The other day I was having a conversation with my buddy Red, a life-long Gators fan, and the conversation turned to, what else, Aaron Hernandez. After we spouted out our shock and dismay, Red posed an interesting question. Why, he asked, are receivers always the team divas? Ever the thinker, Red had me stumped. I had to step back and marinate on those thoughts for a while.
Wide receiver is the easiest position in football. Defensive players are always on their heels, adjusting instantaneously to each play. Safeties and linebackers must always have two plans of attack, dependent on run or pass. Defensive linemen have to stunt and time their rushes accordingly to the play call. Corners are always back peddling, never fully knowing where their offensive counterparts may run. Regardless of down and distance, offense always has one advantage over defense: knowledge of where the ball is going.
In regards to offense, receivers don’t have to know blocking schemes, a la running backs, linemen or tight ends. Quarterback is universally agreed upon as the most difficult position in sports. If a receiver takes a play off, worst-case scenario is a lost down. Lineman takes a play off or running back misses a block, the quarterback gets clobbered.
I’ll even argue that punters and kickers have more difficult positions than receivers. Punters also receive a ball, but then must kick it far enough to warrant the decision to punt, yet short enough to give excellent field position, all while factoring in wind conditions. This is done with 9-of-11 men running full-speed, leaping, and diving to block the kick. The same goes for kickers, except they have to place the ball between two goalposts—their legs doubling as golf clubs. Kicking and punting may be the truest skill positions on a team.
Wide receivers, for all their athletic abilities, have the most simplistic job in football. They must run fast and catch a ball. Sometimes they run straight, sometimes they run in a pattern. Sprint and catch, it’s rudimentary compared to the techniques of other players.
Professional receivers have made it based, primarily, on one thing: speed. Ever since youth they’ve been lauded for running fast. Elementary relays turned to college scholarships, which turned to multimillion-dollar paychecks. Whereas other positions rely on schematics and technique, receivers can get by on speed and instinct. They’ve been doing one thing well their entire lives, and it’s made them rich.
Receiver is also the glory position. They make the diving grabs or tough snares over the middle. Tiptoe sideline and end zone catches are surefire highlights. It’s more common to see a receiver score on a spectacular play than it is a running back—or any other position, for that matter.
There is one caveat to receiving, though. They need the ball. There is more competition for one receiver to get the ball than any other position. Running backs need only handle a simple handoff or toss. A wide receiver relies on his quarterback to buy time, get a throw off, and then make the throw with enough accuracy to hit the receiver. Beyond that, the player must be the one of five or six eligible receivers chosen. On a good day a wide receiver may see 8-to-10 balls thrown his way.
Competition within the position, as well as the offense, is what creates the diva attitude. Wide receivers are nonexistent without the ball in their hands. In order to get the ball they must be noticed. The best way to get noticed is create a boisterous persona. Have a little more swagger than the common athlete. Let the quarterback know that, though it may look like he’s covered, there is no way the defense can hold him down. Receivers must perfect their sales pitch in order to see action.
When not making catches, receiver is a thankless job. At best, wide receivers are good decoys. Sprinting up and down the field for no purpose other than to confuse defenses. With ball in hand they are showstoppers. Without it, they are invisible track stars. Of all the positions, wide receiver has the greatest swing between superstardom and anonymity on a play-to-play basis.
Receivers create personas in the media and locker rooms, which then carry over to the field of play. This helps them twofold. In regards to the team, a quarterback will always look towards the diva. It’s easy to miss the guys who keep their heads down. With the loudmouths, not every passing progression will start with them, but the quarterback most assuredly checks them before throwing.
Beyond enhancing the prospect of touches, an over-the-top personality always keeps the cameras on a player. He always stays relevant, regardless of on-field production. It’s a great tool for contract negotiations and marketing.
Problems that arise from most wide receivers are compound effects of the modern American athlete and the diva business persona. Athletes today make a lot of money at a young age and are often ill equipped to handle such immediate fortune. Sycophants have also puffed them up since adolescence, resulting in a lack of accountability. Coupled with creating a brand to stay relevant both in the media and huddle, it’s easy to see how receivers often act recklessly.
The personality of many wide receivers is some amalgamation of birthday clown, car salesman, and hyperactive five-year old. It has to be in order for players to shine. Their on-field personalities bleed over into personal life and eventually make players caricatures of themselves. While it certainly doesn’t excuse their antics, the feast or famine nature of the position at least makes these divas more relatable.