For Randy Moss, playing football is the easy part.
It's living life that's the hard part.
As a player, the Minnesota Vikings rookie wide receiver is already being compared to Michael Jordan and Barry Sanders.
"My brother [Butch] played pro basketball, so I was around when guys like Magic and Bird were coming in," Cris Carter, the Vikings wide receiver who has taken Moss under his wing, said at the start of the season. "Do you understand that this kid could be Michael Jordan? That we're on the ground floor of something huge?"
Now that Moss has played 13 games, there are more comparisons to Jordan.
Quarterback Randall Cunningham, who throws those rainbow passes that Moss seems to climb into the sky to grab, said, "I bet he's got the hand-eye coordination that Michael Jordan has. I wouldn't doubt that at all."
Brian Billick, the Vikings' offensive coordinator, calls him "the Barry Sanders X-Factor.
"With Barry, you might have eight guys swarming around him and he still finds a way to score," Billick said. "I don't want to put Randy in Barry's class yet; he needs to do it longer. But he has that ability to make that kind of play at any time."
Moss is putting up Sanders-like numbers on the field.
He's the top NFC non-kicker in scoring with 86 points and leads the NFL in touchdown receptions (14) and receiving yards (1,120). His 14 touchdown receptions broke the rookie record of 13 set by Billy Howton of Green Bay in 1952 and equaled by San Diego's John Jefferson in 1979.
He's the major reason the Vikings, who have won just one playoff game in the Dennis Green era, will bring an NFC-best 12-1 record into Camden Yards on Sunday against the Ravens.
Now that Moss has shown he could make the leap from Marshall University to the NFL, the only question left is whether he can deal with life off the field.
Moss dropped to the Vikings with the 21st pick in the draft last April because of questions about his personal life.
Michael Irvin of the Dallas Cowboys even apologized after the club didn't take him. With all the off-the-field problems Irvin has gone through, the Cowboys simply couldn't take the risk.
A total of 19 teams -- Cincinnati did it twice -- passed on Moss.
Moss was involved in three incidents that cost him scholarships at Notre Dame and Florida State and were red flags for NFL
He pleaded guilty to two counts of battery for attacking a student in high school, then violated his probation from that incident by testing positive for marijuana and served a two-month jail term. When he was a freshman at Marshall, a domestic battery charge was filed against him but later was dropped.
The scouts already were nervous, and it didn't help that he skipped the NFL scouting combine. He said it was because of dental surgery. Since players are drug-tested at the combine, there was some skepticism about that excuse.
After Lawrence Phillips flamed out despite being selected with the sixth pick in the draft by St. Louis in 1996, NFL teams did what seemed to be the prudent thing and passed on Moss until Minnesota grabbed him.
The move made sense for the the Vikings because Green was a lame-duck coach and the team was up for sale. If Green were fired by the new owner and Moss self-destructed, he wouldn't be Green's problem.
xTC But Green got a three-year extension from the new owner, Red McCombs, and Moss has given the coach an explosive dimension to his offense. Green now insists that he would have taken Moss if he had the first pick in the draft.
Moss also showed a dedication to his craft when he trained in the off-season with Carter, who also overcame off-the-field problems early in his career.
But just when he was starting to erase the doubts, Moss blew off print reporters after a spectacular game against the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day.
Green is quick to come to Moss' defense, saying he already had done two TV interviews, was mobbed by a group of reporters at his locker and wanted to join his family. Green noted that Moss has talked to reporters since.
Cunningham, 35, said Moss' real problem is youth.
"He's 21 years old. I remember when I was a young player and I had won a Bert Bell MVP award. I didn't show up for the press conference. I did it over the phone. I didn't know any better. You learn from the mistakes you make."
Carter said, "If he continues on the path he's on now, his past will be behind him before he realizes it. But he has to realize his past is not a myth, not something the media created. I think if he wants people to stop asking him about it, then he needs to continue to make good decisions."
It also will help if he keeps making big plays. And he should be able to pad his statistics Sunday against the Ravens' shaky secondary.
Cunningham has become such a diplomat that he insisted yesterday that the Vikings may have trouble throwing deep against veteran Rod Woodson and Duane Starks, the rookie who has been benched in the second half the past two weeks.
"I probably won't do that in this game [throw those rainbows to Moss]," Cunningham said. "With Rod Woodson over there and that other young guy [Starks], you've got to be careful. I give credit when guys are doing their job. I don't mess with them."
Vikings at a glance
Last game: Beat Chicago Bears, 48-22, Sunday night.
Who's hot: Wide receiver Randy Moss has an NFL-best 14 touchdown catches and is a lock for Rookie of the Year, averaging 130 receiving yards over the past four weeks. Randall Cunningham's 349-yard, four-touchdown performance Sunday boosted his NFL-high quarterback rating to 111.8.
Who's not: The sidelined Vikings. Receiver Cris Carter, who missed all but the opening moments of last Sunday's game because of a calf injury he aggravated during warm-ups, is questionable. Running back Robert Smith missed the Chicago game with a sprained knee and will be back Dec. 10 at the earliest. Receiver Jake Reed is recuperating from back surgery and is hoping to return for the playoffs.
Pub Date: 12/10/98