PITTSBURGH — The chip is still there, Lance Moore insists, and it’s just as weighty and sharp as ever.
Eight years in the NFL and a Super Bowl ring have done little to make the Pittsburgh Steelers’ wide receiver forget his modest roots.
He can still rattle off the name of the players who beat him out for a job with the Cleveland Browns during his first training camp nearly a decade ago even though he was a long-shot undrafted free agent at the time.
Most of them are long gone.
He’s still around, still trying to prove himself, still nervous he could find himself out of a job at any minute.
“I don’t know if I ever really let myself get comfortable,” Moore said.
Even if Moore spent eight productive seasons helping Drew Brees and Sean Payton turn the New Orleans Saints into one of the NFL’s most consistent winners. On a team of undersized and underappreciated talent, the 5-foot-9 Moore found a home. He caught 38 touchdown passes in 101 games with New Orleans, morphing from special teams ace to indispensable red zone target.
Until, of course, the math got in the way. A hand injury limited Moore to just 37 receptions and two scores in 2013. Knowing he was owed $3.8 million in 2014, Moore wasn’t surprised when the Saints cut him loose this spring.
“That’s how it goes in this game,” Moore said. “A lot of teams are trying to get younger and cheaper at the same time.”
Moore turns 31 in August. He understands he’s well into the second half of an NFL journey that is already longer than he ever anticipated, yet there is something about the opportunity with the Steelers that intrigues him.
Maybe it’s because playing slot receiver in Pittsburgh is like discovering the NFL’s fountain of youth. Hines Ward was effective well into the final days of his 14-year career before retiring in 2012. He was replaced by Jerricho Cotchery, who scored a remarkable 10 touchdowns for the Steelers in 2013 at age 31.
Cotchery turned all those scores into a lucrative contract with Carolina.
Enter Moore, who lacks Cotchery’s size and Ward’s tenacious blocking skills but makes up for it with what he describes as “football savvy.”
“I’ve been little for a long time,” Moore said. “I am not getting any bigger. I am 30 years old. I am happy in this body. I feel like I have made a lot of plays and will continue to do that.”
It’s exactly what the Steelers had in mind when they signed Moore to a two-year deal in March, an agreement that came with more than a little help from backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who spent four years rooming with Moore when the two played at Toledo.
Gradkowski started calling Pittsburgh coaches about Moore the second his good friend was released by New Orleans. It didn’t take long for something to get done. Moore wasn’t about to sit around and wait for a more lucrative offer than the one that will pay him a total of $3 million if he makes it through the 2015 season.
“You look at this franchise, what it stands for and you know they’re about winning,” Moore said. “You get a chance to play with somebody like (quarterback) Ben (Roethlisberger) and you don’t turn it down.”
It hasn’t taken long for Moore to win over Roethlisberger, who called his newest target “a pro” who hasn’t needed much time to pick up the nuances of an offense that is reshaping itself, particularly at wide receiver.
Pro Bowler Antonio Brown is the unit’s unquestioned leader, but the departure of Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders a year after Mike Wallace bolted for Miami has spearheaded a youth movement. The list of players jockeying for position with Moore include second-year players Justin Brown and Markus Wheaton and rookie Martavis Bryant.
Moore admits it’s a little weird being the old guy in meeting rooms. He’s nearly five years Brown’s senior and will be one of only three players in their 30s among Pittsburgh’s offensive regulars, joining Roethlisberger and tight end Heath Miller.
It could be worse. Moore couldn’t be here at all. If this is the beginning of the end, he’ll take it. He’s close to his boyhood home in Ohio on a team expecting to win after a pair of mediocre 8-8 seasons. His new team expects to play a lot like its new wide receiver: with a chip that likely won’t go away anytime soon.
“You’ve got to keep that,” Moore said. “In this league, that can make the difference.”