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NEW ORLEANS – Listening to Randy Moss carry on at a Super Bowl media session, I was reminded of a famous line from the long-ago New York City sports writer Frank Graham.

Graham said this about Bob Meusel, a grumpy teammate of Babe Ruth who opened up to the media late in his career: “He's learning to say hello when it's time to say goodbye.”

Moss, hardly an engaging soul during a 14-year NFL career, has been a veritable statesman here. It had appeared as if Moss had left the sport without a proper goodbye. But last March, he was rescued from a forced one-year retirement by the Niners.

He has 28 catches for 434 yards and three TDs. That would have been a month's work for Moss earlier in his career. Still, he has been a valued contributor, a mentor to the younger players, a sharp contrast from the often surly, indifferent character of his youth.

The man's ego is still intact. But amid the Ray Lewis circus, Moss has been a refreshing departure. There's no talk of a final ride, no antler spray controversy, no invoking of the devil. Moss's only offense has been telling the world how good he is.

“Now that I'm older, I do think I'm the greatest receiver to ever do it,” Moss said.

Jerry Rice is regarded as the best receiver in NFL history, and the best player, period. Rice has the most catches, yards and TDs of any player, by a sizable margin. He was sensational in three Super Bowls.

But Moss is entitled to his opinion, and it's not the most outrageous thing in the world. He is second all-time among receivers with 156 touchdowns. He has 15,292 receiving yards, third behind Rice and Terrell Owens. Moss had 23 touchdowns for the Patriots in 2007, after he had been dismissed as past his prime.

“No disrespect to Jerry Rice, because he's arguably the greatest,” Moss said. “But I revolutionized the game at wide receiver. To go from a single safety to a Cover 2 safety, and dropping three guys deep, dropping four guys deep – and still be able to make it happen?”

It depends on your perspective. Andre Reed, who is again up for the Hall of Fame on Saturday, has argued that it was tougher for receivers in his day, when you were more likely to get punished when running over the middle.

Rice told Moss to check the stats. He conceded that Moss was the most talented, but said, “You've got to work hard.”

Moss seemed to be making that argument – that he was the most physically gifted receiver. Moss is 6-foot-4 and ran a 4.25 in the 40 as a young man. That's a remarkable combination.

When motivated, Moss was the most dangerous wideout to play. But he had issues as a young player. He didn't always play and practice hard. He had problems off the field with marijuana and women. He once pretended to moon the opposing crowd at a playoff game. He bumped a female cop with his car during a traffic stop.

Moss admits there were things he would do differently.

“I think my preparation,” he said. “I think I would have put a little more focus on my preparation. I'm not bragging on myself, but it feels weird now that my focus is where it should be on the field. It wasn't like that earlier in my career. If I would have put that much effort back in the day, it might have been different.”

Imagine what his numbers would look like if he'd really been dedicated! Rice didn't have unusual size or speed. He proved that other qualities, like will and work ethic, matter even more.

You don't score 156 touchdowns if you don't care. But Moss took some of it for granted. He says football wasn't the sole driving force in his life. But when he was out of the game last year, he realized how much it meant to him.

Moss played with the Patriots, Vikings and Titans during a tumultuous 2010 season. The Vikings waived him after he ripped his teammates and coaches. His career seemed at an end.

He enjoyed having a year to spend with his family, but he cried thinking that he might be finished with the game.

“I love this game of football so much,” said Moss, who turns 36 in two weeks. “I don't like everything that comes with it, but going out on the field between the white lines and playing football is something I've always done. I've been doing it since I was 6 years old. For me to be able to just walk away from the game, knowing that I wasn't ready, mentally or physically, it really hurt me, man.”

Moss said he discussed getting back in the NFL over dinner at his mother's house a year ago. He asked his daughter Sydney, now a star freshman basketball player at Florida, if he should get back in.

“She said, 'Dad, I don't even know why you left the game,' ” Moss said.

Jim Harbaugh gave him a chance. Moss knew the Niners had veteran leaders. They needed depth at receiver. It also didn't hurt to bring in a wideout who had been the idol of the team's emerging young wideout.

“I was just honored to be next to him,” Michael Crabtree said. “A guy like that, he's a legend. He was someone you looked up to when you were younger. When you catch a ball over someone, you tell the defensive back you got 'Moss'd,' and Moss is sitting next to you.”

Moss said he pulled Crabtree aside when he got to San Francisco and said he didn't want to intimidate him. He wanted to teach him. Greg Roman, the Niners' offensive coordinator, said Moss has been a leader, helping with game plans. Crabtree had a breakout season with 85 catches for 1,105 yard and nine TDs.

The Ravens will try to take Crabtree out of Sunday's game.

Mario Manningham, who made the biggest catch in last year's Super Bowl for the Giants, is out with a knee injury suffered two days before Christmas. Moss played 36 snaps in the NFC title game, his high since Manningham went down.

Colin Kaepernick, the Niners' young quarterback, needs all his weapons in this game. So this would be an ideal time for Moss to rediscover his youth. He doesn't need to play like the best ever.

Anything close to his own best will do.



email: jsullivan@buffnews.com