What gives with the guys who play at the NFL's "diva'' position? Take the past year or so, place the storylines side by side, and it's an astounding array of collateral damage on the image front for the league's pass-catching set. It sent me to league sources this week asking one fundamental question: Is it even worth a team's trouble to have a star receiver these days, when so many of them seem to wind up as poster children for how to derail a career?
"It comes down to receiver being such an ESPN position,'' one veteran AFC personnel executive said. "It's a position based on stats. Their yards, catches, and touchdowns. That's how those guys measure themselves. That's how they get paid. It's not necessarily a team position. It can be. But it's not necessarily one. It's an individual position. So there's a selfishness that goes with that position.
"I've always said that receiver is the closest thing in the NFL to being a basketball player. It's a 'me' position. Basketball players can try to win a game by themselves. But you really can't do that much in football. It's really a different phenomena, and you get a different type of personality that plays the position.''
What an NFL club is liable to get these days from one of the game's elite receivers is the kind of unwanted attention and headaches that have become commonplace since last offseason. Just to refresh your memory, here are just some of the recent highlights of receivers in the news:
• Cleveland's Stallworth is suspended indefinitely by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell two days after pleading guilty to a DUI manslaughter charge. In an early morning accident in Miami in March, Stallworth struck and killed a pedestrian while driving drunk. He began a 30-day jail sentence Tuesday and will be on house arrest for two years after being released.
• Ex-Giant Burress has been charged with two counts of second-degree criminal possession of a weapon after shooting himself in the leg with an illegal gun in a Manhattan night club last November. The Giants eventually suspended Burress, before releasing him.
• Carolina's Steve Smith punched out his teammate, Ken Lucas, in training camp last year, earning a two-game suspension for an outburst that broke Lucas' nose and bloodied his face.
• Jacksonville's Matt Jones was charged with cocaine possession last July, and then this spring was jailed in Arkansas for violating a plea agreement stemming from that charge. The Jaguars cut ties to their former 2005 first-round pick in March.
• Dallas finally released the always radioactive Terrell Owens earlier this offseason after he was fingered as the source of the Cowboys' well-chronicled team chemistry issues last season. Buffalo quickly became the next team to try its hand at staying on the bucking bronco ride that is T.O.
• Cincinnati's Chad "Ochocinco'' Johnson tried in vain to talk and balk his way out of the Bengals organization last offseason in an ongoing drama that plumbed new depths.
• Indianapolis Colts great Marvin Harrison endured a rare instance of having his name sullied when Philadelphia police questioned him in connection to a shooting that occurred in his neighborhood. Though no weapons charges were filed, police reportedly determined that bullet casings found at the scene came from a gun owned by Harrison. The Colts later released Harrison, though not in a reaction to any off-field incident.
• Arizona's Anquan Boldin mounted a rather vocal year-long campaign to get the Cardinals to either trade him or sign him to a long-term contract extension. Neither option has yet come to pass.
• Cleveland seemingly has tired of Braylon Edwards' case of the dropsies and his questionable maturity level and this offseason investigated trading its former first-round pick.
• Denver's Marshall is the latest Bronco to try to force a trade. Unhappy with his 2009 salary, he wants out of Denver, but any potential deal might be complicated by the fact Marshall comes with some off-field baggage resulting from his involvement in two separate domestic violence incidents and various maturity issues.
• To that lineup you can add the lesser headlines created by Laveranues Coles' public unhappiness with the Jets' starting quarterback change last preseason; the high-profile first-season flops of big-money free-agent receivers Jerry Porter in Jacksonville and Javon Walker in Oakland; and the midseason blockbuster trade of underachieving Roy Williams from Detroit to Dallas. Newsy, newsy tidbits, one and all.
Sure, there's some generalization being conducted here in lumping all those situations under one unattractive umbrella. Some of those examples involve far more serious issues than mere trade requests or team chemistry problems. But overall, it's a tough case to make that there aren't more problems at receiver than any other position on the field. More and more, NFL team sources say, there's a growing realization that you shop in the elite receiver market at your own risk.
"Everything's great if you have an Andre Johnson or a Calvin Johnson,'' said the AFC personnel man. "But for a lot of these guys, it comes down to how do you weigh the character, the selflessness, the good teammate factor and the coachability against the on-field ability? We're not going to sacrifice all the intangibles we're looking for just to have a star receiver. It's tough, because it's easy to take a bite out of the poison apple. But I know teams that have done it and regretted it.
"Very, very seldom does a guy change his personality in a new environment. It's happened a few times. The Cris Carter's and Randy Moss' of the world. But for every one of those guys, you've got the Terrell Owens' of the world. They just don't change. It comes down to what do you want in your players? What are you trying to accomplish? If you're firm in your beliefs, don't compromise. Don't deviate from that.''
In this age of three- and four-receiver sets being an almost every-down occurrence, teams rely heavily on their passing games for the majority of their offensive production. But having one elite receiver pile up so much of a team's output often brings with it the proverbial unintended consequences. It becomes a harder challenge for coaches to fold that player seamlessly into the team concept.
"In general what we've done in this league, and the receiver is a great example of this, we've made head coaches rock stars and we've made players bigger than their team,'' said former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, now a league analyst on ESPN. "These types of players become an issue when the organization allows them to be star receiver, instead of a great player within the concept of the team. When it allows them to play that role, when it allows them to be late to meetings, when it allows them to get away with demonstrative and animated stunts on the field, and campaign for their individual statistics, I do believe it nurtures the diva complex.
"You don't have these issues with a big-time receiver when a coach like [Carolina's] John Fox says to Steve Smith, 'You are one of 53 guys and you will be treated accordingly.' You have to put them in an environment where there aren't any divas, and they're playing for the good of the team.''
Despite their obvious talent, diva receivers seem to move around from team to team more than ever. Owens is making his fourth NFL stop with the Bills. The next club that suits up Burress will be his third. Stallworth played with four different franchises the past four seasons. And even though they're undeniable playmakers, it's probably just a matter of time before players such as Boldin, Edwards, and Marshall relocate within the NFL.
One veteran AFC general manager I talked to said he doesn't believe it's the receiver position itself that creates divas, as much as the individual personalities of the players at the position being inclined that way. In other words, Chad Johnson is a diva who plays receiver, rather than a diva because he plays receiver.
"It is astounding all the issues there have been in recent history with receivers in this league,'' the GM said. "I think it's the players you're talking about more than the position they play, but it's a never-ending story. People always want great players, but some teams are more interested in having great players. I'm looking for great players, because you don't win without them. But you better have the right, competent head coach, and you better have character people. Quality people. It depends on how they're wired.
"How do they act outside the locker room? Do they love the spotlight? Do they work hard every day, or like in the case of a lot of guys, is it more about themselves than their work habits and the team? Those guys are dangerous, because they can ride their skills for a long time, until they get older and a little injured. Then, if someone new comes in and their numbers go down, you can have an issue with them. They can create a problem for you.''
The Super Bowl-winning Giants of 2007 were a bit of an exception to the philosophy that usually wins in the NFL, the AFC general manager said.
"You can grab a star player here or there and win with them for a while,'' he said. "But usually not for long. Look at the Giants. They knew exactly what they were getting with Plaxico Burress, and they also knew what they had to do when he became a problem. Cut him loose. After he left, it came out that they had more than 90 different [internal] incidents with him. But they got that one big season out of him, won that Super Bowl, and then he pushed it too far and they cut their ties and moved on without him.''
Burress aside, the glamour receiver contingent hasn't won a lot of rings in this NFL decade. Both the Eagles and Cowboys gambled on Owens without winning a Super Bowl, and despite his near-perfect behavior in New England, Randy Moss couldn't get the Patriots a fourth ring in 2007. Juxtapose that with the New England teams that won three times in a four-year span in the first half of the decade. They got it done with the likes of Troy Brown, David Givens, Deion Branch and David Patten at receiver. Not a diva among them.
The same goes for Pittsburgh, with its two Super Bowl wins the past four years. Hines Ward might be a star, but he's a blue-collar player, and anything but the diva type. The Steelers won only after Burress left town. Baltimore claimed a ring in 2000 without a legitimate star receiver, and the Colts championship in 2006 was earned without their passing game revolving entirely around either Harrison or Reggie Wayne. Even Tampa Bay's Keyshawn Johnson, while having some diva-like qualities, by 2002 had earned a reputation of also being a tough, reliable football player thanks to his exposure to Bill Parcells early in his career.
"I believe you can win in this league without a star receiver,'' said the AFC personnel man. "You need playmakers at that position, not necessarily stars. You don't want to sacrifice chemistry for production. We're just not going to take a bite out of that apple.''
Dilfer was a former teammate of Edwards in Cleveland and expresses bewilderment at the recent trajectory of his career with the Browns, which by all indications appears to be at a crossroads in 2009.
"I've been around him and I know Braylon Edwards has a good family,'' Dilfer said. "He knows right and he chooses wrong. He chooses to be a diva. He thinks that's what he's supposed to be. I think that's what happens to some of these guys. Their role models are divas, and they think they have to be one too.
"In general, I'd say it's always harder to handle success than failure. With success comes huge pride, a lot of money and fame. It's harder to handle fame and everyone telling you how great you are all the time. When you shower praise and fame on these kids, and their role models are divas, they don't know where the boundaries are.''
Strong leadership from coaching is the antidote to diva-dom, Dilfer said. And while many have expressed concerns this year about the diva potential of 49ers first-round pick Michael Crabtree, the former Texas Tech receiver, Dilfer doesn't share those concerns, thanks to the presence of San Francisco head coach Mike Singletary.
"Owners need to hire a head coach who can handle these kind of players,'' said Dilfer, whose 14-year NFL career ended with the 49ers. "Coaches need to be a strong enough personality to handle that kind of dynamic. The player has to understand and be convinced he's one of 53. Crabtree has diva written all over him. All over him. But he's going to be brought into an environment where Singletary will never let that happen.
"I saw [49ers tight end] Vernon Davis the other day, and he's as humbled and broken as you can find because of what Singletary has done with him. He's part of the team. You need a dynamic, explosive player at receiver today. But they have to playing for the good of the team. I'm totally anti-diva. I'm pro solid football players. I'd take two 1B receivers or two 2A receivers over one A-plus receiver any day. You're a better football team. And the quarterback can now go play his position and not have the offense based on getting one guy the ball.''
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis dealt all last offseason with the trade demands made by Johnson, who legally changed his name to Ochocinco in a Diva Hall of Fame move. But Cincinnati didn't move a muscle to fulfill Johnson's request, and told Johnson to either show up and play in 2008, or make good on his threat to retire. Lewis may have offered his fellow coaches something of a blueprint to follow when faced with similar diva tactics.
"I think every situation is different and we as coaches know our players and the situation better than anyone else,'' Lewis said. "The only thing I tried to do in our situation was explain to him -- and his representation -- that whatever he thought was going to happen, [a trade] wasn't going to happen. I had cautioned him from the very onset about that, and management here backed that up. That's the way it should be in the NFL. You can't say you agree to do something, and then say you won't do it. You don't get to change and back out. Now, do you go through some tough times along the way? Hell yes, you do. There's a price to pay on both sides.''
Lewis is not shy about fingering what he sees as a common source of much of the diva behavior in the NFL receiver ranks. He points out that Johnson, Burress and Boldin were all represented by high-profile agent Drew Rosenhaus last offseason, when Rosenhaus was reportedly seeking trades for all three players.
"Unfortunately it's the personality of these players and the fact that they're all represented by the same guy,'' Lewis said. "It comes down to guys trying to put themselves ahead of the good of the team, and in those cases, never once do you hear about winning first and foremost.''