Former Redskins great lit fire under Moss

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss was in the midst of the worst season of his career in 2007. Injuries to his groin and heel led to an awful start by his standards. And the shooting death of his close friend and teammate Sean Taylor on Nov. 27 would change his life forever.

After the 2004 season, the Redskins traded receiver Laveranues Coles for Moss, and he rewarded them with a monster season in which he caught 84 passes for 1,483 yards and nine touchdowns. The two touchdowns he had against the Cowboys on "Monday Night Football" in Week 2 of the 2005 season helped put Moss on the map as one of the most dangerous receivers in the league.

But as the Redskins dealt with a tragedy that no team could ever prepare for, Moss admits that he'd lost the swagger that he gained as a playmaker at the University of Miami.

"I was just going through some stuff mentally," he said via phone Saturday as the Redskins prepared to play the Steelers on Monday night. (He's listed as questionable with a hamstring injury, but expects to play.) "I'd been nicked up, and I was worrying too much about how I was being used in the offense. And then Sean's death was devastating."

It took until Week 11 (against the Cowboys) for Moss to have his first 100-yard game and touchdown catch. The Redskins dropped their fourth consecutive game, against Buffalo on Dec. 2. In trying to somehow rally his players, Joe Gibbs invited one of his favorite guest speakers to practice: Gary Clark. The 5-foot-9 wide receiver had been the heart and soul of Gibbs' teams from 1985-92, and he helped lead the team to two world titles. And when Clark showed up to practice last December, he delivered a fiery message.

After singling out several players, Clark finished his talk by basically calling out Moss. With Moss kneeling just a few steps away, Clark told him, "[Your teammates] know what you can do. You know what you can do. So just do it!"

The speech had a dramatic effect on Moss. He said Clark's emotional words were exactly what he needed to hear.

"That woke me up," he said. "I took it as a blessing. I wasn't producing, and he basically told me to go catch the ball."

In the final three games of the season, Moss had a combined 15 catches for 261 yards and two touchdowns. Offensive tackle Chris Samuels walked up to Moss after the regular season and said, "Do you realize you've been on fire since Gary Clark came to practice?"

"I'm not sure I ever told Gary how much his talk meant to me," Moss said. "Sometimes there are things you're supposed to hear, and he was the messenger."

Moss added another touchdown in the playoff loss to the Seahawks and he's carried over his confidence into the 2008 season. Heading into Monday's game against the Steelers, Moss is ranked fifth in the league with 658 receiving yards and tied for second in touchdowns with five. In last Sunday's 25-17 road win against the Lions, he had a 50-yard touchdown catch and an 80-yard punt return for a touchdown.

Antwaan Randle El normally returns punts, but Moss said that coach Jim Zorn walked up to him in the fourth quarter and said, "You got a punt return in ya?"

Moss said yes, and 80 yards later the Redskins were putting the finishing touches on the Lions. Gibbs didn't want to risk losing Moss to injury, so he held him off the punt return unit. But before this season, the receiver said he felt compelled to let Zorn know he could be a threat in the return game.

Like any wide receiver, Moss wouldn't mind seeing 10-15 balls thrown his way each week. But unlike a certain receiver in the NFC East, Moss keeps his thoughts to himself.

"I don't care who the coach is," Moss said. "When you open your mouth, what if it comes your way the following week and you're not ready? I'd rather have a coach saying, 'Well, it wasn't his day today, but we're still going to go to him.'"

Moss, who actually went to Miami on a track scholarship, said he wanted to transfer from Carol City (Miami) High School to Miramar after his sophomore season because he finished with three catches. His father wouldn't let him switch schools because he wanted him to learn about perseverance.

"I had all these bad thoughts in my head because everyone was telling me to play in a passing offense," Moss said. "But you can't run from things."

At a time when we read about blue-chips basically going on high school recruiting visits, it's refreshing to hear from a guy like Moss. He's relatively shy
, but he became animated when I asked about the arrival of Zorn. He respects the first-time head coach because "he didn't come in here with a bunch of rah-rah stuff. He has a formula for how our offense should run, and so far, it seems like a pretty good one."

Moss has made his reputation as a deep threat, but Zorn has emphasized getting him the ball on a variety of screens and crossing patterns. And you might be surprised to hear the former Big East 60-meter champion say that he's not particularly fond of the deep ball.

"This offense allows us to put players in good situations," he said. "I don't like to go deep all the time. In [former offensive coordinator] Al Saunders' offense, most of the routes were deeper. I definitely like what we're doing."

And I'm pretty sure Redskins fans would agree.