Randy Moss sauntered around the locker room scowling, a pack of microphones and cameras trailing him everywhere. He'd just done all of Green Bay dirty, scoring the backbreaking touchdown in the Vikes 31-17 wild-card win, and punctuating it with a goalpost moon dance. Meanwhile, the reciever who drew two penalties and caught a third-and-six to set up the Moss TD quietly surveyed the surreal scene. This is how the world often looked to Nate Burleson in the first two years of his career.
But ever since Burleson heard that Moss had been traded--he caught the news on TV- he's been gearing up for the moments when the cameras are focused on him. And the truth is, the third-year reciever is as likely to raise a locker-room ruckus as Moss is to admit that his team-mates couldn't stand him anymore. "That came into the organizations decision to trade Randy," says Vikes coach Mike Tice. "Plus, we certainly feel like Nate is a No. 1 Reciever."
Burleson seems to be everything the NFL and Vikings brass wish Moss was: a guy whose only shortcoming is a lack of arrogance. That's no easy feat considering how Burleson played last season. When No. 84 missed three games with a right hamstring injury, the six-foot, 192 pound Burleson developed in Daunte Culpeppers main man. He caught 68 balls for 1,006 yards, becoming the first player since 1997 not named Moss or Carter to lead the Vikings in recieving yards. "I think the plays I made allowed them to think we'll be alright without Randy," Burleson says. "But I really don't feel like THE GUY. I always wanted to stay under the radar I like the idea of killing them softly."
Playing in the shadows isn't anything new for Burleson, Pro Scouts got a handle on him only in 2002, when he put up Arena-ball numbers (138 catches as a senior) at Nevada. They'd seen film of his soft hands and eye-popping ability to set up and seperate from defensive backs, and came to Reno looking for negatives. They gound someone who mowed old folks' lawns in a church program, a young man so trusted, he babysat coaches kids. Recieving coach D.J. McCarthy named his first son Nate.
Not that Burleson, 23, got a swelled head. He grew up in Seattle, one of four boys who played division 1 sports. Burleson excelled at basketball, the only kid in town who could check prep rivals Luke Ridnour and Jamal Crawford. Even though he caught just 14 passes in a run-oriented offense as a high school senior, Burleson knew he'd make a better route-runner then a jump-shooter. His father, Alvin, played safety at Washington and in the CFL, and Nate figured he'd play for U-Dub too. But when Rick Neuheisal told Burleson he'd have to make the team as a walk-on, Nevada beckoned.
In Reno, Burleson ranked 30th nationally in receptions per game as a junior. After the season, the team trainer asked him what his goals were. To get into the top 30, Nate replied.
"You're saying that there are 30 recievers better then you?" the trainer asked.
Nate sheepishly shook his head no.
"So why can't you be number 1?"
Burleson took the words to heart. After the first few weeks of the season, he was ahead of Charles Rogers and Roy Williams. Every week he'd check the stats and think, "Man, I'm still ahead of 'em." With each game his confidence grew. The attitude was something his dad tried to instill in him for years. "Go out like you're the best on the field," Alvin would say, "even if Randy Moss is out there."
Only now Moss won't be. Adn even Burleson knows it's easier to look great when the defense isn't keying on him. But this season he'll either be lining up opposite Travis Taylor, who had just 34 catches with the Ravens last season, or a rookie. And Vikings coaches don't even know yet if Burleson will play mostly in the slot or on the outside. "That'll be the fun part of our minicamps," says new offensive coordinator, Steve Loney. "We'll see whose strenghts compensate for whose weaknesses."
Just as important is whether the low-key Burleson can become the positive influence Moss never was. "I've been crawling," Burleson says. "I think I'm ready to walk."
Minnesota's coaches are betting the rest of the Vikings will follow.