As he should, Jim Harbaugh has received much credit over the past few weeks for his gamble on Colin Kaepernick.
Though the 49ers had a solid, winning quarterback in Alex Smith, Harbaugh rolled the dice in November and switched to the unproven Kaepernick, who’s led San Francisco to two playoff victories and a berth in the Super Bowl this Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens.
But months before gambling on Kaepernick, Harbaugh took another risk that also has paid off.
He and General Manager Trent Baalke signed wide receiver Randy Moss in March.
Moss, who sat out the 2011 season and had worn out his welcome at many stops around the NFL, seemed a huge risk when he was signed.
Many believed that Moss’ personality and penchant for speaking up would ruin a team chemistry that Harbaugh had worked hard to create since taking over the team.
Yet there’s no doubt the Moss Experiment has been as successful as the decision to go with Kaepernick.
Though Moss didn’t put up the numbers he did in his prime, he has come up big in several games – including the NFC Championship Game against the Falcons, when he had three key receptions for 46 yards – and has been a positive influence off the field for many players.
His teammates, in fact, credit him with being a big influence on wideout Michael Crabtree, who had his best season.
“A lot has been made about Randy being a certain way, but he’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever had – that any of us has ever had,” 49ers injured wide receiver Kyle Williams told the New York Times last week. “The emergence of Michael Crabtree isn’t by accident. He’s learned a lot from Randy.”
Harbaugh asked Moss when he was signed last spring to be a team leader, and that’s exactly what he has done. He pushed his teammates in training camp and in separate training sessions and has been among the first to report for every meeting. On the field, his downfield blocking has been praised by the coaching staff for many of the team's biggest plays.
Players saw how hard Moss worked, and listened to his advice.
“He’s not the only guy to ever give advice in the locker room, but to be able to have Randy Moss do it is something else,” Williams told the Times. “It’s Randy Moss. Everybody’s going to stop and pay attention because of that. And he’s not wrong, ever.”
This season, Moss had just 28 catches in the regular season for 434 yards and three TDs. But his per-catch average of 15.5 yards was strong, and Moss knew he was playing a role, behind Crabtree, Mario Manningham and tight end Vernon Davis.
When he signed with the 49ers, he wanted a chance to play again, help younger players develop and finally win a Super Bowl ring.
After signing with San Francisco in March, Moss said he was happy with the way the 49ers approached him, and he believed he was getting a fresh start.
“The thing about me being here is they’ve done their research on me,” he told reporters. “When it comes to the worldwide sports media, I’ve gotten a bad rap. They’ve done their homework on me or they wouldn’t have brought me in here.”
As sold as Harbaugh was on Moss, the same was true of the veteran wide receiver.
“Harbaugh is a young, enthusiastic coach,” Moss said in March. “I love enthusiasm. A lot of good things stood out to me.”
Now that the Niners are in New Orleans, Moss’ teammates and Harbaugh are still looking at him as a leader and one of the reasons this team has won the NFC title.
Harbaugh says he wants Moss to return for the 2013 season, and Moss, 36, had indicated he wants to re-sign.
Harbaugh also had Moss talk to the team this week about its mission in New Orleans. According to his teammates, Moss’ message was simple: Yes, this will be a fun week in a fun city. But don’t forget why we’re here.
“Randy said it, we’re here on business,” guard Alex Boone told Tim Kawakami of the Bay Area News Group. “We’re not here to party, we’re not here to have fun. We’re here to work and when you’re done, you can do whatever you want.
“To have a guy like him on this team is huge – and the things he said were absolutely right. We’re out here for business. We’re not here to play. We’re not here to go out. We’re here to work, let’s work.”
Aside from Moss’ leadership, he also could play a big role in Sunday’s game, as he did in the NFC Championship Game. He remains a deep threat, and has five receptions for 71 yards in two playoff wins.
In hindsight, the Moss gamble has been no gamble at all.
Said Harbaugh, to USA Today earlier this month: “For official publication, I, for one, definitely want Randy to come back. Hope he feels the same way.”