Broncography: LB Jarvis Moss

Sunday’s home-opening 31-14 win over the Seahawks was a game of many firsts, rarities and different experiences. Near the top of all of those - which included Demaryius Thomas’ first game, first reception and first TD as a Denver Bronco - was the idea, bizarre to the point of absurdity only a year ago, that one of the many key players was Jarvis Moss, last year’s scout team MVP (which was the equivalent, said one wag, of being the world’s tallest midget). But Jarvis Moss’ contribution wasn’t small in the least. Another player who once was given up as a waste of good roster space has risen from the issues that weighted him down during the first years of his NFL career. Moss’ box score showed 2 solo tackles, one assist and a sack, but his impact on the game - and of the game on his career - could not be counted solely by stats in a game book.

This game was as much career resurrection as it was reality. And one of the key reasons for this remarkable change could be found in the sweatshirt-dressed head coach of the Denver Broncos, Josh McDaniels. It was McDaniels’ decision to move Moss, along with Tim Crowder, Elvis Dumervil and Darrell Reid to outside linebacker in the complex defense that McDaniels had envisioned, which included a predominant 3-4 defense with a 5-2 approach and changes to a 4-3 formation when the game called for it. It’s also a tribute to the defense as a whole (new defensive coordinator ‘Wink’ Martindale very much included), a defense that McDaniels himself made the centerpiece of his job interviews to the top Broncos front office personnel.

High School & College

As a young man, during the late months of high school in Denton, Texas, a place where high school football is almost as much religion as pastime, and making plans for college as a Florida Gator, there was nothing that was going to keep Jarvis Moss from excelling in football at Florida and then moving on to success in the NFL. Nothing, that is, until suddenly, his entire life changed, and he almost missed his calling entirely, before his life came full circle. This is from The Alligator:

Jarvis Moss woke up on a regular morning on a regular school day in Denton, Texas, expecting to go out and do great things.

This was a day in the senior season of one of the top defensive ends in the country. Texas loves its high school football. Ryan High sure loved its Moss, a Parade All-American and USA Today First-Team All-American.

This was supposed to be a normal morning, full of promise, hope and big hits.

There was just one problem: Jarvis Moss could not walk.

His chest tightened like a sheet of steel. His stomach hardened into a knot of excruciating pain. Moss climbed up in bed. The pain intensified. He slumped to the floor and reached for a pair of jeans.

He could not dress himself; he could not walk.

The experience for a physically active, even gifted person to lose the use of their body is a massive shock to the system and to the psyche. As it is for most people, it was the beginning of a new road for Jarvis. As many people in our world have come to know, whether you call it fate, chance or karma, there are moments in life when we are truly and frighteningly helpless before the experience that we are going to go through. Prior to that moment, he had been a star student athlete. Suddenly, having received a cortisone shot in the hip the day before, he awoke and found that he was a cripple. Even worse, no one seemed to know what the diagnosis was. One doctor made a strange diagnosis of tendinitis in the knees. The more doctors he was taken to, the more confused and dejected he became. They had no real idea what was wrong with him, and no one seemed to have a direction to point him.

It took first-year head trainer Anthony Pass and the determined focus of Florida Coach Urban Meyer to assemble a collection of four doctors who were tasked with only one thing - to find the diagnosis for Jarvis; to establish, once and for all, what was wrong with his body. It seemed that Moss just couldn’t play at the college level, but the trainers were sure that the problem was medical - not based in a lack of ability, but a lack of health. After the first year, the trainers decided that this was something that they had never seen before, but that they were not going to let it destroy the life and career of this young man.

After a string of futile attempts, one test finally bore the answer. Blood tests revealed that Moss’ sediment level was 11 times higher than average. After analyzing bone chips from his pelvis, doctors concluded that bacteria had penetrated Moss’ pelvic bone during the high school injection, causing a staph infection that feasted on his body.

Jarvis was down to 218 lb when they finally were able to diagnose what was wrong with him. He began a regimen of antibiotics and liquid nutrients taken intravenously and slowly, slowly, his weight increased to 220, 228, and finally back to 240.

“When we first put on the treatment, you just saw this kid just go from someone who was completely dejected and who was at the end of his rope just start getting some fire back into him, some hope and excitement,” Pass said. “It’s been a complete change.”

NFL

But the trials and tribulations of Moss’ health and career swings weren’t even close to being ended. As preparations began for the 2007 NFL Draft, Jarvis himself sent an amateur videotape of his own work in college to Coach Mike Shanahan of the Denver Broncos. Moss sent them to all the head coaches, but Shanahan, for some reason, was on fire over Jarvis’ tape. The 6’7”, 245 lb Moss was very fast and had excellent speed-rushing moves, but he lacked strength, technique and alternatives to his speed-rushing approach; his swim, rip and spin moves were somewhere between weak and nonexistent. Moss needed to learn what it takes to become an NFL player, but Shanahan was convinced. He even moved up to the 17th pick overall to make sure that he obtained Moss, a player that most teams had listed as a third- or fourth-rounder (although much to my surprise, I found a couple of teams that had him listed at pick #15). Some of the league’s other coaches and general managers rolled their eyes - Shanahan was known for developing ‘man-crushes’ on certain players, and no cost became too high for him at that point. But Moss wasn’t really ready for the NFL.

His first season was unpleasantly brief - while practicing for Denver’s Week 9 game at Detroit, Moss fractured his right fibula and suffered torn tendons and ligaments to his right ankle. He had only managed a single sack to go along with 9 tackles with three assists. The following year was a small improvement: while he did not start a game, he played in 12 and managed 2.5 sacks and 10 tackles with 2 assists. In 2009, Moss would be active for 7 games, and register nothing but a single pass defensed. Oddly, in 2009 when the fans were busy writing Moss off, the coaches were starting to praise him. He was crowned the MVP of the scout team, and no matter how little that team tends to matter to the average fan, it’s often the way that coaches are able to both improve the players who aren’t on the regular squads and also to keep an eye out for talent that hasn’t been properly ‘coached up’ or trained.

A good example of this is Mike Vrabel, who was a Pittsburgh Steeler for 4 years to start his NFL career. He never broke more than 14 tackles with 3 assists and was essentially considered a classic ‘bust’ when Bill Belichick traded for him and told him that he was going to make his own role on the New England Patriots. That role turned out to include 37 tackles with 23 assists just during his first season. That eventually climbed to 69 tackles with 35 assists in 2005 and 12.5 sacks in 2007. Josh McDaniels must have seen something similar in Moss, because while Tim Crowder was cut and Elvis Dumervil was moved to ROLB,  Moss was kept hidden on the scout team, ending his season as that squad’s MVP.

Even so, running with the scout team during your third season is a discouraging experience. But then came the offseason, and Moss got together with Most Valuable Strength and Conditioning Coach Rich Tuten. Together, they have finally moved Jarvis up to 257 lb while drilling him with weights, resistance bands and a wide range of exercises and position-specific drills. He’s showing every sign of becoming the exceptional player that he was touted to be three years ago when Mike Shanahan moved up to draft him. He’s not there yet, no question, but he’s learning and he’s starting to produce.

And the full circle of his life? “I would drop into coverage during our fire zones,” he said. “I did some when I was working out in Orlando. We did some linebacker-specific drills. It’s something I enjoy. My body moves well and I can run well and I’m really athletic, so it’s something I really enjoy. I’m looking forward to it if it’s my calling.”

It seems that it may very well be his calling. At the least, the Broncos are calling on him to make that improvement in his coverage and run-tackling skills. He’s called upon, right now, to work the outside linebacker slot, to rush the QB, to set the edge and drive the run inside to the ILB whenever possible, and to drop into coverage when the down and distance calls for it. Moss may finally have the opportunity this season to become the player that he felt was his calling back in high school and college.

Moss earned one of 10 front-row parking slots in the players’ parking lot for his offseason work, being declared an Offseason Champion. Think that’s just a small thing? Perhaps so. But it’s been leading to a lot more from Jarvis.

In 2009, Moss asked permission to leave training camp for a few days, to go home and to contemplate whether he felt that he had what it took to be an NFL player: to be mentally tough enough to endure the ups and downs that will accompany almost any pro career. It was his 25th birthday, and he wasn’t making the progress that he expected of himself. He made the decision to return and to give his all to whatever situation came his way. That was the beginning. He then made Scout Team MVP, Offseason Champion, and impressed fans and coaches alike this summer. Many fans wondered who was in the #94 uniform. The coaches knew - it was the guy who fought like a tiger, over and over, dealing with disease, misdiagnosis, broken bones, and strain on his immune system as he tried mightily to find some degree of balance in his life. He found one cure - the antibiotics that cured the staph infection - and almost immediately found a new challenge: the broken leg. He slowly came back from that, still fighting the effects of the staph infection on his system, and slowly, slowly managed to push his body, week after week, all offseason, until he was finally playing the game that he loved in the manner that he had always known that he could play.

Fantasy Football Toolbox was prescient in their pre-draft analysis in 2007:

Moss has a tremendous upside and playmaker potential as a pass rusher off the edge.. He displays a quick burst off the edge, which allows him to set up wide of the tackle and easily shed the block to disrupt the quarterback. His quickness and agility allows him to slide down the line of scrimmage in pursuit of the ball carrier. Moss has the ability to drop into coverage based in athleticism and natural instincts. He will clearly need to bulk up to compete as an every down defensive end at the next level. Moss also lacks the upper body strength of most defensive linemen, thus often has difficulty shedding offensive linemen once engaged. He needs to develop additional pass rushing moves and avoid his dependency to beat his opponents on sheer speed alone. Moss is probably better suited to move to outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme to showcase his athleticism and play making abilities

Among all the other challenges he’s gone through, Moss was miscast early on as a 4-3 defensive end. Too tall, too easy to have an opposing lineman slip under his pads, too exhausted from his health issues, and too light to take on the OTs one on one, Moss struggled to find a way to become the player that he knew was inside. The move to the OLB position, just as it has done for Doom, has changed the career of Jarvis Moss from bust to beast. Too strong a statement? Could be. On the other hand, Moss was a terror in camp, showing his athleticism and speed as well as an increasing number of other moves. He’s become the player he swore that he would be.

Prior to the 2007 Draft, Niners Nation had some great insights that would have shortened the distance that Moss has had to go in order to become the player that he is:

His quarterback pursuit skills are very good because of his bursts of speed and his ability to change direction quickly.  Once he gets around the corner, his speed and size make him a tough defender to avoid. Quarterbacks always seemed to have trouble slipping an inpending (sic) Moss sack, something that is one of his strengths.

Whoever drafts Jarvis Moss will get a guy who could become an impact pass-rusher early on in his career, as well as the type of guy who could drop back into coverage pretty well.  If he improves a few small glitches in his game, he could be one of the better defensive players in this draft, easily.

Let’s face it - Denver could really use someone who can rush the passer, complement Doom and/or Ayers (Ayers seems to love to drive QBs into his mate on the other side - Moss likes to use his speed to get to and take down the QB). When Doom returns, any combination of the three is going to look just fine: perhaps even very, very tough to beat. Darrell Reid will also be back, and so far, none of the other OLB candidates has really stuck out, although practice-squad player Kevin Alexander looks like a hard young man to beat.

It finally looks like Denver has gotten its almost-forgotten 1st-round pick. Sure, it may be three years late, but let’s not spoil the party.  Jarvis Moss has finally found his groove on the NFL gridiron. All the more power to him - you’d have to say that he’s earned it. He’s been through challenges that might have broken a lesser man.

And you know what? He’s still standing. Jarvis’ story may be just beginning. Stay tuned.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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