The 35-year-old Moss signed a one-year deal Monday, something that will no doubt excite Niners fans who believe their team was one deep-threat receiver away from a Super Bowl title last season. Now, I have to admit, I already didn't -- and don't -- think the 49ers are a championship-caliber team. This will earn me hate mail from the Bay Area, but I think the team takes a step back next season, as their schedule gets more difficult and they sneak up on nobody. Their defensive secondary (the corners, mostly) scare me, and I don't think you win championships these days with an offense that's designed to hang on for dear life.
And that's where Alex Smith comes in. Assuming he winds up re-signing with the 49ers and continues as their starting quarterback, he's my primary reason not to be overly excited either about the team's on-field fortunes in '12 or Moss' fantasy possibilities.
It's probably an oversimplification to say that Smith doesn't have an elite throwing arm, and Moss needs someone with an elite throwing arm to get him the ball down the field or else he's useless. Smith doesn't have a tiny arm, either. I simply don't believe that Jim Harbaugh has the sustained will to take the reins off Smith; even if he does, I don't believe Smith has the pocket awareness and throwing confidence to take advantage. When the rubber met the road in the NFC title game this past season, Smith looked shaken by the New York Giants' pass rush, running away from phantom would-be sackers and blowing most throws down the field. According to Stats LLC, for the regular season, Smith went 13-for-39 on throws that traveled 20-plus yards in the air. For comparison's sake, Eli Manning went 35-for-96. Rookie Cam Newton went 30-for-84. I guess you can argue that the reason Smith didn't try going downfield was a lack of speed at wideout. Maybe. But I've yet to be convinced Smith has the overall tools necessary to make difficult deep throws.
And all this is to say nothing about Moss himself. When last we saw him, he was bouncing himself off two separate rosters (those of the Patriots and Minnesota Vikings) in '10 with his bad behavior. Yes, he's capable of acting like a good teammate when everything's going swell. But what happens when the passes don't come his way, when he's mostly a deep-threat decoy? What happens when Smith's throws don't hit him in stride, and he can't (or refuses to) adjust his route, resulting in interceptions? What happens if the Niners start slow and people begin questioning whether Moss really was the answer at receiver? My guess is nothing good happens.
If the 49ers view Moss as their only solution for what ails them out wide, I think they're kidding themselves. If they wind up adding another, younger, more versatile receiver (you know, one who actually runs crossing patterns) to play alongside Moss and Michael Crabtree, that makes more sense to me. But either way, I don't see a return to big-time fantasy glory for Randy Moss. I don't have him anywhere near my top 100 overall fantasy players for '12, and I'm skeptical that as things stand at the moment, I'll have him inside my top 50 wideouts. In my opinion, he'll be late-round flier material.