Rick Bowmer/Associated Press
Zack Moss knows he’s a punishing runner. He hears about it all the time from fans, opponents after games and others.
“I’ve heard people say, just by looking at me, they want to get into a cold tub,” he said when he met the press at the NFL Scouting Combine last week.
Watch the 223-pound Utah running back’s sizzle reel and you may want to visit the trainer’s room, too. There are broken tackles and seismic collisions, plus surprising jump cuts and spin moves that leave defenders with twisted ankles to go with their bruises. His weekly game tape isn’t much different. On carry after carry, Moss makes the first defender miss and the second one pay. Some defenders end up getting dragged behind him like rusty tailpipes, others get stiff-armed to the turf, and a third subset of would-be tacklers flicks the dive stick at Moss’ ankles rather than collide with him at all.
“I finish all my runs in a fashion so that the next time they do try to make a tackle, it’s a business decision,” Moss said. “When the next team puts on that tape, I want the guys to know that it’s not gonna be an easy game.”
If Moss’ running style reminds you a little of Marshawn Lynch, well, he has heard that before, too, and he welcomes the comparison. “I grew up watching him, from start to finish,” Moss said. “Big fan of him. For people to even compare me to the likes of anyone like that, a definite Hall of Famer, I’m just blessed.”
The comparison looks accurate on tape. But something about it sounds a little wrong. More on that in a moment.
Moss is getting the Next Marshawn Lynch treatment this week because we did not have the opportunity to talk him up last week. Moss tweaked a hamstring at the start of his combine drills but decided to push through anyway. He ran a gimpy 4.65-second 40 with a noticeable hitch in his stride. Combine headlines are reserved for prospects with fast 40s and superheroic vertical leaps, so Moss got back-burnered for workout warriors like Boston College running back AJ Dillon and Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor. That slow 40 time will still be in the database long after Moss’ injury is forgotten (it’s probably already forgotten by many), so in a few weeks, Moss could be written off by draftnik tastemakers as a plodder with no value to an NFL offense.
That would be a mistake. Watch a little video and it becomes obvious that speed is not a problem for Moss. If anything, the physicality that makes him special could be the real problem. He was a three-year starter for the Utes with 778 career touches, a huge percentage of which ended with a bang. He missed the end of his junior season with a meniscus tear. And it’s never a good sign when a big back suffers a little tweak while working out in shorts.
There’s nothing a prospect can say or do this time of year to change the fact that the Blue Book value on college running backs with high mileage and some dents is very low, with good reason. That “cold-tub” compliment rubs both ways: Running backs who beat up defenders also beat themselves up.
But Moss did say last week that he has been working on improving his flexibility and elusiveness so he can run around some brick walls instead of through them. “Longevity is a part of the game that you want to get to,” he said.
He also spoke at length about his film habits. Moss knows which opponents will cross up his blockers with slants and stunts and studies the tackling styles of upcoming defenders so he knows what’s coming. So there’s much more to his game than slamming into the nearest linebacker and hoping to shatter him.
If film study and flexibility drills guaranteed a 10-year career, every running back in the NFL would have caught on by now. But sometimes, the analytics hardliner needs to give way to the football lover. Who doesn’t want to see another Beast Mode? Especially after a season when Derrick Henry nearly battered down the door to the Super Bowl and the Titans, Ravens and 49ers all successfully introduced new flavors of run-heavy offense to the pass-happy NFL?
Still, something about the Moss-Lynch comparison doesn’t sound right. Maybe it’s the fact that Moss is engaging with the media at all. Moss, who earned his degree in communication, said that Utah coach Kyle Whittingham “always looked for guys that were tough and smart. It’s different from being tough and causing penalties. He told us to be tough, smart guys, to be accountable to ourselves.”
Lynch, of course, has committed an unnecessary penalty or two. And while his unpredictable Lobo-like alien bounty hunter persona could be a hoot, it was a lot more fun to watch than coach (or, let’s face it, interview), and he remains a polarizing individual.
So Moss looks a little like Lynch on the field but sounds nothing like him off the field. Maybe there’s a better comparison?
“I also loved to watch guys like Arian Foster, do-it-all backs,” Moss said, when asked the umpteenth time about the Lynch comparison. “You never had to really worry about a backup for him.”
That sounds right. Foster was rough-and-tumble on the field but philosophical off the field. He gained 5,702 yards and scored 47 touchdowns as a rusher-receiver for the Texans from 2010 to 2012. He epitomized the tough-smart running back, and while his career was short, most teams will take 15 to 16 touchdowns per year for a few years from a young running back and worry about the next bridge when they approach it.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
So despite the poky 40, the high mileage and the running-backs-don’t-matter rhetoric, it’s clear there’s still a place in the NFL for a running back with Moss’ Beast Mode-without-baggage style of play. Especially once Moss revealed just who made the “cold tub” remark.
“It was from a team,” he said. In other words, it came up during a combine meeting or interview.
If NFL types think Moss hits hard, you know he hits hard. And drafting him, especially if his stock has slipped a bit, is starting to look like a shrewd business decision.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.