Randy Moss, the NFL’s busiest provocateur, was charged last month with trying to bulldoze a traffic officer with his Lexus. This is no surprise. Moss is an NFL wide receiver, and NFL wide receivers, by and large, are jerks. Not dirty players, mind you, or murderous off-field thugs—just your basic, run-of-the-mill jerks. At no other position will you find such a Rolodex of malcontents.
To wit: Moss loafed on the field last season and then declared, “I play when I want to play”; the year before, he doused a referee with a water bottle. Terrell Owens, of the San Francisco 49ers, once celebrated a touchdown by running to the 50-yard-line of Texas Stadium and thrusting his arms into the air; his antics this season have been confined to bawling out his coach and general manager. Then there’s Tampa Bay’s Keyshawn Johnson, who shrieked at his coach, Jon Gruden, during a Monday night victory over St. Louis. (Gruden had yanked him from the field for lining up in the wrong spot.) Johnson is the author of Just Give Me the Damn Ball!, an autobiography, which he summoned the energy to write after his rookie season.
Yes, yes, yes—Moss, Owens, and Johnson are spectacularly bad apples. But even lesser flankers seem hard-wired to become social pariahs. Eddie Kennison quit the Broncos the night before a game last season. Michael Westbrook yakked his way out of a Pro Bowl career in Washington; ditto Joey Galloway in Seattle. Terry Glenn missed so many team practices last season that the Patriots suspended him rather than have him around for their Super Bowl run. Even Cris Carter, whose career yardage ranks second all-time, was forced in March to retire after he blew off an audition with the Rams.
Other positions have their McEnroes, too—linebacker Bill Romanowski and quarterback Ryan Leaf come to mind—but none match the depth and depravity of wide receivers. So why are they so angry?
For one thing, there’s something about the kind of athlete who becomes a wide receiver. I asked Michael Irvin, who played 12 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, to describe his fellow wideouts; the first words out of his mouth were “egotistical” and “pretty boys.” Sports psychologist Chris Carr, who worked with the Arizona Cardinals, points out that the wide receiver is the most individualized offensive position in a team sport. It’s bound, then, to attract “me-first” players. And since the position prizes speed, coaches often harvest wideouts from the track-and-field sports, which for the most part glorify individual achievement.
But more importantly, the very nature of the position can turn sane, well-adjusted men into malcontents. The wideout is the only skill player locked in a Darwinian struggle to touch the football on every play. Think about it: The defense can’t keep the ball away from the quarterback, who handles the snap, or the running back, who is stationed close enough to the quarterback to receive the handoff. But the defense can hang cornerbacks and safeties all over the team’s most talented wideout, forcing the quarterback to lob the ball elsewhere. Irvin says, “For all the talent you have, for all the ability you have, they can take you out of the game.”
This explains not only the nature of the wideout’s outbursts—Give me the damn ball!—but also the near-cyclical eruptions among NFL stars like Moss, Owens, and Johnson. The better you are, the more likely you are to attract double- and triple-coverage and, in time, lash out.
(One study suggests that the college wide receivers may be better-adjusted than their NFL counterparts. Click here to read more.)
There’s also the problem of boredom. On plays not designed for them, wideouts have very little to do. They usually throw weak blocks or run “decoy routes” straight up the field, in the hope that defenders will follow. This can make the above problem even worse: Not only am I not getting the ball, I’m not even involved in the plays. When Moss says he takes plays off, he doesn’t mean those designed to get him the ball. He means the plays where he is expected to sprint up the field without payoff.
Among the offensive playmakers—the guys that sportswriters call on to “lead” the team—wide receivers have the least responsibility. Quarterbacks are drilled from grade school to be upright field marshals. Running backs rely on their offensive linemen and must win their respect. But wide receivers have no constituency and, hence, no true incentive to behave. Irvin says that one of his college coaches at Miami told him, “There are very few times you can lead a football team from the wide receiver position.” And, for that matter, few reasons you’d ever need to.