TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN? NOT OUR MOORE

Here is how it usually goes. Athlete comes to town. Athlete gets big contract. Athlete does well. Athlete becomes free agent and leaves, saying, “It’s not personal, it’s business.”

Happens over and over. Shaquille O’Neal. Alex Rodriguez. Deion Sanders. Over and over.

And then, once in a while, a story breaks the mold. Which brings us to the curious case of All-Pro receiver Herman Moore, who holds the Lions’ records in catches, receiving yards and touchdown catches, never wanted to leave, was willing to take a pay cut, is only 31, and still, by the skin of his chin strap, just missed being run out of town.

“If you had asked me a few years ago, when I was catching 100 passes a year, if I would ever have gone through what I just did, I would never have believed it,” Moore said after agreeing to sign back with the team for one year at $1.5 million, more than a 50 percent pay cut.

“I mean, I knew I might not always be the leading receiver for the Detroit Lions. I knew I might not always be a starter for the Detroit Lions. But I never thought it would happen without me saying, “OK, I can’t do it anymore.”

Moore never said that. He doesn’t say it now. Why should he? At 31, he is not exactly Strom Thurmond. And most of his career, save the 1999 season, has been injury-free. He doesn’t lug around a bum hip. He doesn’t have a problem with practice. For four autumns, from 1995 through 1998, he averaged more than 100 catches per season and was mentioned in the same breath as Jerry Rice and Michael Irvin as the best receivers in the game.

How did Moore become so …less?

Fewer passes came his way

“I ask myself that every day,” Moore admitted Tuesday. Many theories have been suggested. Moore won’t go on the record with his, but you can bet it’s pretty much like this:

When the Lions switched from Scott Mitchell to Charlie Batch at quarterback, Charlie’s instructions were to not throw to Moore if he was double-covered. The reasoning was simple: Double coverage means a better chance for interceptions, and Batch, as a kid quarterback, didn’t need that.

So for a short while, Moore, who was often double-covered — that’s what they do to good receivers, remember — saw his production sink. He understood. When asked about it, he spoke the truth. This did not sit well with then-coach Bobby Ross, who saw it as speaking out of school. It set in motion an ever-crumbling relationship between Moore and the coach, which, by the end, was as cozy as Ralph Nader and an industrial waste company.

Then came the injury season, 1999, in which Moore missed half the year. When he healed, he expected his No. 1 position back. It was not given. This further deteriorated the Moore-Ross grumbling match, and also eventually poisoned Moore’s relationship with Sylvester Croom, the offensive coordinator.

Meanwhile, Batch had grown comfortable with Germane Crowell as his go-to guy. Even healthy, Moore spent much of last season as under-used as Don King’s comb.

When Marty Mornhinweg and Matt Millen arrived, they couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to the onetime Pro Bowl star. Questions arose. Had he lost a step? Would he fit in with a West Coast offense? And there was that big paycheck he was owed, nearly $3.4 million.

In the salary cap era, that put a bull’s-eye on his back — or at least his wallet.

So he took less money and stayed

In the end, Moore agreed to take half his salary number to stay. Last weekend, he came close to leaving on principle. Who wants to be someplace where they think you’re washed up?

“I was looking at any place with a short plane ride from here,” Moore said.
“Philly, Cleveland, Chicago, Indianapolis.

“But then I realized that was because we wanted to stay in this area. I’ve lived here 10 years, all in Rochester Hills. I got my first apartment here. My wife and I got our starter house here, and now we live in this house.

“I know the post office workers, the cashiers, the waiters at the local restaurants. This is our home.”

Isn’t it funny? So often, we decry athletes who see Detroit as a place to pick up their paycheck and leave. Here is a guy who likes it here, who wants to retire in the same jersey he started in, and who is willing to chop his salary in two to play for the Lions!

And they still almost dropped him.

I don’t know. I remember when Moore made some brilliant end zone catches. I know he has good hands. And as he said, “People who think I can’t run after the catch have never seen me do it.”

We’ll see. If he can’t click with Mornhinweg, that’ll be three different coaches, and maybe you start to say Moore is really the problem. But for now, perhaps this really was a strange series of bumps that knocked a receiver off his rightful road.

And maybe the Lions’ best catch will be the one that didn’t get away.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.

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