TAMPA, Fla. - The Bengals head into their first preseason game in two years Saturday night (7:30-Cincinnati's Channel 12) literally in the eye of the storm with Hall-of-Fame traveling exhibit Tom Brady supposed to take the first couple of snaps for the Super Bowl champion Buccaneers.
Brady figures to be on the field slightly longer than the first commercial break and the bulk of Tropical Storm Fred is supposed to veer away from Raymond James Stadium as the annual Pandora's Box of roster battles begins.
But no matter for second-year tight end Thaddeus Moss, one of the guys in the thick of the numbers. There isn't much he hasn't seen in the 23 years he has quickly grown up.
"I don't really know if you can be immature with a lot of cameras on you and also have a parent that has that high profile like that," said Moss coming off the practice field this week after again impressing the coaches with his attention to detail and overflowing intangibles. "It's hard to be immature."
Moss remembers where he was sitting in Paul Brown Stadium when he was nine and came across the river to watch his father catch two touchdowns from Brady in a 2007 Monday night game. Pro Football Hall-of-Fame wide receiver Randy Moss went for 102 yards that night the Patriots beat the Bengals and the son can still see the end zone where the dad caught balls of seven and 14 yards.
"I'm pretty sure it was the same one. That one," said Thaddeus Moss, pointing back to the city, wearing the No. 81 his dad wore for the Pats.
An NFL preseason opener?
Moss, who won a high school state title in North Carolina, was one of Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow's go-to-guys in LSU's unbeaten national championship season two years ago when he caught 47 balls for 570 yards and four touchdowns.
"He's smart. Humble guy and smart. Detailed. Tough. He's got all the intangibles you want in a tight end," said Bengals tight ends coach James Casey, who should know after playing 95 NFL games at the position. "I've really been impressed with him as a route runner. He does a good job using his hands, getting separation at the top of the route. He does a good job getting in and out of cuts."
The bright lights?
Come to think of it, Moss thinks his first pee wee game was in an NFL stadium. Not only that, it was The Paul, back when he was growing up in Northern Kentucky between third grade and high school. His mother confirms that it, indeed, was.
"All he's ever wanted to do is play football," Lydia Moss said. "We've sat around as a family and talked about how it's all coming full circle for him."
Thaddeus Moss won it all in his last college game in the same New Orleans dome his dad lost the Super Bowl in his last NFL game. There was the son's disappointment of not getting drafted last year and Randy Moss telling him of the devastation of falling to No. 21 in the first round after being told he was a top pick.
"You have to give your kids stories to relate to," said Lydia Moss, recalling that April day of 1998. "To even be told from certain people, 'We're going to take you here,' and then you get to the day of … He said I knew if I just got the chance I was going to make the most of it. He was just telling Thad, it doesn't count you out. Just make them all pay for it like he did."
As they say, the kid has been there before. His whole life. Two weeks after that draft, Thaddeus was born.
"He's a thinker. He's constantly thinking. Like an old man," Lydia Moss said. "He had to grow up a lot faster. He's a big guy. People tend to talk to you and say things to you and they don't realize he's quite younger. He's just big."
It looks like there is a big tractor pull for the job behind the top two tight ends in C.J. Uzomah and Drew Sample if they do the expected and keep three. Mason Schreck, in his fifth training camp after being taken in the seventh round, has the experience with 22 games. Mitchell Wilcox, who spent his rookie year on the practice squad after being undrafted, has the speed but is seeking consistency.
And there is Moss, who lost last year's rookie year after signing with Washington after the draft. He had just one camp practice as a rookie last year before going on injured reserve and when Washington cut him just before this last draft, the Bengals claimed him, which is what Moss has seemed to want all along.
"Cincinnati is where I wanted to be even before the draft. I wanted to be here," Moss said. "The way things unfolded after the draft, I ended up in Washington. Everything worked out. I'm wanted here and it feels good to be here."
After being so big for so long at 6-3, 249 pounds, Moss is supposedly too small to play NFL tight end. Casey, who played at 6-3, 235 in this system, is certainly not going to buy that.
"If you're a tough guy with good technique, it can be done. He's big enough," Casey said. "He's just not the typical big guy. But quickness and technique is more important in the zone run game and he's quick."
What's nice for this group of tight ends is that Casey played under Bengals offensive line coach Frank Pollack when Pollack was the assistant line coach for the Texans and Pollack has brought that same kind of Gary Kubiak-Kyle Shanahan-John Benton wide zone scheme that Casey had in Houston.
"Frank and I have been able to go through some short cuts in the learning curve for these guys," Casey said.
Moss has been hearing about more than his lack of size. He missed the 2018 season at LSU because of a broken foot and then missed all last year.
"I said at the beginning of camp, just line up and let's play ball," Thaddeus Moss said. "I feel like it's that simple. The last year and a half, two years, I've heard a lot of stuff. That's my mindset. Just play. Whatever it is. Size. Speed. Durability. I'm not out to prove people wrong. I just want to keep playing football and let the people talk."
His mother says it's nice he's back in a familiar area, but she also knows for every person that comes up and says something like, 'You played with my grandson,' there's just a little more pressure. But he's also got familiar guys around that take the pressure off. Like college teammates in Burrow and rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, guys with whom he feels quite comfortable.
"We all had the same mindset," Moss said. "Winning. Being perfect. All three of us are perfectionists. Mature. We work hard. Like doing things the right way… I think that's why we all get along."
Moss and Burrow have started up locker room chess matches even though Burrow has been at the game since high school and Moss just picked it up a couple of months ago while he was training in the offseason.
"The guy I was training with posted it on Instagram and Joe saw it and commented on it," Moss said. "It started well. Best two out of three. I won two. I'm down now. He's been playing a lot longer. That's what I keep telling him. It doesn't matter. We'll keep playing the rest of the year."
Moss hopes those games are in the locker room and not on his phone. But he's been learning quite a bit that way via chess.com while playing a variety of people.
"I'm trying to learn different moves and different strategies," Moss said. "I like being aggressive with the Queen and being smart with the Queen."
All of this can't surprise Lydia Moss, whose oldest learned by watching.
"When you're young and you want to be a football player, it's before you know what it means mentally and physically," she said. "He started connecting with his father more when he got into college, because now he could see a lot of the things he had been teaching and preparing him for. He was starting to make the connections."
He's been waiting to make Saturday night's opening move for a lifetime.