The Thread: The secret to the Buffalo Bills winning the Super Bowl? ‘Moss Mode’
History says the Bills will need to lean on a bruising RB — at some point — in January. Zack Moss is ready. And ‘Moss Mode’ just might be able to pick up where his inspiration, ‘Beast Mode,’ left off.
Since high school, Zack Moss has followed the exact same routine. Ten minutes before his team takes the field — Hallandale High (Fla.) to Utah to Buffalo — the running back sits in his locker and taps open the YouTube app on his phone.
And he watches the same player in the same highlights yet again.
His blood starts pumping. The adrenaline rush he needs for the next three hours returns.
He treats this like it’s the first time he’s ever seen this player, too — his intensity is palpable in this moment of pregame solitary.
Then, Moss takes the field and tries to play exactly like the bruising back he just watched, the one unlike any in his era: Marshawn Lynch. He’ll relive the Beast Quake in 2010 right on through the Super Bowl title in 2013. He’s not in and out, either. He studies Lynch closely. This is a form of football meditation.
He loves watching Lynch for one simple reason.
“The attitude,” Moss says. “The way he played.”
Now, the rookie finds himself on the same team Lynch began his career with: Buffalo. Now, this rookie is trying to play with that same attitude in Orchard Park, NY. One decade after the Bills shipped Lynch to Seattle for a fourth-rounder in 2011 (Chris Hairston) and a fifth in 2012 (Tank Carder), Moss has a chance to pick up where Lynch left off and make everything right again. And he gets that chance — unlike Lynch — on a team with very real Super Bowl dreams.
He’s not getting ahead of himself, no.
He obviously isn’t near Lynch’s class yet.
But here’s the cold-hard truth: Zack Moss is the secret to the Bills winning it all. The championship hope is real in Buffalo because the Bills are for real. Because Josh Allen has been delivering in the face of pressure with 4,000 passing yards (fourth in NFL), a 68.7 completion percentage (sixth), a 104.2 passer rating (seventh) and 39 total touchdowns (second). Allen has been special. As has Stefon Diggs. And Cole Beasley. And this entire passing game that’s setting franchise records ablaze. But if recent history tells us anything, it’s that even teams armed with quarterbacks in historically special seasons need to lean on a running back… at some point… in January.
It’s inevitable. Even for the best of the best.
Patrick Mahomes was phenomenal in 2019. Obviously. But there is no way those Kansas City Chiefs win the Super Bowl without Damien Williams. You could easily make the case that Williams — not Mahomes — should’ve won Super Bowl MVP, too. He rushed for 104 yards on 17 carries with another touchdown receiving. There’s no way the Chiefs are able to stay within striking range for three quarters without Williams. Their QB was struggling vs. San Francisco’s ruthless pass rush. And when the knockout punch was needed, Williams delivered the haymaker with a 38-yard touchdown.
When we think of Aaron Rodgers’ lone Super Bowl, we often think of his sublime performance against the Steelers. And, true, his third-and-10 laser to Greg Jennings will go down as the best throw of his career. But there is zero chance Rodgers even plays in this game without one, James Starks. After Green Bay struggled to find any semblance of a running game most of that 2010 season, Starks rose like a phoenix. Starks was the reason Green Bay won at Philadelphia in the Wild Card round, rushing for 123 yards on 23 attempts in a narrow 21-16 win. Starks helped bail Rodgers out in the NFC Championship at Chicago. With the quarterback getting outplayed by Caleb Hanie — Rodgers finished with two picks and a 55.4 rating — Starks pounded away at the NFL’s No. 2-ranked run defense for 74 yards and a score. Without Starks, we’d all be talking about Rodgers in Super Bowl-less, Dan Marino terms.
Hey, Peyton Manning was pretty good. One of the greatest ever, actually. Yet at the peak of his powers — in 2006 — the five-time NFL MVP needed every bit of Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes to win his lone title in Indy. In the Wild Card, Manning threw three picks… but these two backs combined for 190 rushing yards in a win over KC. In a 15-6 slobber-knocker of a win at Baltimore, Manning threw two more picks with as many incompletions (15) as completions (15)… but the two backs combined for 98 yards that felt like 300 against this defense. The duo was at it against in an AFC title epic with 125 yards and a score. And then — in a rain-drenched Super Bowl win over Chicago — Rhodes and Addai combined for 190 rushing yards and a touchdown. Their names are lost in NFL history but Manning never delivers a Super Bowl to Indianapolis without them.
The greatest ever, Tom Brady, leaned on LeGarrette Blount (30 attempts, 148 yards, three scores) in the 2014 AFC title game and really, really needed Sony Michel (29-113-2) and Rex Burkhead (12-41-2) to keep Mahomes off the field as much as possible in the 2018 AFC title.
And, of course, “Beast Mode” carried a young Russell Wilson on his back through Seattle’s 2013 Super Bowl run. Lynch supplied all offense in wins over New Orleans and San Francisco before the Seahawks clobbered Denver.
Which brings us to Moss.
Plastered across the banner of his own website are the words “Moss Mode.” He made no bones about it up to the NFL draft and doesn’t back down now. Lynch had “Beast Mode.” Moss will bring “Moss Mode.” Moss wants to deliver the same four quarters’ worth of cruelty to defenses.
To Moss, this is a “mentality.”
“You just turn into a different person — an animal — on the field,” he says, “And be dominant.”
Moss didn’t even play running back until his senior year of high school. He was a linebacker his entire life. So, he says Moss Mode didn’t really kick in until his sophomore year at Utah. No longer was he learning the position. By then, he says, “it was about dominating.” And dominate he did. Every running back claims to get better with more carries but Moss truly embodied that logic in Utah. Those final three collegiate seasons, he averaged 105 yards on 18 carries a game with an astounding 204 broken tackles, per PFF College, which was second-best in the nation.
The linebacker foundation helps. Moss knows what they’re thinking. Moss decodes their assignment is pre-snap.
Then, he’s more than willing to bash directly into those linebackers.
Says Moss: “You’re going to be a lot less sore if you do the hitting instead of getting hit.”
And yet his debut season has been sporadic. The Bills have rotated Moss (97 carries) and Devin Singletary (143 carries) most of this 2020 season and it can be smart to keep your backs fresh. Moss even knew Singletary growing up — both are South Floridians who attended the same camps growing up. Moss says all the right things here, too, in that they are able to play off of each other as a 1-2 punch… before admitting living in this 1-2 punch world is a whole experience for him.
Anybody who watched Moss at Utah will tell you he is a back who truly flourishes the more he touches the ball.
Even Mahomes, even Rodgers, even Manning needed a running back to get hot in January.
Moss could be the exclamation point this offense needs.
We’ve only seen the 86th overall pick in spurts so far. Moss has received double-digit carries in only three games and, each time, he sure looks like a back who could be this team’s Starks-like hidden weapon. Most of America had turned Saturday’s blowout win over Denver off by the time Moss polished off an 81-yard night. The Bills clinched their first division title since 1995 because Allen was unstoppable. But if it’s the Super Bowl that’s really on their mind, a few plays late might’ve been the most encouraging sign of all.
Moss blasted through Justin Simmons at the end of a 26-yard run with a Lynch-like blunt force. On third and 9, he then tagged Simmons again. The safety had him dead to rights three yards shy of the marker and Moss licked his chops. He lowered his shoulder, blasted through him and spun through three defenders for the first down.
The next play, Moss flipped what should’ve been a three-yard loss into a two-yard gain.
And he never looked the least bit tired.
Make no mistake: Moss knows he’s at his best when he can get into this kind of flow. A punishing flow. Maybe rotating keeps both running backs fresh but the Bills are also sacrificing rhythm, timing and the beautiful bashing effect of “Moss Mode.” The more Moss smashes into others, the stronger he becomes because he can feel those linebackers wearing down.
And he loves it. He wants more.
In detail, Moss explained to Go Long exactly what this effect looks like up close.
“I’m more of a rhythm back. I’m not a guy who can just get five carries and be OK with that,” Moss says. “I more so get touches throughout the game, continue to feel the game, continue to pound guys and that opens up more things as a runner and as the offense as a whole. At Utah, I was able to showcase that. The team definitely wanted me to be able to do that a lot, to help us win games. So, I try to make the best of my opportunities when they’re given to me.”
So, how can you quantify a defense wearing down?
Is it a grunt at the point of contact? A dread in their eyes after said contact? In short, yes and yes. Moss says it’s a combination of so many different things.
“One, when they turn on the film to prepare for you that game, for that week, they see it’s not just for one quarter. It’s all four quarters,” Moss says. “From the first play of the game to the last play of the game. No matter what the score looks like. And then they’ll come out fired up — like anyone tries to do anyways — and then once it’s time to go, over and over and over, it just wears you down. Guys getting five yards, falling over. Even when you have ‘em wrapped up and he still gets two, three yards, it’s like ‘Man.’ They go to the sideline and ask, ‘Man, do I make this decision every single time out there, to put everything on the line? And he’s going to get X-amount of yards still?’”
Of course, we all call this the famed “business decision.”
Defenses facing the Bills haven’t had to make such a decision in a very long time. About 10 years to be exact. And unfortunately for Lynch, JP Losman and Trent Edwards were quarterbacking this team. Not Allen. Defenses loaded up the box to corral him. Now? If these Bills can strike a balance of aggressively attacking defenses through the air and letting Moss mash away at the subsequent lighter boxes 15 to 20 carries a game, they just may have that recipe to win in Kansas City. Win vs. anyone.
Into the fourth quarter — with a season on the line — Moss can be the closer because Moss will make that linebacker who’s already bruised ‘n battered reconsider stepping into that hole.
“It really can be a business decision,” Moss adds, “and it’s on me to continue to do that over and over and over to set the tone as an offense.”
Picking a favorite collision is difficult. Moss has planted so many tacklers on their ass from Pop Warner to high school to college to the pros. “It’s a long list,” Moss says. And the roots of Moss Mode are right there where he grew up, in the Liberty City area of Miami, Fla. A massive swath of the NFL populace comes from Liberty City because, here, the sport is just different from the moment you can hold the pigskin.
The atmosphere is instantly intense. Look up into the stands during your Pop Warner games and you just might see adults gambling on you.
Football, for so many kids, becomes an outlet.
Moss is no different.
“Only the strong survive,” Moss says. “Only so many people come out of there. You grow up fast. And playing football, you get to release a lot of that. It’s definitely been good for me and a lot of guys who come from down there. We all have that same mentality, that same dog inside of us.”
As Moss explains, there are two versions of Miami. There is South Beach, “the glitz and glamour” you see on TV. And there is where he grew up, the “gritty, inner-city parts, the Section 8 housing.” If you don’t know the area well, Moss cautions, do not think about wandering aimlessly around Liberty City. Thus, this wasn’t not too different from how Lynch grew up in Oakland. Football was Lynch’s way out. As both learned, if you’re able to stick with a sport — able to hit other humans for fun on a field — this upbringing can be harnessed for good.
Still, the line between getting swept away by the streets and making it out is thin. Moss knows this.
He has more friends than he can count who should’ve made it to the NFL.
“It’s a super thin line,” Moss says. “I’ve got friends who are better than me that could be playing in the league right now. But they chose the wrong path or didn’t have that guidance — something that pushes them over that hump to get to where I was able to get to.
“Fast money. People see fast money when they’re growing up poor. They think that’s the best way to live life. I understand how that stuff ends. It’s a lot more stressful living like that than anything else.”
This perspective is never lost on him.
Several of his friends and family members have died and Moss still knows people who are stuck in that lifestyle that could be next. Simply, Moss says he was always able to see a “bigger picture” at a young age — a life beyond the fast money — and he credits his Mom’s side of family which is “very church-based” for presenting this to him.
“I’ve always had that foundation,” Moss says, “to always try to do the right thing and know — in my beliefs — that God is always watching me and watching the things that I do. So, I always try to do the best things I can possibly do growing up. No matter what was going on around me. And then, I had family that saw my talent and tried to make sure I stayed away and didn’t see too much of those things that went on.”
This is a reason Moss runs the way he does, too. He’s driven by a strong desire for his own family to never, ever grow up in an environment remotely similar to his.
He wants to put them in a better situation.
So carry… to carry… to carry… he lets it all out on defenders.
“That’s the best way to sum it up: Playing angry,” Moss says. “Playing like I actually have something to lose. … When I’m on the field, I’m locked in and it’s all about life at that point. It’s not about just playing the game for fun. It’s about life. It’s about making peoples’ lives better around me.
Up close, you see this urgency. Travelle Gaines has trained some of the best running backs of this generation — Saquon Barkley, Leonard Fournette, Reggie Bush, Marshawn Lynch, LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles. And he says Moss is “cut from that mold.” He calls him a “tough-ass kid” who never goes out, never parties. Rather, Moss is a “coach’s dream” who embraces his grueling training.
Says Gaines: “There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Zack comes to work every day. He’s phenomenal.”
They’ve worked each offseason since Moss’ junior year at Utah and Moss trains to take a pounding. In addition to all the lifting, all the running, he does a ton of injury prevention work on his hamstrings because Moss knows he’ll take abuse on the field and Moss never wants to tap out. Heck, even at the Combine, he powered through the 40-yard dash at less than 100 percent. He had tweaked his hammy. Whereas most all running backs make the business decision right then to opt out of the 40 — Gaines’ own advice was to skip it — Moss’ logic was simple: If he were to tweak his hamstring in a game, he’s not going to ask out. So why would he here?
Moss ran a 4.6 when he consistently ran in the 4.5’s in training.
What could’ve been viewed as a pro by teams was viewed as a con and nine running backs were drafted ahead of him.
The Bills took him and, now, the Bills need him.
These two personalities could not be any more different. Gaines used to tell Moss that he better have a pail handy if a fire breaks out because it sure didn’t seem like he was a guy who’d say a word.
Moss is quiet. Really quiet.
Lynch? Not quite.
“Marshawn talked a lot of shit,” Gaines says, “and Zack doesn’t say much of anything.”
And yet Gaines believes they’re wired exactly the same. Put a football in their hands and they’re attacking every run with the same mentality.
Both break tackles. Both run angry. Both get better as the game progresses.
“The toughness. The toughness. The toughness,” Gaines repeats. “From that standpoint they’re very similar — their running styles and how punishing they are, how they finish runs.”
The 11-3 Bills haven’t had to lean on the run much at all. This 2020 season has been a joy ride through the air. History tells us, however, it’s impossible for such a joy ride to last four straight playoff wins. There’s no need to ground and pound teams to death. The Bills should lean on their MVP candidate quarterback, first and foremost. As HOF’er Kurt Warner said, Allen will need to make “the right throw” again and again in January and, of late, that’s exactly what he’s been doing.
But at some point this postseason, a game will tighten. Give smart coordinators time to plot for Allen and they might be able to slow him down. The Bills will need to unleash Moss Mode.
Speaking for legions of Bills fans, Moss says it sure would’ve been cool to see what Lynch would’ve been able to do in Buffalo all those years. Those 3 1/2 seasons just weren’t enough.
The wait has been long and frustrating but maybe Moss can pick up where Lynch left off.
On a team capable of winning it all, too.
“Hopefully, man,” Moss says. “Honestly, it’d be great to have a career as long as Marshawn did and, hopefully, be able to do it here in Buffalo. That’s down the road. We just have to see where life takes us and go from there.”
On to the rest of this Tuesday edition of The Thread…
Is it time for the Saints to panic?
I’m not sure how many of us are returning to our jobs this quickly after breaking 11 ribs and puncturing our lung but, sure enough, there was Drew Brees playing professional football on Sunday evening against the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Saints were chasing the No. 1 seed in the NFC and declared Brees healthy enough to play.
It was ugly.
Brees completed 44 percent of his passes which, for someone who has led the NFL in completion percentage the last four years, is a cataclysmic day at the office. The Saints also went 1 of 11 on third down. By the time Brees heated up, it was too little, too late and the Saints fell at home, 32-29.
Does this mean it’s time to panic? No. Here is why.
· Brees missed four games. There’s going to be rust.
· Brees didn’t have his No. 1 receiver, Michael Thomas. And Deonte Harris was placed on IR Saturday. And Tre’Quan Smith left Sunday’s game early with an ankle injury. That’s a lot of ammo.
· Brees actually had a few throws that should give the Saints hope. He turns 42 years old next month. Tom Brady is 43 himself. And it seems like every time we all want to declare their arms absolutely shot, both supply a few fastballs to remind all they’re just fine. Brees’ 51-yard bomb to Emmanuel Sanders was as good as it gets. Under pressure, he improvised, backpedaled, bought time for Latavius Murray to pop free from pass protection and floated a touch pass to him for a touchdown. That late TD to Lil’Jordan Humphrey? That was a beaut, too.
New Orleans has all but lost its shot at a No. 1 seed but this doesn’t seem like a team fading off into the sunset with an aging quarterback like Pittsburgh. Arguably no coach adapts like Sean Payton. He’s wisely being smart with Thomas — the Saints will get their elite wide receiver back for the games that really count. Alvin Kamara is statistically far, far more dangerous with Brees on the field. He remains an absolute match-up nightmare. And the defense is the strength of this team.
There’s no shame in losing to Mahomes whom they hit 11 times on Sunday.
Bank on a pair of tune-up wins over Minnesota and Carolina.
(And pray that flak jacket holds up, too.)
Tanking done wrong
What a brutal Sunday for Jets fans.
If there are any left, that is.
Losing on purpose is a lot harder to do in football than it is, say, basketball or hockey where you can easily wheel ‘n deal your way into trotting out an inferior roster for 82 games. In football, there are far more variables and far fewer games. So maybe we shouldn’t be shocked that the Jets upset the Los Angeles Rams, 23-20, even though this is just the fifth time ever a 17-point underdog won an NFL game outright. Once upon a time, the immortal Paul Justin led the winless Colts to a win over the defending-champion Packers and this game felt a lot like that one.
As satisfying as this must have felt for all Jets players and all Jets coaches who are sick and tired of being a national punchline, let’s not pretend this win was a step forward for the franchise. If they lose out on the No. 1 pick, this is a debilitating blow to the franchise. This is a defining moment for all of the wrong reasons, right there behind Bill Belichick’s resignation.
Trevor Lawrence may be the best quarterback of this generation and, now, the Jacksonville Jaguars are in the driver’s seat to get him.
There’s no debate at the top of this draft, of course. Lawrence is 34-1 as Clemson’s starter and has thrown for 88 touchdowns with only 16 picks. His deep-ball accuracy is insane. He can run, too, with 17 career scores on the ground. There’s a lot to love in the other prospects, sure, but there’s only one Lawrence. He is the one capable of lifting the Jets out of purgatory for good.
Thanks to a meaningless win, there’s a good chance Lawrence will now be a Jaguar.
Unless the Jaguars, you know, win. What a parting gift that could be from Doug Marrone who said Monday the plan is to try to win a football game this weekend. I get it. Tanking can leave a permanent stain on your franchise that takes years to remove. Not every team can pull off what Brian Flores did in Miami a year ago. Somehow, the Dolphins were able to a.) lose a lot of games; b.) still show a ton of heart late in the season; and c.) still land the QB they wanted all along in Tua Tagovailoa.
But the Jets had to lose. Needed to lose. Lawrence is that good.
Please, hug the Jets fan in your life.
RIP, Kevin Greene. What an absolute gut punch this was for everyone Monday night. One of the greatest pass rushers in NFL history has passed away at 58 years old. No cause of death was given. Gosh, did I love every interaction I had with Greene when he was the Packers’ outside linebackers coach. Back then, on the Packers beat, we could all chat with the assistants one on one in a nearby hallway and Greene had the innate ability to make everyone he talked to want to run through a wall. His personality was infectious. His players loved him. He’s gone far too soon.
Ryan Tannehill just recorded the quietest five-touchdown day in NFL history. Life sure is easier with Derrick Henry on your team but Tannehill shredded the Lions by air and by ground in his team’s 46-point outburst and now has 3,482 yards, 35 total touchdowns with only five interceptions on the season. There’s no debate anymore. He has arrived.
The Bears are 7-7 and everyone has a realistic shot at keeping their jobs if they can somehow beat Jacksonville (which shouldn’t be too hard) and Green Bay (which will be hard). They’re ripping through the soft chunk of their schedule but it was nice to see Matt Nagy run the ball 42 times and pass it 21 times, something he should’ve done all last season when things went off the rails. Mitchell Trubisky is at his best, on the move, in conjunction with a run-heavy offense. Either way, there’s hope in Chicago.
Early reports suggested the Texans were eyeing a general manager first. Now it looks like they’re trying to hire a head coach first with the team announcing it is interviewing Jim Caldwell. As Deshaun Watson’s right-hand man, private QB coach Quincy Avery told Go Long that getting a coach in place first would be the ideal set-up for Watson. Maybe that’s the Texans’ plan now.
Pittsburgh picked a really bad time to start playing so terribly. Yikes. We spoke at length last week about Ben Roethlisberger on the Go Long Podcast. Doug Whaley was on that Steelers staff that drafted him and even Whaley hinted that it may be time to say goodbye, somehow, to Big Ben. Which is never easy.
Some good news for mankind: This 27-17 Bengals’ win over the Steelers is a major blow to Tik-Tok.
There’s no excuse to losing to Cincinnati but it’s pretty obvious these injuries at linebacker are catching up to Pittsburgh. An anemic offense that hasn’t been able to do a damn thing rushed for 152 yards and two touchdowns. Vince Williams may be the most important player on the Steelers right now — they need him back badly. Williams is still recovering from COVID and has revealed himself just how rough it’s been. Last week, Williams tweeted that his lungs felt like he “smoked 8 packs of Newports 3 Black and Milds and a Russian Cream.”
Week 17 could be the Browns’ chance to win the AFC North. Remarkable. Kevin Stefanski is the unquestioned coach of the year and — unlike the Steelers — the Browns are a team peaking at the perfect time. Their only loss since Nov. 1 is that MNF epic against Baltimore. These final two weeks will feature some fascinating jockeying for playoff positioning in the AFC.
Let us all briefly look back at what Carson Wentz was in 2017. Before tearing his ACL that season, Wentz was 11-2 as the starter and the MVP frontrunner with 3,296 yards, 33 touchdowns and seven picks. He hasn’t resembled that player this season and, now, it sure sounds like Wentz wants out of Philly if Philly is going to roll with Jalen Hurts in 2021. That may be best for all parties involved — as much as the Eagles would love for this to work considering Wentz’s four-year, $128M contract extension hasn’t even kicked in yet. I imagine we’ll be taking a much closer look at Wentz down the line but I’m not ready to say he is finished at all. He was too good that 2017 season. That player’s in there somewhere.
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