Could Randy Moss Really Make an NFL Comeback?

Moss recently mentioned that he thinks he could make a comeback in 2015 if he wanted to. Is that even possible?

Some moments are so painfully awkward that you can’t help but remember them every time you go back to that place: like when you said goodbye to your friend, and and he and you turn to walk in the same direction or when you tried to high-five someone while they tried to give you a hug.

I fortunately have a self-deprecating sense of humor to help cope with social awkwardness, but it only goes so far before your third time trying to pronounce “cup of coffee” at the café before you finally give up and walk away. You want to laugh, but you know the next time you walk in there, you’ll both remember.

Some things are best left in the past, where they belong.

This is exactly the feeling I got when I heard that Randy Moss announced that he could try to make a comeback into the NFL this year: half sick to my stomach, half amused. When you stop to think about it, though, maybe he’s not completely nutty. There hasn’t really been a precedent for a 38-year-old wide receiver to make a comeback into the league, but Moss is one player who might be able to break all precedents -- and then will moon them in the end zone.

Though this is highly unlikely to happen, how incredible would it be for Randy Moss to make a comeback?

Mama Said Knock You Out

I cannot stress enough how unlikely it is that a 38-year-old receiver -- who hasn’t played a down of professional football since 2012 -- returns to the NFL and makes a real impact, regardless of whom he’s been training with. Not only is there very little precedent for this sort of thing happening, but it’s also tough to pin down what a comeback exactly is, for the sake of finding a precedent.

One way is to look at the recent winners of the Pro Football Writer’s Association Comeback award, among whom we find we not only have players returning from injury, those cut by their teams (not to mention prison time, in the case of Michael Vick), and others just bouncing back from poor performance. Chad Pennington, in fact, won in 2006 for his return from shoulder surgery, and then again in 2008 after he resurfaced with the Miami Dolphins, having been cut from the New York Jets when they acquired Brett Favre.

Of these award winners, only Vick was actually out of the league for multiple years, and only he returned from multiple-year exile to have an immediate impact like Moss is hoping for. The possibility of a 2009 Favre-esque season is there, where he returned from a few months of retirement to lead the Minnesota Vikings to the NFC Championship game. The only problem is that players like Vick and Favre are once-in-a-lifetime talents.

Fortunately for this thought experiment, so is Moss.

This Time It’s the Last Dance

For comparison’s sake, I pulled up a list of receivers who have played in the league in their age 38 season, going back to 1920. Their age-38 seasons are shown below in terms of receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns.

Player Team Year Rec Rec Yds. Rec TD
Don Maynard SLC 1973 1 18 0
Charlie Joiner SD 1985 59 932 7
Art Monk PHI 1995 6 114 0
Jerry Rice SF 2000 75 805 7
Irving Fryar WAS 2000 41 548 5
Tim Brown TB 2004 24 200 1
Ricky Proehl IND 2006 3 30 0
Joey Galloway NE 2009 7 67 0

is how exceptional the idea of Randy Moss returning to the league is. After three years off, he would become just the ninth wide receiver in history to play at all during his age-38 season. Moreover, he’s talking about coming back into the league and playing at a high level when he returns. That sounds borderline preposterous, as this list shows that only two wide receivers in history had an age-38 season with over 50 receptions, and just three had even 500 yards.

If you’re wondering, the average age-38 season is a line of 27 receptions for 339 yards and three touchdowns. That’s a fantasy impact of just 79 points in a PPR league, and these players are no slouches on this list.

All of this said, and all of the caveats made, what if he could do it? What then?

More Than Meets The Eye

If you’ll remember, earlier this offseason I did a study on the average career arc for a wide receiver. We discovered in that study that an average receiver’s production typically peaks in their third season in the NFL, but an exceptionally talented wideout only sees his value finally fall off somewhere around Year 9 to Year 12. We know that Moss is one of the most exceptional players ever to walk an NFL gridiron, so how did the course of his career go? Where could we expect him to be in terms of production, should he return?

The way we measure production on the field in a comprehensive manner is through the use of our signature metric here at numberFire, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below shows Moss’s career in terms of not only receptions and targets but also Reception NEP (NEP gained on all receptions) and Target NEP (NEP gained on any target). What do we find about Moss’s career arc?

Year Career Year Rec Rec NEP Per-Play Target Target NEP
2000 3 77 139.44 1.09 128 91.67
2001 4 82 119.71 0.78 153 46.23
2002 5 106 119.76 0.65 185 35.10
2003 6 111 155.21 0.90 172 94.64
2004 7 49 80.16 0.93 86 50.96
2005 8 60 94.21 0.76 124 34.98
2006 9 42 52.69 0.54 97 -15.56
2007 10 98 156.95 0.99 159 101.16
2008 11 69 90.22 0.72 126 45.11
2009 12 83 114.75 0.83 138 50.66
2010 13 28 44.98 0.71 63 7.60
2012 15 28 37.27 0.75 50 12.62

You might wonder why our table doesn’t include his 1998 rookie and 1999 second years in the league, and this is simply due to the fact that our data currently only goes back to 2000. We can estimate that his rookie and second seasons might have had similar Reception NEP numbers to his 2000 and 2001, as they all produced statistics in a similar range. Quarterback play and his peers that year would have affected it, but we can assume something near the 115.00 to 140.00 Reception NEP range for each of those years.

What does this career arc indicated to us about Moss? Whereas the average wide receiver has a peak that lasts from about Year 1 through Year 4, Moss’s early-career peak actually lasted through his Year 6 season in the league -- two extra years. His next plateau of production looked stabilized from 2004 with the Minnesota Vikings to 2005 with the Oakland Raiders, but he fell off in 2006, his dreaded Year 9 fall-off point. From there, though, he had his unexpected late-career revival in 2007 to 2009, as the record-setting New England Patriots’ offense buoyed his value back into the stratosphere.

Once the Patriots stopped featuring him -- and eventually traded him -- his value fell back onto the relative course of a typical receiver’s. That said, by one’s Year 15 season -- and we can all admit he had a poor year with the San Francisco 49ers in 2012 -- a typical receiver’s Reception NEP production is less than 1.5% of their peak production. Moss was still turning out 24.0% of his peak as a 15-year wideout in the NFL, which is closer to Year 8 for an average receiver.

I’ve Been Here For Years

Does all of this mean that we think Randy Moss could make a legitimate push to come back into the NFL?

No, absolutely not. It is a fun thought experiment, and Moss was one of the few physical marvels in the game who might be able to pull it off if he did.

However, we don’t recommend you run out and pick him up in your fantasy leagues. It would take the right wide receiver situation, the right coaching staff, and the right team chances of competition for him to even consider returning.

That said, even if he did, it’s more likely he would be closer to the 2006, 2010, or 2012 versions of himself, rather than an iteration from his prime years. To put it in historical terms, the odds are better he'd be Tim Brown than Jerry Rice.