The wide receiver position attracts divas. It’s been that way since the 1990s when the vertical passing game redefined the way football games were played. Every touchdown suddenly was a show.
The tide started turning with Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense in San Francisco. It was his idea to replace a three-yard run on first down with a check down to a receiver. It worked, too well. Every team started adopting his innovative play-calling. Jerry Rice should have been the first to wear the “diva” crown, but he didn’t want it. Rice was content to hand the ball back to the ref and head to the sideline.
Then came Jimmy Johnson and the flamboyant Cowboys. Michael Irvin never saw a stage he didn’t like. His jubilant end-zone celebrations earned him weekly highlights on ESPN’s SportsCenter as did his alarming drug arrests off the field. From there, the position changed. Wide receivers were the biggest actors in America’s new favorite film: the NFL.
Top 5 Diva Wide Receivers in NFL History
1. Michael Irvin
The Good: As stated above, Irvin kind of invented the entire genre. “The Playmaker” had his go-to signature spike — often replicated but never duplicated by Rob Gronkowski — that saw him pound the football emphatically into the ground. Irvin was the first to celebrate first downs with a hand gesture. He also gained fame for doing the Zorro dance and taking high-stepping to a whole new level.
The Bad: Of course, Irvin was just as famous for his run-ins with the law off the field. In 1996, he was arrested in a motel room outside Dallas with strippers and cocaine. He got into a fight with a teammate and left him with deep wounds. Irvin was also accused of allegedly drugging and raping a 27-year-old woman. The charges were later dropped against Irvin.
2. Antonio Brown
The Good: Brown has long been one of the most entertaining characters on the field. His dazzling array of scoring celebrations have included: twerking in the end zone, performing a tango, pretending to be a statue and launching himself into the goal post. He even went on ESPN’s NFL Live and beta-tested new material. At his peak, no one was better or more fun.
The Bad: Brown suddenly and unexpectedly hit a mid-life crisis. He forced a dramatic exit out of Pittsburgh after Ben Roethlisberger wouldn’t apologize to him. The receiver was traded to Oakland where his hijinx turned into must-see TV on HBO’s Hard Knocks. Brown was unwilling to adapt to the NFL’s helmet policy, injured his feet in a cryo-chamber and threatened to punch his GM. The Raiders finally released him, but not after Brown posted a ridiculous farewell video. Nothing illegal, but certifiably insane.
3. Terrell Owens
The Good: Owens played for multiple teams, including the 49ers, Eagles, Cowboys, Bills and Bengals. He developed a loyal following in San Francisco following “The Catch II” against Green Bay. From there, he morphed into TO. The receiver raised the bar for orchestrated touchdown celebrations. No one was doing what he was at the time. His best work: grabbing a cheerleader’s pom-poms, taking a fan’s popcorn, standing on the famed Dallas star, taking a Sharpie out of his sock and signing a football and mocking Ray Lewis’ pre-game ritual.
The Bad: Off the field, Owens wasn’t much of a troublemaker other than missing a court date for child payment. But it was his constant clashes with teammates and front-office brass that soured everyone’s opinion. He famously hinted that his quarterback, Jeff Garcia, was homosexual. He got into a fight with another quarterback, Donovan McNabb, on the sideline. He even grew jealous over Tony Romo’s relationship with Jason Witten when he was in Dallas. He probably could have played longer had he been a better locker-room presence.
4. Randy Moss
The Good: Moss doesn’t want to hear the comparison to Antonio Brown. Leave them out of this. But the West Virginia native was a physical specimen that could do things mere mortals couldn’t do. Moss was one of the first — him and teammate Cris Carter — to perfect the one-handed circus catch, way before Odell Beckham. Moss also revolutionized end-zone dancing with the “Milly Rock” and that one time he mooned the fans in Green Bay. Joe Buck didn’t like it, but everyone else did.
The Bad: The controversies started in high school when Moss started a fight and had his Notre Dame scholarship revoked. He got kicked off the Florida State football team for possession of marijuana. In the NFL, the receiver found himself in trouble often. Among his transgressions: squirting an official with water, verbally abusing a corporate sponsor, hitting a person with his car, starting a fight with a Bears player. The “moon dance” was also a fineable offense.
5. Chad Johnson
The Good: Johnson was basically Terrell Owens’ protege. He burst on the scene right in 2002, right after TO’s wild “Sharpie Game.” He was just as innovative, too. Johnson’s biggest touchdown celebrations included: doing the Riverdance, hijacking a sideline camera, wearing a Hall of Fame jacket, giving a football CPR, and dropping down on one knee to fake propose to a Bengals cheerleader. Perhaps Johnson took it too far when he legally changed his name to Chad Ocho Cinco, a Spanish-speaking ode to his No. 85 (although not proper Spanish).
The Bad: Unlike some of his peers, Johnson was pretty much a good soldier. As a player, he didn’t really start any trouble — aside from the time he chased Ray Lewis down in the parking lot after a game — and didn’t start beef with coaches or teammates. He tried out for an MLS team and appeared on WWE Raw. Big deal. But the pressures of fame got to him in other ways. In 2012, he was arrested for head-butting his reality star wife and the Dolphins cut him. That spelled the end.
The diva receiver will probably never go away, not in today’s NFL, so everyone needs to embrace it. Minus the off-the-field stuff — things like domestic violence and drug addiction are inexcusable — these players are entertainers. They get paid millions of dollars to put on a show and the general public eats it up. As long as it’s all in good fun, there is nothing wrong with that.
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