x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Why we love or loath the wide receivers

In the week Plaxico Burress started a jail term, Ron Borges looks at 'the divas of the professional game'.

The New Orleans Saints were penalised for unsportsmanlike conduct after this celebration by the wide receiver Joe Horn.
The New Orleans Saints were penalised for unsportsmanlike conduct after this celebration by the wide receiver Joe Horn.

Wide receivers have long been considered a most difficult class of employees by the National Football League (NFL). They are the divas of the professional game, the guys who make Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan appear low maintenance. Traditional wisdom blames this on sports television's fixation with highlight clips, agents, the players' upbringing and the pampering they get from coaches because they were blessed to be fast runners and in possession of hands often twice the normal size.

But such behaviour dates back to a guy named Elmo Wright. Wright, who was not a bad fellow, was a wide receiver for the Kansas City Chiefs. By most accounts it was Wright who launched into the first NFL end-zone celebration in 1973 after scoring a touchdown, giving birth to a sense of individual expression that those who followed him have taken to unfathomable depths of vainglorious self-aggrandisement.

Wright actually began the phenomenon in 1969 while playing for the University of Houston. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) had that year banned spiking the football after scoring a touchdown so Wright sought a new form of self-expression. He settled upon a dance. At the time it was considered amusing, dance fever and disco then being in vogue. But that was before the age of mobile phones.

Thirty years after Wright's first NFL display, New Orleans Saints' wide receiver Joe Horn was fined US$30,000 (Dh110,000) by the league in 2003 after pulling out a phone he had hidden in a goal post pad and using it to call his mother after scoring the second of his four touchdowns in a nationally televised game. He later made back that money and a lot more doing phone commercials. However, such an action looks almost humble when compared to the standards of mercurial divas like Terrell Owens (TO), Chad Ochocinco (previously known as Chad Johnson until he officially changed his surname to match the numbers on his back...in Spanish), Plaxico Burress, Brandon Marshall and Keyshawn Johnson (who was dubbed "Me-Shawn'"by his teammates).

Suffice to say, TO or Ochocinco probably have not spent much time musing over John Donne's Meditation XVII. That is the one by the British poet and thinker who wrote: "No man is an Island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main." In the eyes of NFL wide receivers they are the main, and according to sports psychologist Dr Joel Goldberg, who once worked with the New York Giants, it all makes sense. "The position is unlike anything else in football, You're by yourself. You're not part of the team. You're out there alone," Dr Goldberg said.

He was referring to the demands of a job that asks lanky men to run through the heart of a defence, sacrificing their bodies to catch a football while knowing that at some point they will be clobbered by defensive players anxious to inflict serious phyical pain. It is a solitary job to be sure, and one not necessarily in concert with the rest of the offence. Certainly the quarterback has to get the receiver the ball, but the receiver himself can often save the quarterback by making circus catches that often put his body in jeopardy when he is outstretched and fully exposed.

None of his teammates can do a thing to help him then. He stands, or falls, alone. Successful line play and blocking is based on a group of players working in concert. The same is true of running the ball or playing defence. But getting open is solely done by a receiver. Same is true of catching the ball. And so, Dr. Goldberg believes, selfishness is born. It was a receiver who first spiked a football in the end zone.

It was a receiver, dear Elmo, who first danced in the end zone after a touchdown. It was receivers who first came up with organised group celebrations now banned by the NFL. This one-upmanship has led to more and more outrageous behaviour, on and off the field, culminating in a recent spate of absurd situations. Owens, still one of the NFL's premier receivers at 35, was released by the Dallas Cowboys in March.

He was too much of a distraction after accusing his quarterback, Tony Romo, of conspiring to throw the ball to others and freeze him out. He is now in Buffalo, the only team interested in signing a future Hall of Famer. It is his fourth NFL team. Plaxico Burress, a Super Bowl XLII hero for catching the winning touchdown pass for the Giants two years ago, is in prison after having shot himself in the leg while sitting in the VIP section of a Manhattan nightclub.

In the two years prior to that incident, Burress was reportedly fined more than 50 times by his team for being late, missing meetings and other transgressions. When he was finally sent to prison Burress seemed shocked, never once believing the law applied to him. The Denver Broncos' Marshall has been in a season-long huff because his team refused to re-write his contract. He demanded to be traded, sulked when he was not, got into numerous public arguments with new head coach Josh McDaniels and was finally suspended for a week after refusing to catch passes thrown at him during practice.

Former Broncos' All-Pro tight end Shannon Sharpe, now a radio and TV commentator, recently tried to counsel Marshall. "I said, 'you play for one (NFL team) so there's 31 left.' I said, 'every time you touch the field, be it practice or a game, you are auditioning for those other 31 teams.' I said, 'Brandon, what you did was wrong. I understand you want more money and I agree with you. I think you deserve more money but you have to understand about your behaviour. How can they bestow all this money upon you if you're acting up with the little bit of money you're making?'

"I said, 'you know what? I'm glad I wasn't there because you and I would have had some problems ?when you come through those doors you are going to be a professional at all times or then you're going to have a problem with me.'" That is the kind of lecture such players seldom receive. Not so many years ago an aging receiver named Stanley Morgan landed with the Indianapolis Colts. He was brought there by a staff that he had helped get fired in New England because he rebelled against the coaching philosophy. As he ran toward the practice field one of the coaches was asked how this could be.

"We're all whores for talent," he said matter of factly. That, of course, is what the football divas count on and most often it seems they are right. Wide receiver is a position judged not on victories but on statistics. Yards, touchdowns, receptions, all individual acts, are the measuring stick. The proof of that is New England wide receiver Randy Moss. He is considered one of the league's best and a sure Hall of Famer, yet no team he ever played on has won a championship.

"A guy as talented as him has been traded twice," said his quarterback, Tom Brady. "That says a lot." At no other position do we see these kind of statistics among its most talented players: Owens on his fourth team, Moss on his third, Burress will head to his third once he is freed from prison in two years, Donte Stallworth on a fourth different team in four years before being suspended for the season after being involved in a hit and run fatality at 7am in Miami Beach.

The devolution of the wide receiver into petulant child has gotten to the point where even someone who shared both the position's risks and its self-absorption recently spoke out on it. "I never thought it would come to this," Jerry Rice told FoxSports.com when commenting on Marshall purposely dropping balls in practice to try and get himself traded. "You don't drop footballs. It's all about me, me, me. Things have gotten out of hand with wide receivers."

This from a guy who once got into a sideline argument with a quarterback because he didn't feel he was being thrown the ball enough in an All-Star game. Narcissism seems a necessary part of a position that demands a player accept the certainty of blindside hits and being left utterly exposed to opponents coming at them like human missiles when they are totally unprotected. To do that, as Rice puts it, "You have to be selfish. You have to want the ball."

Yet even he realises it's all gone too far when someone like Owens has been unable to get along with his quarterback on three different teams or Moss declares, as he once did: "I play when I want to play." His former team then comes up with the Randy Ratio - the brainchild of then Minnesota Vikings' head coach Mike Tice, who told his quarterback and offensive coordinator must make sure to get Moss the ball on at least 40 per cent of the team's offensive plays, regardless of the defence they were facing.

Wide receiver is also a position that has produced someone like David Boston, who was briefly a star before flaming out under the weight of his own ego. Boston once asked his teammates with the Arizona Cardinals not to hit him during practice because his nipples were still tender from a recent piercing. Can you imagine Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis or Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu seeking the same forbearance?

Keyshawn Johnson, cousin of the Cincinnati Bengals' flamboyant Ochocinco, is now the voice of reason on Sunday's NFL TV coverage, but he once wrote a book whose title was Just Give Me The Damn Ball. It was written after his rookie season when he had not done much with the ball for the New York Jets despite having been the league's No 1 draft choice. Later he would help win a Super Bowl in Tampa, but also be sent home with pay for the final six games one season after a sideline shouting match with head coach Jon Gruden.

Gruden did not even bother to suspend him. He just asked him to go away. Trent Dilfer, ESPN football analyst and former Super Bowl winning quarterback, has an interesting thought on how this came to be. He uses as a case study Cleveland Browns wide receiver Braylon Edwards, a former teammate. Edwards has a vast store of talent but has exhibited it only in spurts, spending more time complaining, talking and seeking a trade or a new contract than performing on the field.

Edwards said he found this initially unusual because he knew him to be a guy who understood right from wrong and came from a strong family background. The more he thought about it, the more he came to an interesting conclusion about the divas of the NFL. "It's learned behaviour," Dilfer said. "Braylon chose to become a diva. He thinks it's what he's supposed to be. These guys come into the league and their role models are divas."

Actually, sometimes they do not even have to get into the league. Michael Crabtree, the first round pick of the San Francisco 49ers, has not signed a contract and is threatening to sit out the entire season. He says he should be the highest paid receiver chosen in this year's draft, even though the Oakland Raiders selected Darrius Heyward-Bey ahead of him. Crabtree argues he should be paid more as he was ranked ahead of Hayward-Bey by many experts before the draft took place.

So while Heyward-Bey caught his first NFL pass last weekend, Crabtree remains a diva in waiting. rborges@thenational.ae