- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 22, 2006

John Jefferson started laughing even before the question about those who play a certain position, his position, was finished. He knew where it was going.

“You hate to say it’s what the public wants, but unfortunately it seems like the more distractions you create, the more positive it is,” said Jefferson, the Redskins’ director of player development and a wide receiver of some distinction with the San Diego Chargers and Green Bay Packers in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

This was a couple of weeks ago, a few days after Cincinnati’s Chad Johnson, who flashes gold teeth and has sported a golden mohawk, came out for warmups before a game against Baltimore wearing his self-dubbed nickname, “Ocho Cinco,” on his back (for which he got fined). Leading up to the game, Johnson said he would hit Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis in the mouth. After the Bengals lost, Johnson loudly complained about his lack of action. He likened himself to a “hood ornament.”

Also that week, the Giants’ Plaxico Burress publicly trashed the Chicago secondary before New York’s 38-20 loss to the Bears, and an ESPN commentator predicted Terrell Owens would cause Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells to quit by the end of the season. The next week, Randy Moss pouted about being “unhappy.”

Johnson, Burress and Owens and Moss are, of course, wide receivers being wide receivers. The position has assumed its own set of traits and specifications beyond hands, speed and agility. They stand apart with their incredible athleticism and ballet-like grace. And also with how they preen, provoke and display their petulance.

“You look at Marvin Harrison, guys like that, who they should be talking about, but they’re not talking about them,” Jefferson said. “You tend to focus on those who act crazy.”

Even Harrison, the Indianapolis Colts’ Hall of Fame-bound receiver known for his quiet modesty and discomfort with the limelight, had his moment of craziness a few weeks ago. He was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after spiking the ball in the vicinity of a New England Patriots player after scoring a touchdown.

The display was stunning and out of character. Harrison eschews end zone celebrations and bulletin board quotes. Any complaints are taken to the coaches behind closed doors. He stands out because his decorum on and off the field does not.

“It’s clear that there are divas out there, and they tend to be receivers,” Jefferson said.

There it is, the D-word. The original definition of “diva” applies to certain female opera singers, but it has assumed a whole new meaning. One dictionary defines diva as “prima donna” (another opera term), which is subsequently defined as “a vain or undisciplined person who finds it difficult to work under direction or part of a team.”

Bingo. And no, Owens’ picture was not included.

Exhibit A used to be Moss, but he seems to have vanished. Actually, he’s in Oakland, but that’s pretty much the same thing. Moss briefly resurfaced last week at a dinner where a college award was named after him.

When asked about why he was dropping so many passes, he replied, “Maybe it’s because I’m unhappy, and I’m not too much excited about what’s going on, so my concentration and focus level tends to go down when I’m in a bad mood. So all I can say is if you put me in a good situation and make me happy, man, you get results.”

You can’t make this stuff up.

But Owens now is the reigning template for temperamental. He is supremely gifted. His words, actions and attitude also helped damage the internal organs of two franchises. Mark Schlereth ventured on ESPN that Owens’ would be Parcells’ undoing, but that was after the Cowboys lost to the Redskins. Since then, Dallas has won two straight, including a victory Sunday over previously unbeaten Indianapolis. So all appears well in Big D. But with Owens, you never know.

Still, it’s not just him. The position is called “receiver,” not “giver,” for a reason. No one talks about diva running backs, guards or linebackers. Acting out is so ingrained in wide receivers that some who play it fail to notice anything unusual.

“I don’t know anything about this diva thing,” Dolphins receiver Marty Booker told the Palm Beach Post last year. “To play receiver in this league, sometimes you have to be demanding and selfish.”

And a showoff. What hath Elmo Wright wrought? A Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver, Wright in 1973 was the first player to dance in the end zone. Eight years earlier, Homer Jones became the first to spike the ball. Guess what position he played? Since then, a simple spike or dance has evolved into Showtime. Receivers elevated end zone celebrations (Joe Horn’s cell phone, Owens’ Sharpie, etc.) to such high art, or low comedy, that the NFL had to enact legislation limiting such irrational exuberance.

This did not prevent ESPN from taping some commercials with Johnson, as opposed to a runner or a quarterback, that celebrated his celebrations.

“It goes beyond entertainment sometimes,” said Jefferson, who is admittedly old school. “It’s not necessary, especially if it hurts your team. Just do your job like everybody else. It takes 11 people to get you in the end zone, not just one.”

There’s a quaint notion. But you can’t spell receiver without “I.” They are like thoroughbreds — fast, sleek, high-strung — and they love to be the first across the finish (goal) line. Then they remind the world of what they just did.

“They just think they’re better than everybody else,” said Redskins fullback Mike Sellers, whose job description includes the type of grunt work that wide receivers eschew. “They’re not playing within the system.”

Of course, the entire perception is fraught with stereotyping and laced with generalizations. Many (OK, some) top receivers, such as Harrison, are content to do their jobs and keep their mouths (mostly) shut. The Redskins’ Santana Moss is one of those. He lets his play do the talking.

“I don’t do what I don’t do” is how he explained it. “I do me. It works fine for me.”

Moss himself used the term, “prima donna,” to describe his brethren, but another Redskins receiver, Brandon Lloyd, was downright offended when the subject was broached.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he told a reporter, adding, “I think that you’re not doing a very good job of writing your article. … I don’t think it has anything to do with being a receiver.”

His face was entirely straight.

Perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps being a receiver has nothing to do with Lloyd, a rapper in his spare time, composing a ditty called “Bad Child,” which includes the lyrics, “Those crackers in San Fran act like they couldn’t stand B; [Expletive], 29 mil later, now you understand me.”

Maybe that’s just him.

Sometimes lyrics are intentionally vague, and it is unclear what Lloyd means by “crackers.” But “San Fran” would seem to indicate the San Francisco 49ers, the team that traded him to the Redskins during the offseason. “B” probably means “Brandon,” as in “Brandon Lloyd,” and “29 mil later” likely refers to the value of his new contract (although it has been reported at $30 million, which means he is actually underselling himself). As for the expletive, well, you know kids today and their crazy music.

In fairness, Lloyd so far has handled without public complaint what has proven to be a limited role.

“I can think of two numbers that need to be called before my number,” he told reporters last month, speaking of Moss and running back Clinton Portis. “I’m not in a position to pout.”

Portis, however, is hurt now. So just watch and wait.

Lloyd apparently still has an axe to grind with his former employers, but that hardly makes him unique. Type into Google “wide receivers” and “disgruntled” and 14 names quickly turn up. (Do “guard” and “disgruntled” and you get a lot of basketball players.) Lloyd, when he was with the Niners, is among the names, along with Owens, Randy Moss, Deion Branch, Javon Walker, Laveranues Coles, Ashley Lelie and, yes, Santana Moss. All to some extent used their disgruntledness — which generally comes down to not having enough passes, or money, thrown their way — to force exits from their previous teams.

Receivers aren’t the only ones to gripe about not getting enough action (running backs Rudi Johnson and Jamal Lewis have complained about their lack of carries). But they do seem to dominate the conversation. It seems to be getting increasingly difficult to find anyone who feels appreciated or actually gruntled. Like spoiled children, however, sometimes they get what they want. Sometimes they’re even right. Buffalo’s Lee Evans on Sunday —one week after complaining about the play-calling — caught 11 passes for 265 yards and two touchdowns.

“It’s just one of those positions,” said Redskins defensive back Troy Vincent, a 15-year veteran. “I’ve seen it throughout all of my time. But that’s what makes them special, as well. It’s confidence. They want the ball.”

Many theories have been proffered about why they act as they do. The nature of the position — wide receiver — sets them apart from their teammates, and their livelihood depends largely on the number of balls they catch.

“Out of frustration they want the football,” Vincent said. “They believe with the football in their hands they can make things happen. And in most cases they do. But even when they’re getting the touches they want, it’s never enough balls.”

According to psychologist Stanley Teitelbaum, author of the book, “Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols,” “Wide receivers, I think, tend to have a very powerful envy and resentment toward the quarterback. Quarterbacks are the poster boys. Quarterbacks get the attention. The wide receiver feels he’s the one who brings home the bacon and gets the ball into the end zone. He feels underappreciated and underacknowledged.”

Lest anyone think this is so much psychobabble, here is what Santana Moss had to say: “We’re not the main attractions. Running backs and quarterbacks are the guys on the offense, so wide receivers have got to be vocal to try to get something to acknowledge what they’re doing.”

But they hate to be acknowledged by opposing defenses. Two Sundays ago, Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh was knocked silly by San Diego safety Marlon McCree. It was pass interference, and the Chargers were duly penalized 15 yards. But that was it. No fine or ejection. Note how the two principals reacted afterward.

McCree: “It was a bad play on my part. … I apologize to Houshmandzadeh. I’m going to pray for him, and I’m going to call him because the last thing I want to do is to end a guy’s career on some cheap shot. I’m not a cheap player. I’ve never played this game to be dirty or to hurt anybody.”

Houshmandzadeh: “[McCree] be in L.A. though, I’m a holla at him when he got out in L.A. He better have a good reason ‘cause I’m a have a good reason to whoop his [expletive]. … Me and my homeboys who be out in L.A. gonna have something to say to him.”

It might have been the concussion talking. Or, as Sellers said, “Maybe [receivers] weren’t loved at home when they were kids.”

He was kidding, but Owens and Coles, notably, have written or talked about their dysfunctional childhoods. There are probably others.

It’s hard to pin down where all this started, although the Dallas Cowboys’ Michael Irvin and his flamboyant persona might be a good place to start. The movement definitely picked up steam in 1997 when Keyshawn Johnson wrote a book, “Just Give Me the Damn Ball,” which sort of sums it all up.

“Today’s athlete is much different,” said Vincent, whose NFL career began in 1992. “The era these young men are growing up in is different. They’re very independent, that Generation X.”

Actually, Vincent was a little off, but the point was clear. He meant the Me Generation.

Ranking the top three “diva” wide receivers in the NFL:

1. TERRELL OWENS

11th season, Dallas Cowboys

T.O. alienated just about everyone in the 49ers and Eagles organizations and seems determined to do the same with his new team, the Cowboys. Owens set an NFL record this season by becoming the first active receiver to be forced at a press conference to deny he had just attempted suicide.

2. CHADJOHNSON

Sixth season, Cincinnati Bengals

More playfully dramatic than destructive, Johnson is best known for his colorful celebrations in the end zone. This season, Johnson debuted a gold mohawk and dubbed himself “Ocho Cinco,” even wearing the nickname on the back of his jersey.

3. RANDYMOSS

Ninth season, Oakland Raiders

Moss has starred in run-ins with the law at every level of the game — high school, college, pros. For Moss, the buck stops with his teammates: He blamed his subpar performance this season not on himself but on the Raiders’ lousy record.

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