They had a 3-1 record and should have been gaining momentum, but their veteran wide receiver, Randy Moss, wasn't happy. Moss had blown up at offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien during halftime of that Dolphins game, the final act of insubordination that New England would tolerate. The Patriots traded Moss to Minnesota a couple days later.
"Moss as a Patriot in 2010 basically talked his way out of town, complaining about his lack of a long-term contract in a press conference, battling with offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien at halftime of his final game with New England, in Week 4 of that season, and reportedly taxing the patience of quarterback Tom Brady with his constant need for game plan targeting and star-treatment coddling," Don Banks wrote for Sports Illustrated. "Brady was growing weary of having to worry about keeping Moss' mood ring a happy color, and [Bill] Belichick responded by removing that concern from his QB's daily checklist."
The Patriots finished that 2010 season with a 14-2 record.
Meanwhile, in Arizona, the 2010 the Cardinals were 2-2 on their way to a brutal 5-11 season featuring ragged play from no-name quarterbacks. But their leading receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, handled himself so professionally that the team felt great about rewarding him with one of the most lucrative contracts in NFL history.
While the Patriots increasingly worried about Moss' potential negative impact on Brady and the example he was setting for younger players, the Cardinals took comfort in the fact that Fitzgerald handled himself impeccably, in good times and bad.
The disparate picture is sharply relevant to the NFC West now that Moss has signed with the San Francisco 49ers.
The 49ers, like the Cardinals, used a 2012 first-round draft choice for a wide receiver. But Arizona appears in better position to provide the mentoring that can help a young player learn what it takes to become a professional.
Michael Floyd, chosen 13th overall by Arizona, already has strong ties to Fitzgerald. The two are from Minnesota. They share a trainer. They have spent time together. Fitzgerald, who has welcomed young Cardinals players into his home, voiced support for Floyd even before the draft, indicating he'd be happy if the team selected the Notre Dame receiver. Floyd could not have a better mentor.
The 49ers' first-round receiver, A.J. Jenkins, walks into a different situation. Moss might be terrific for him, or he might pursue his own agenda as time passes. The halftime blowup against the Dolphins comes to mind.
"It highlighted a shift in which Moss had transitioned from a team-first player in 2007 to someone more interested in his own production," Mike Reiss wrote for ESPNBoston.com. "It is also my belief that quarterback Tom Brady became increasingly drained with keeping Moss on board, to the point that it became a concern of the coaching staff."
If Moss became a threat to Brady, what could he become to a less-established quarterback such as Alex Smith? Michael Crabtree has already raised concerns about his role. If Smith cannot keep Crabtree happy, how can he keep Moss happy?
The 49ers have little to lose by giving Moss a chance. They can always release him if Moss becomes a burden. From that standpoint, the signing made sense.
It's also worth noting that Jenkins comes to the 49ers without the off-field concerns that Floyd carries to the Cardinals. There have also been some vague indications Moss might have been going through some personal trials in 2010, in which case his mindset might be healthier at this time.
This is a conversation I think we'll be having through the offseason and into the season. Your thoughts?