NEW ORLEANS — Randy Moss had been lying low. And then he went ahead and called himself the greatest wide receiver in the history of the NFL.

Everyone pounced on the proclamation, but hardly anybody agreed with Moss. The naysayers brandished statistics to demonstrate that Bay Area legend Jerry Rice was the best ever, and they went beyond Rice's massive leads in career catches, yards and touchdowns. Another number works to Rice's advantage. He owns three Super Bowl rings.

Moss is still looking for his first NFL title, a quest that may or may not end on the Superdome field this Sunday.

"I think that what I've accomplished in my professional career and throughout my whole life of playing football, I've really wanted a championship on every level," Moss said. "I've always told myself that I wanted to win a championship on this level. Having a Super Bowl ring, I think my career would be complete."

Whether you rank Moss first, second, third or further down the list, there is no denying his impact on the league. He burst upon the scene like a meteor as a rookie in 1998, outrunning, outleaping and outgrappling defensive backs all over the league. He has been voted to six Pro Bowls along the way, but it wasn't until the last of his Pro Bowl seasons, in 2007, that Moss finally played in a Super Bowl.

That was in 2007, when he broke the NFL record (previously held by Rice) with 23 touchdown receptions for New England, helping the Patriots go undefeated en route to Super Bowl XLII in Arizona. They were heavily favored over the New York Giants in that game, but lost 17-14 on a last-minute touchdown pass from Eli Manning to Plaxico Burress.

Moss still has not watched a replay.

"There's just something about '07, being undefeated going into a Super Bowl and losing it like that," he said. "I'll never forget that moment because it's not fun when you're sweating and you have confetti dropping down and sticking to your face, knowing that you're not on the winning side of the confetti."

Five years later, now 34, Moss is at a very different point in his career. He isn't setting records these days. In fact, he isn't seeing the field as much as he would like. Moss is the 49ers' No. 2 wide receiver (far below Michael Crabtree) only because of injuries to Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams. His 28 receptions and three touchdowns this year both tied for the lowest figures of his career.

While acknowledging the reality of the situation, Moss has stated more than once that he doesn't care for his supporting role in San Francisco.

But even a limited role is better than what Moss experienced a year ago. After a disastrous 2010 season divided among three different teams, he and the NFL seemed to reach a mutual agreement to part ways. Teams generally ignored Moss, while he decided it was time to spend more time with his four children. It wasn't an easy call.

"I really did cry. I really did," Moss said. "I love this game of football so much. 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. I've been doing it since I was 6 years old. For me to be able to just walk away from the game, knowing that I wasn't ready, mentally or physically, it really hurt me, man. It really depressed me."

Moss might have officially retired if it weren't for a conversation that he fixes in June of 2011. His mother had just prepared a "great dinner," and Moss' 18-year-old daughter Sydney asked him why he left football. Moss took the opportunity to explain the ramifications of his career, how it set up a comfortable life for his kids but took him away from them for too-long stretches.

Sydney's response surprised him. She said, "If you come back, I want you to win a Super Bowl, because I'm going to the University of Florida to win a national championship (in basketball)."

"That really made me smile, because I've never heard my daughter talk like that," Moss said.

So he started ramping up for a return. He started working out more, and initiated Moss TV, a direct stream of online communication with fans, in February 2012. The 49ers signed him on March 12. Some Niners fans probably cringed, knowing Moss' reputation for selfishness and remembering his two mediocre seasons with the Raiders in 2005-06.

What a lot of people don't realize is that practically all of his Raiders teammates loved having him around. And his new 49ers cohorts soon found out why. Moss is known as a hard worker on the practice field, while simultaneously keeping things loose with nonstop banter, delivered in his West Virginia drawl. Beyond his vast natural abilities, Moss has encyclopedic knowledge of how to play wide receiver, and is generous in sharing it.

Even the 49ers' lower-rung receivers found Moss easy to be around.

Kyle Williams said his first memory of Moss this year was the veteran attacking a one-man blocking sled at a voluntary offseason workout, shouting to everyone how he was another Usain Bolt, leaving everyone in the dust. Chad Hall, signed to the 49ers practice squad in late November, said he was in Santa Clara for about five minutes when Moss approached and barked, "Hey, did Marshall recruit you?"

Huh? Moss knew who Hall was, and wanted to know if his alma mater had recruited him.

"He's funny," Hall said. "He keeps our meeting rooms entertaining. He's just unbelievable. I never expected him to be that outgoing. He's just an extrovert."

Moss has antagonized outside observers in any number of ways, from squirting an official with a plastic water bottle in 2000, to pretending to moon the crowd at Lambeau Field in 2004, to leaving the field with two seconds left as the Vikings attempted an onside kick in 2005 (an incident that drew a rebuke from then-teammate Matt Birk, now the Baltimore Ravens center), to admitting he smoked dope "once every blue moon" while with the Raiders.

It all helps to paint Moss as a villain. He doesn't take it that seriously.

"I love the game," he said. "I love to play in between the white lines. It's like a kid at school, when you're sitting in the classroom and the teacher says it's recess and that door opens. All the kids just go running and screaming and jumping on swing sets and swinging and stuff. That's kind of how I treat the football field, because we are clamped up all week. We have to do the interviews and things like that. Once it's kickoff, it's like you're opening that door."

Moss will open the door again this Sunday. He hopes to exit on the right side of the confetti this time.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.