Randy Moss is back.
What form he takes won’t be determined for some time.
Will he be the receiver who dazzled often with the Patriots from 2007-09?
Or will he be the enigma that three teams — New England, Minnesota, and Tennessee — couldn’t wait to get rid of during a tumultuous 2010 season?
Moss made his 49ers debut Friday night, fittingly against the team that started it all, the Vikings. He played four snaps and didn’t have any action come his way.
Maybe the 49ers and coach Jim Harbaugh are taking a cue from the Patriots during Moss’s first preseason after they acquired him in a trade from Oakland.
Moss didn’t play a snap of exhibition football in ’07, but he was out there in Week 1 against the Jets. Moss merely had 183 yards and a touchdown on nine receptions as the Patriots thrashed the Jets, 38-14.
Don’t expect that kind of impact from Moss with the 49ers. He may be on the outside opposite Michael Crabtree on opening day, but make no mistake: Harbaugh’s 49ers will continue to be a conservative, defense-first team. Not surprising, since quarterback Alex Smith is no Tom Brady, nor Peyton Manning, whom the 49ers worked out before he signed with the Broncos.
That doesn’t mean Moss hasn’t already made an impression on the 49ers. Harbaugh said he always catches defensive players looking over at the offensive practice field during camp.
‘‘It’s neat to watch our players watch a guy like Randy, that people watched growing up,’’ Harbaugh said.
After his well-traveled 2010 season, Moss decided to “retire” before the 2011 season when he wasn’t able to land a contract in a preferred destination, including New England. Moss, who apparently hasn’t spoken to the media since July 27, said at the start of camp that he’s matured.
‘‘Well, when I first came into this league, it was more of I didn’t really understand really everything that goes on with the NFL,’’ Moss said. ‘‘And now that I’m matured physically and mentally, my philosophy is I do not like what the NFL does for me, I want to know what I can do to make the NFL better. If that’s teaching the young guys and showing guys my professionalism and bringing leadership on and off the field, that’s what I’ll do. If we have that mind-set, it’ll make it a better league.”
Of course, not berating caterers, which was reportedly the final straw in his second stint with the Vikings, would probably be a good start for Moss to make the league better.
Outside of that, Moss could be a good ambassador during what could be another record-breaking season for him, along with helping the 49ers return to the Super Bowl.
Moss, 35, has several key milestones in reach this season.
He needs one touchdown reception to take sole possession of second place on the all-time list at 154 behind Jerry Rice’s 197.
An 11th 1,000-yard season would put him alone in second behind Rice (14).
Six touchdowns would allow Moss to join Rice (208), Emmitt Smith (175), and LaDainian Tomlinson (162) as the only players to score 160.
With 14,858 receiving yards, Moss can easily pass Tim Brown (14,934) and Isaac Bruce (15,208) for third place all time.
And Moss needs 46 receptions to become the ninth player to reach 1,000.
“I’m really not an individual. I’ve never really been an individual,” Moss said. “Through the course of my career, I guess there’s a few records I’ve broken. I’m not about breaking records. They come and go.
“I just love the game of football. I love being in the locker room. I love being around the guys. These guys are young and very enthusiastic. I don’t really feel my age being around these guys. They love to have fun.
“Coach Harbaugh is a player’s coach. I watched Coach Harbaugh growing up. When I first came into the league, he was on his way out. Coach Harbaugh, he came in fired up from Day 1.
“We like to have fun around here. I don’t feel my age. I love to have fun and I feel good.”
What kind of an impact will Moss have in the regular season? Reports from 49ers camp have been mixed. He hasn’t had a ton of balls thrown his way, but when he does, Moss has gotten the better of Carlos Rogers, who is one of the better corners in the league. And Moss is battling tight end Vernon Davis for best red-zone threat.
Of course, the 49ers also have some solid young targets as well: Mario Manningham, Michael Crabtree, Ted Ginn Jr., Kyle Williams, and first-round pick A.J. Jenkins of Illinois.
If the reaction from members of the 49ers defense, such as linemen Ray McDonald and JustinSmith, is any indication, as Harbaugh related the other day, Moss may indeed be back for real.
‘‘Ray says, ‘I don’t think Randy Moss has lost a step,’ ’’ Harbaugh said. ‘‘And Justin says, ‘That’s Randy freakin’ Moss over there. It doesn’t matter if he did lose a step. That’s Randy Moss.’
“It’s been great. He’s been all about getting into this team, getting into this playbook and being a part about what we have going here. [I’m] really, really happy.”
Patriots have ups and downs
Taking a look at the Patriots players who showed the most and least during their 7-6 victory over the Saints Thursday night:
1. Chandler Jones, DE: Yeah, we know, breaking news here. In just 26 snaps, Jones led the team with four of its 16 quarterback pressures (sacks, hurries, and knockdowns combined). More impressive was that he shared two stuffed runs (carries of 1 yard or less).
2. Jerod Mayo, LB: Wasn’t totally flawless — he and Kyle Arrington covered the same player on one play — but Mayo was really good all-around. His takedown of Darren Sproles on third down for just 4 yards was a rare play. Mayo added a standout run tackle, and he caused Steve Gregory’s interception when he read Chase Daniel’s eyes before tipping the pass.
3. Zoltan Mesko, P: Nobody cares about the kickers in the preseason (or in the regular season, until they screw up) but Mesko started off what could be a Pro Bowl season with a punting clinic. On eight punts, Mesko averaged 47.8 yards and 45.0 net (both coverage units were outstanding). The net average would have led the NFL last year. And Mesko averaged 4.64 seconds of hang time. That’s terrific.
4. Trevor Scott, DE: Going to grade on a little bit of a curve because he did it in the second half against reserves, but production is production. Scott had a sack, led the team with 2½ knockdowns, forced a fumble, and had a half stuffed run. But if Scott really wants to play, he’s going to have to show more variety in his pass-rush moves. Right now it’s just coming on effort.
5. Ryan Wendell, C: Had a completely clean sheet during his competition with Dan Koppen (botched snap), who was solid in pass protection but was slow in the run game (two poor blocks). Wendell did a very nice job controlling the middle against a very stout and active Saints front.
Honorable mention: DE Rob Ninkovich (2½ pressures), DE Jermaine Cunningham (2½ pressures), DT Marcus Forston (pressure, 1½ run stuffs), CB Ras-I Dowling (two pass breakups, tough tackle), RB Shane Vereen (broken tackle, great run), OG Donald Thomas (hurry).
1. Marcus Cannon, RT: His statistics are a bit skewed because he played most of the game, but Cannon was overpowered much of the game with six total quarterback pressures (sack, three hurries, two knockdowns). Cannon also didn’t execute a run and pass, and was (unfairly) flagged for a false start.
2. Ryan Mallett, QB: Had a couple of nice throws sidestepping pressure and stepping up to deliver the ball, but had five poor tosses, including an interception. He just didn’t look comfortable, and the game is not coming naturally to him. Mallett appears to be thinking way too much. He can’t play like that. Mallett had one practice where he just played, and he looked the part. Haven’t seen it since.
3. Nate Solder, LT: Allowed three hurries (including penalties), so between him and Cannon, the Patriots tackles combined to allow nine of the 13 total pressures (and the Saints hardly blitzed). Solder also had additional poor run and pass blocks. Still, he wasn’t quite as bad as people made out. Most of his problems had to do with minor technique stuff that can (and will) be cleaned up.
4. Dan Connolly, RG: Not a very sharp performance from a player who is normally more steady. Connolly had all sorts of trouble containing Saints third-round pick Akiem Hicks, who is a load at 6-5, 324 pounds out of Regina, Canada. Connolly gave up a hurry and a knockdown to Hicks, and an additional hurry.
5. Dont’a Hightower, LB: Nothing to be alarmed about; it was a typical debut for a player playing multiple positions where he has to do a lot of reading and reacting. Hightower, who played all three spots against the Saints, got caught leaning on a couple of runs, appeared to take too deep a drop to allow an easy catch underneath, and seemed a step behind at times (likely from thinking too much). He did, however, have one play where he just cut it loose, and stood up the running back in the hole (didn’t wrap up, however).
Dishonorable mention: CB Kyle Arrington (coverage, penalty, missed tackle for 13 yards), TE Alex Silvestro (two stuffed runs), OL Nick McDonald (two stuffed runs), RB Stevan Ridley (wrong hole, failed to get out on screen pass), S Patrick Chung (two bad angles in coverage).
Tech upgrade for headsets
Offensive play callers and quarterbacks around the league are hoping to communicate a little better this season — and it has nothing to do with their relationships. After successful testing last preseason and in the Pro Bowl, the NFL has ditched the old analog communication system between coach and quarterback, and replaced it with digital.
“A new and improved headset,” said 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman. “Much more what you would expect in the year 2012.”
Said quarterback Alex Smith: “You expect as you come in as a rookie, thinking it’s going to be this crazy high-tech stuff and then you look inside the helmet and it’s . . . not. You have like AAA batteries sitting there.”
Roman said that with the old walkie talkies, you’d press a button and wait for a beep before speaking. Sometimes the beep never came. Or Roman would hear something altogether different.
“It happened to be on the same frequency as an airline in a certain city,” Roman said. “And it was a critical situation in the game, and all you hear is Southwest pilots talking.”
Smith said the problems weren’t just with the 49ers.
“I think the headset problem is universal across the NFL,” Smith said. “Every QB has dealt with it. You have to be ready and have a Plan B.”
Most teams use hand signals/wristbands if there is a problem, but Smith admitted to sometimes going off the cuff.
So far, the new system seems to be working.
“These are very efficient,” Roman said. “Push the button and go.”
1. Let’s cut to the chase: The NFL can’t be serious about using these replacement officials during the regular season. They’re a joke.
2. Huge injury in the AFC, with Chargers running back Ryan Mathews needing surgery to repair a broken clavicle. Versatile Mike Tolbert bolted to the Panthers in free agency, leaving the Chargers with Ronnie Brown, Jackie Battle, and Curtis Brinkley to carry the load. Here’s betting Mathews takes a while to come back to full strength. That’s a tough injury to return from at that position.
3. Revenge or no revenge on the league for the bounty scandal, those Saints we saw all week are going to be good this season. Grafton’s Steve Spagnuolo is going to have that much-improved defense ready. And Medway’s Pete Carmichael Jr. can handle the offense just fine.
4. I really don’t understand how NFL coaches like Andy Reid — and there have been more than a few others over the last decade — deal with the pain of losing a child and go right back to their jobs. Different strokes, I guess.
5. Take a deep breath and say it with me: The preseason means nothing, good or bad. Especially if you have an elite quarterback.
The NFL has to be reeling after US District Judge Ginger Berrigan, who is presiding over Jonathan Vilma’s request for a temporary restraining order to block his bounty suspension, basically said Friday, “The league is a bunch of thugs, the process you used was completely unfair, and if there’s any way I can overturn what you did, believe me, I’m going to use it.” . . . Cowboys right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau (Waltham/Bentley) returned to practice last week after recovering from offseason hip and knee surgeries. Coach Jason Garrett was still evaluating whether Bernadeau will be ready to play Monday night at Oakland. “For a guy who hasn’t practiced at all in the spring and through the early part of training camp, he came back and did a really good job,” Garrett said. “Now, the question for all these guys is, can they sustain it? Certainly conditioning will be an issue for him, just having been out of it as long as he’s been out of it, but he had a very good day.” . . . Saints tight ends coach Terry Malone, who played the position at Holy Cross and was later a Boston College assistant, said he enjoyed being back in New England for the joint practices with the Patriots. He also caught up with Tom Brady, whom Malone coached as offensive coordinator at Michigan . . . Two NFL scouts at the Patriots-Saints game, Jets pro personnel director Brendan Prophett and Dolphins college scout Adam Howe, are Bridgewater natives. Didn’t realize it was an NFL scouting hotbed . . . The Packers thought so much of undrafted rookie tackle Mike McCabe (Holy Cross) that they placed him on injured reserve instead of releasing him and agreeing to an injury settlement . . . Undrafted UMass guard Josh Samuda is ahead of veteran Ryan Cook as the Dolphins’ backup center. “He seems to have relatively good awareness on the field for a young player,” said coach Joe Philbin. “He’s [an] old fashioned [football player], you know, ugly-looking. He’s not real pretty to look at but he’s done a good job.” . . . Aaron Rodgers’s preseason debut: three series, 2-of-8 passing for 16 yards with an interception and a fumble. See, the Patriots weren’t that bad . . . Browns coach Pat Shurmur said he is “hopeful” that third overall pick Trent Richardson, a running back, will be ready for the season opener. After his second arthroscopic knee surgery since Feb. 3? That would seem to be unlikely and unwise. They just gave him a fully guaranteed four-year contract worth $20.5 million. What’s the rush? You’d think the Browns would like to make sure their investment is sound.
Greg A. Bedard can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.