MINNEAPOLIS -- Randy Moss played it quite coy the other day at 49er headquarters.
The wide receiver was asked about returning here to play against the Minnesota Vikings, his old team. Moss said he was "looking forward" to his return and then cut off another question about his limited 49er playing time so far by saying he wasn't upset and then blurted: "Next question."
Maybe you were wondering what Moss meant by that. Here's what I think he meant by that:
Moss knows that Sunday here at the Metrodome, his number will be called pointedly and perhaps frequently. He will receive multiple chances to gain payback on the team that once traded him away (in 2005 to the Raiders) and later cut him (in 2010 after he was traded back to the Vikings by New England).
How do I know this? I don't. Just call it an educated hunch. Jim Harbaugh also played it coy last week when someone wondered whether the 49ers head coach and his assistants ever account for such an individual revenge-motive factor when working up their game plans.
Harbaugh said that particular topic had not been discussed at staff meetings and that "the game itself should be motivation" for every player. But when asked in a follow-up if Moss might be featured in special 49er offensive packages or strategy-thinking against Minnesota, Harbaugh said only: "We think about advancing and moving the ball."
It was classic Harbaugh misdirection. But knowing the way he works, it would be a shock if Moss does not find himself being featured or targeted more often against the Vikings. The first two 49er games saw Moss on the field for just 37 of the team's 130 offensive snaps. Even so, he has caught all five passes thrown his way for 61 yards, including a touchdown reception in the opener at Green Bay. At age 35, Moss can't do everything he once did. But he will do enough to cause some serious havoc as the weeks pass.
I found at least one person who generally buys into my theory. Dennis Green, who was the Vikings head coach when Moss was drafted by the team in 1998, was reached by telephone the other day and said he was glad to see Moss back in uniform after sitting out last season.
"He was really too young to retire," said Green, now semi-retired in San Diego. "I think he'll do well with the 49ers. Jim runs a good operation there. They're a good team. Randy has helped them already. He'll help them more as the season goes on."
This weekend, I say the help arrives early and often in Moss' first regular-season game at the Metrodome as an opposing player. Here's why:
We all know the Randy Moss story, the Randy Moss reputation. He's a mercurial personality who has created unnecessary trouble for himself at almost every stop of his career. But one of Moss' most noted qualities is that he never forgets a slight. If grudge-carrying were an Olympic event, Moss would own several gold medals.
Moss demonstrated that again last week. During his seven-minute session with the Bay Area media, he mentioned how grateful he was to Green for selecting him with the 21st pick in the first round after 20 teams had passed him up because of off-field issues as a college player. On draft day, Moss vowed to Green that other teams would pay for the insult.
And they mostly did. Moss had been a Cowboys fan as a youth and was hoping to be selected by Dallas, but the team passed him over -- and more or less admitted it was because of the incidents in Moss' past. In his first game against the Cowboys, as a rookie, Moss caught three touchdown passes. Three other times against Dallas, he's had multiple scores. His lifetime record against the Cowboys is 7-0.
Does Moss still carry a grudge here, against the Mighty Men of Thor? What do you think? The tea-leaves readers here in Minnesota noticed that in Moss' remarks last week when he was responding to an open-ended question about his Vikings memories, he spoke fondly about Green and a few other players but did not mention former receiving teammate Cris Carter or former quarterback Duante Culpepper. This seemed strange, given that Carter put in extra time as a Moss tutor and that Culpepper hooked up with Moss on numerous touchdown passes.
He certainly had lovers and haters here in Minnesota, where he made five Pro Bowl teams while accumulating a list of indiscretions. Moss once squirted a referee with a water bottle. (He was fined.) Moss once squabbled with a traffic control officer on downtown streets and in the process bumped her with his fender. (He pled guilty to a misdemeanor and did community service.) Moss ripped a caterer who had provided lunch at the Vikings' practice facility, saying the food wasn't fit for dogs. (The Vikings eventually cut him.)
Skeptics who watched his act here say that Moss will also eventually wear out his welcome with the 49ers, especially if he's allowed to become the biggest personality in the locker room. Right now, he's a pretty big one. But defensive lineman Justin Smith is probably bigger. And it's hard to believe Harbaugh would stand for too much attitude (see Edwards, Braylon).
If nothing else, we definitely have a fascinating subplot when kickoff time arrives in the Twin Cities. Alex Smith, the 49ers quarterback, said he will not specifically look for Moss when the ball is snapped. Instead, Smith will go through his normal progressions and look for Moss in the usual order of things.
"Every week, Randy is going to play a big part for us on offense," Smith said. "But you never know how it's going to play out. Until you get to the game, you don't know what's going to happen."
Fair enough. That could mean more Moss. It could mean some Moss. It could mean no Moss. I know which one is in my forecast.
Contact Mark Purdy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-920-5092.