NEW ORLEANS -- Cary Williams had his “Welcome to the NFL moment” early in his second season.
The now-Ravens cornerback played for the Titans in 2009 and had the unenviable task of covering Randy Moss. Back then, Moss was a New England Patriot, catching go routes from Tom Brady.
But it took a bit of trickery for Williams to surrender his first touchdown pass as a pro.
“[Moss] hit me on a flea flicker; Brady threw a great pass, he made a great play,” Williams said of one of the three touchdown catches Moss had that day.
“You can’t sleep on Randy at all,” William said. “He’s a guy who can get over the top on you at any given moment.”
More than three years have passed since Moss, the enigmatic receiver who spends his offseasons in Boca Raton, torched Williams. And two weeks shy of his 36th birthday, Moss has lost at least a step — and maybe two — from his prime.
But Moss still has the ability to go up and over corners for the football — a leaping display dubbed as “Mossing” the opposing player — that should at least give the Ravens pause when the veteran receiver, now with the 49ers, takes the Superdome field Sunday.
After a year out of football, Moss found himself in a new, foreign role in San Francisco: veteran mentor. The one-time NFL bad-boy — kicked out of Florida State for drugs and run out of Minnesota for repeated character run-ins — has mellowed with age.
He has played Yoda to developing San Francisco receivers such as Michael Crabtree, and despite limited chances, still managed 28 catches for 434 yards and four touchdowns.
And while Moss’ physical skills might be diminished, his opinion of himself remains as strong as ever.
“I think when it comes to going out there, making plays and helping the team do the things that they are able to do to win the game — I think I am the greatest receiver ever, point blank,” Moss said this week.
Bold talk. But Moss’ stats suggest he at least belongs in the conversation.
His 156 career touchdown receptions are second in NFL history, and his receiving yards (15,292) rank third.
“You are talking about Randy Moss,” Crabtree said at Media Day on Tuesday. “He is a legendary wide receiver. His voice alone gets you hyped. Him being around just brings the best out of us.”
Quipped Ravens safety Bernard Pollard: “Randy is an amazing talent. He’s a veteran in that locker room who’s been there and who’s done that. I’ve got nothing but respect for the man.”
For many, Moss will forever be associated with his repeated screw-ups. That list is long — from giving questionable effort on the football field to admitted drug use to hitting a traffic officer with his car while making a wrong turn.
But Moss believes the public doesn’t know the true him and hopes to change that with his own words. He plans to write a book that will help people understand him better.
“I have been through a lot, and I put a lot of heart, soul and dedication into this,” Moss said. “Sacrificing each and every day to make sure I go out here and prepare myself to be the best. I think that is going to be one of the main focal points of my book.
“The approach that I took to be how I am.”
Whatever your opinion of Moss, the NFL is more interesting with him in it. And unlike Ray Lewis, who will retire after Sunday’s Super Bowl, Moss plans to return in 2013 for his 15th season.
“I love this game of football so much,” Moss said. “I don’t like everything that comes with it, but going out on the field between the white lines and playing football is something I’ve always done.
“For me to be here, it’s just like a dream because I would have never thought in a million years that this would happen.”