What a Moss-Brady reunion might mean

After the New England Patriots successfully moved on without him last season, it was easy to forget about Randy Moss.

Then, you find out that he might be interested in returning to New England. Suddenly, it's hard not to speculate: What if?

What if Moss is motivated? What if Tom Brady gets another weapon?

That's what happens with a talent like Moss.

All it took was a brief mention in the West Virginia MetroNews, citing an anonymous source. Moss regretted leaving, and would most likely only come out of retirement to play for the Patriots.

On Tuesday, three days after the report was first posted, Brady was asked if he'd be surprised to be throwing passes to Moss again in the future.

"Would it surprise me? You never know in the NFL," he said on Boston sports radio WEEI during his weekly call-in.

"I can't get into [Moss's] brain at all," Brady added. "I love the guy. He's a great friend of mine. If he ever did have the opportunity to come back, I'd certainly welcome it with open arms."

There's been no indication of interest from the Patriots, and there very well could be none. At this point it's all just speculation, something to talk about before the action starts.

But again, what if?

Moss was the most talented wide receiver to wear a Patriots (or perhaps any) uniform. Even after the tumultuous and abrupt end to his run in Foxborough, it's hard not to think about the impact.

The potential for distraction can't be ignored. As he did with Corey Dillon in 2004 and three years later with Moss, Bill Belichick will take on baggage when accompanied by significant talent. Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth are the latest gambles, seemingly buying into the team concept.

It's one thing to provide a fresh start to another team's malcontent. But what if it's your own distraction? Less than a year ago, Moss wore out his welcome in New England and forced his way out of town. After the trade to the Minnesota Vikings, Belichick wished him the best "for the remainder of his Hall of Fame career."

Even before last season ended, Moss began planting the seeds for a potential return. By March, he praised Brady, Belichick and "everything that the New England Patriots stand for." Perhaps Moss needed to leave New England in order to appreciate what he had.

With that (rather large) team-chemistry uncertainty aside, what could Moss mean to the Patriots on the field?

That starts with trying to figure out what Moss has left in the tank. Last year was a lost season for Moss, who finished with a career-low 28 receptions split between three teams. Does that mean his skills have eroded? Perhaps, but Moss had only 42 receptions in 2006, his final year with the Raiders.

Part of the appeal lies in the idea that Moss again has something to prove, as he did upon arriving in New England in 2007.

It seems like much longer ago, but it was just 2009 when Moss had 83 receptions and over 1,200 yards.

Yet, Moss is now 34, already beyond the age where speed and skill decline. Only two wide receivers have caught 10 or more touchdown passes in a season at 34 or older. Marvin Harrison was 34 when he caught 12 in 2006, his last productive season. In 2008, a 35-year-old Terrell Owens hauled in 10 for the Cowboys.

The model (or perhaps exception) among aging receivers was Jerry Rice, who caught 49 touchdowns after turning 34. No one else has as many as 30, though others like Owens (25), Irving Fryar (25) and Cris Carter (20) had 20 or more. The future may not be long for a 34-year-old receiver. But could Moss help the Patriots in 2011?

It's easy to say no, given that the Patriots went 11-1 without Moss last season. Though no deep threat emerged in his stead, Brady still averaged more yards per attempt (8.08) than he did with Moss in the fold (7.47).

Moss failed to catch more than five passes or crack 80 yards receiving in his final 12 games with the Patriots. Consider, too, that in their last 20 games sharing the field, 10 of Brady's 15 interceptions were targeting Moss.

Without him, Brady more effectively spread the wealth, and was less error prone as a result. In the final 12 games of the season, Brady threw 27 touchdowns to just two interceptions.

The Patriots' offense evolved without that big-play threat, relying heavily on short routes, a pair of rookie tight ends and the emergence of running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

Averaging 32.4 points per game, the Patriots were the highest-scoring offense in the league. This offseason, without any significant offensive departures, Chad Ochocinco was brought into the fold. The prolific offense has already added a dynamic receiver. So would Moss even be needed?

Ironically, the case for Moss has already been made most succinctly by Ochocinco.

On Tuesday, ESPN's SportsNation tweeted the following fill-in-the-blank: "Randy Moss returning to the Pats would mean ___ for @Ochocinco."

His reply? "Single coverage."

Indeed, Moss (or at least the Moss of old) draws defenders and spreads the field. Ochocinco, for all of his merits, is not a deep threat.

In 2007, Brady was 26 of 60 with 13 touchdowns on passes of 21-plus air yards. Thirteen of those receptions were by Moss, who helped open up the field for Donte Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney.

In 2009, Brady actually attempted more 21-plus-yard passes (64), but completed only 15 on a team that relied on Sam Aiken as a third wide receiver.

Without Moss last season, the deep ball all but disappeared from Brady's repertoire. The Patriots attempted only 36 passes over 21 yards, fewest in the NFL. Of those, Brady completed only 13, his fewest in a full season since 2002. Those 13 receptions equal Moss' total alone from 2007. Of the five resulting touchdowns last season, Moss actually caught two before his release.

So did the Patriots succeed in 2010 without a deep threat or in spite of it?

Here, it may be worth looking back at the biggest failure of the season. The Patriots' inability to throw downfield was on full display in the postseason loss to the New York Jets. Those short crossing routes were taken away by a physical defense, and the Patriots had no one to go deep and stretch the field. Trailing for nearly the entire game, Brady needed to gamble. He attempted four throws of more than 20 yards. All fell incomplete.

Could Moss again be that downfield threat? After last season, the Patriots may be unwilling to take that chance. But with all of the existing receiving weapons for whom Moss could spread the field, it's hard not to wonder: What if?

Jeremy Lundblad is a senior researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.