-go-but-up spirit, promise a better pass defense than the one that finished dead last in the NFC last season. Tampa Bay drafted University of Florida wideout Jacquez Green and signed free-agent receiver Bert Emanuel, who caught 65 passes for nearly a thousand yards with Atlanta in '97. The Vikes, meanwhile, showed free-agent cornerback Dewayne Washington the door, traded a third-round 1999 draft choice to the Patriots for restricted free-agent cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock, and crossed their fingers.

Advantage: Buccaneers, even with the underwhelming Trent Dilfer at quarterback. Hitchcock, believe it or not, might be a notch below Washington. The fourth-year veteran has been toasted early and often in preseason action--Carolina's Rae Carruth turned him around in the end zone for a three-yard touchdown, and later the Panthers' Raghib Ismail streaked past him down the middle for a 33-yard score. Also, Hitchcock played softly enough to practically concede square-out completions to Kansas City's Andre Rison and New England reserve Vincent Brisby. The very fact that the Patriots made Hitchcock available should've raised a red flag--teams just don't trade decent cover corners for third-round picks, they're too hard to come by.

Unfortunately, no backup Vikings cornerback looks even close to wrestling away Hitchcock's starting job. Uninterested veteran Larry Brown got cut last weekend, and during the second half against San Diego, Ramos McDonald, Tony Darden, and Antonio Banks (since waived) took turns getting schooled on patterns short and long by reserve wideouts Webster Slaughter and Tyrone Brown, who teamed up with deservedly obscure backup quarterbacks Craig Whelihan and Casey Weldon. "Some veteran guys did some things against our very young second group on defense," was Dennis Green's charitable description of the carnage. "They've still got a great deal to learn and a lot of plays to make." McDonald exhibits the most potential, but like almost all rookie corners, he must develop a much better sense for when to turn his back to the receiver and look for the ball.

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