Hey, look at me: the evolution of the egocentric wide receiver

Owens, Moss exemplify new brand of cocky pass-catchers

NFL Gameday

Week Three

September 26, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,Sun reporter

They run and jump like track athletes while risking back-cracking hits on every play.

That's why NFL wide receivers have long ranked among the most watchable performers in sport. But, in recent years, they have gained notoriety of a different sort.

Superstar wide-outs Randy Moss and Terrell Owens, whose teams met yesterday in Philadelphia, are almost as well-known for their histrionic celebrations and brutally honest comments as they are for their play.

In the past year, Moss has admitted using marijuana and been labeled disgusting by a Fox announcer after he feigned mooning Green Bay fans.

Owens, meanwhile, became the story of training camp with his threats to hold out and his refusal to speak with All-Pro quarterback Donovan McNabb. His touchdown celebrations - whether signing a ball with a Sharpie or posing on the Dallas Cowboys' midfield star - are infamous.

They're the leaders of a pack that also includes Keyshawn "Give Me the Damn Ball" Johnson, Joe Horn (his cell-phone call after a touchdown drew a $30,000 fine) and Chad Johnson (he held up a sign asking the league not to fine him, which resulted in a $10,000 fine).

Receivers aren't the only ones capable of on-field flamboyance or off-field cockiness. Deion Sanders was the prime minister of sports ego as a cornerback and kick returner. Ray Lewis' tunnel dance and mid-game exhortations are emblems of the Ravens' confident defense.

But Owens and Moss have created an aura around pass catchers that wasn't there a generation ago.

Just look at the position's image in broader culture. The moody, self-obsessed player in the movie Jerry Maguire? A wide receiver. Leon, the hopeless braggart in Budweiser beer commercials? A wide receiver.

"It has really become evident that those traits of being an egocentric, self-centered type athlete are found in a lot of wide receivers today," said Hall of Fame split end Raymond Berry. "Why that is, I'm not sure."

The image shift is unmistakable, said Gene Washington, a former Pro Bowl receiver who, as a league official, metes out discipline for player-to-player taunting. Much of the explanation lies in opportunity, said Washington, noting the shift from run-dominated offenses in the 1970s to today's pass-dominated offenses.

"In my mind, the star running back transitioned to the star receiver," Washington said. "Those guys are going to have the opportunity to showcase themselves with big plays. Now they don't have to showboat, but if it's in their nature, they're going to have opportunities."

Others said all wide receivers shouldn't be painted with the same brush as Owens and Moss.

"I think those two guys garner most of the attention at that position," said Jim Steiner, a longtime NFL agent who represented Jerry Rice. "But then you look at a guy like Marvin Harrison, and he goes about his business in a very Rice-like manner. He gets accolades for his play."

Ravens lead receiver Derrick Mason agreed, but said he understands why some are more flamboyant.

"In order for you to be put out on commercials and get talked about every week, you have to do something or say something," Mason said. "People like Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, they just do their job and don't make a big fuss. But you don't hear anything about them. Then, you have the Randys, Terrells and Chads [Johnson]. They are good players, but they add something extra - whether they say something or do a dance. They get the limelight instead of the other guys."

Steiner said such thinking can backfire.

"I think a lot of that stuff is perceived as negative by the public, and that doesn't translate to marketing dollars," he said, adding he would advise his clients against taunting.

Pro football has been around for more than 80 years, and for the first 50 or so, players hardly ever celebrated on the field after big plays. To do so would have been risky, old-timers said, because there were few penalties to deter opponents from seeking violent retribution.

But more than anything, Berry said, players would have never thought to be brash on the field.

"The first people you would've heard from were your teammates," he said. "They would not have tolerated that. And we had coaches who would not have tolerated that sort of thing either."

Many cite Hall of Fame Philadelphia receiver Tommy McDonald, who would flip the ball into the stands after scoring in the 1960s, as the father of on-field celebrations.

The mid-1970s brought receiver/return specialist Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, who would gyrate in a dance he called the "Funky Chicken" after scoring.

In the early 1980s, Washington's "Fun Bunch" of receivers popularized the group high-five. Their act prompted the league to ban group celebrations in 1984. The rule was relaxed a few years later but returned in 2004. Excessive celebrations now draw 15-yard penalties and fines from the league office.

But even as touchdown dances evolved, few star receivers were known as brash individualists.

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