WRs take center stage

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

More on wide receivers: Prima donna WRs nothing new

They are equal parts main event and freak show, able to enthrall or disgust depending on the moment.

They are equally loved and hated, exciting the casual fan and irritating the purist.

They are a collection of great athletes touched by the irrational and sometimes mercurial emotions of artists.

They are wide receivers.

If you want to find controversy in the NFL, look in the receiver section of just about any team's locker room. From Oakland (Randy Moss and Jerry Porter) to New England (Deion Branch) with stops in Cincinnati (Chad Johnson) and, of course, Dallas (Terrell Owens), the NFL landscape is loaded with pass catchers who are often in the headlines for the wrong reasons.

Throw in guys like Steve Smith, Keyshawn Johnson, Plaxico Burress, David Boston, Joe Horn and Antonio Bryant and you have a crew that could make Lindsay Lohan blush.

Not that wide receivers haven't always been flamboyant.

"It has always been that way, the guys who were electric, they put flair into the game," said Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy, who played with Pro Football Hall of Fame receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth and coaches low-key Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. "Even the guys on our team, Swann and Stallworth, they were artists. They were. It kind of goes with the territory."

Now, however, the battle seems to be over how to keep them under control.

"Fifteen years ago, those guys thought the same way, but they still put the team first. In this generation, the team is very much second in a lot of these guys' minds," Dungy said. "(The thinking is), 'The more notoriety I get, whether it's in a good way or a bad way, it accomplishes what I want.' … We accentuate it now because that's how we get noticed. The more Dennis Rodman-ish you are, you can be a hero. That's our fault as a society, as a sports society."

That's an easy point to make in today's highlight-show world, where making ESPN's top 10 plays of the day is a badge of honor among players. Horn pulling out a cell phone after scoring a touchdown, Owens standing on the Dallas star, Johnson's weekly "cornerback score sheet," and Smith's variety of TD celebrations seemingly got as much attention as the games themselves.

And there is no question that the NFL does its share to encourage the behavior.

Since the late 1970s, the league has loosened the rules in the passing game in hopes of increasing scoring and making the game more exciting to the casual fans the league has cultivated as it has grown to be the richest sport in the nation.

"We've got those fans sitting up in the stands paying, paying a lot of money, who want to be entertained," Kansas City coach Herm Edwards said. "A lot of them didn't necessarily grow up studying the sport, so what gets them excited? The ball in the air. You can hear it in the stadium on those long passes. All of sudden, it just goes quiet. Everybody is watching to see the big play."

The rule emphasis, which two years ago included stricter interpretation of defensive pass interference and defensive holding, have catered to that big-play bent.

"That's what the league wants because they know that's what sells," one executive said. "We all understand it. It doesn't make the defensive coaches particularly happy, but they certainly don't mind making the money the league is raking in.

"But here's the downside: You make guys like (Owens) that much more important. The receivers are the guys who change games. You're still winning with the running game, but you have to throw to score in this league. That means you have to highlight those guys."

Thus, despite a résumé filled with disruptive incidents, Owens and others keep getting opportunities. The Dallas Cowboys, for instance, will pay Owens approximately $10 million this season. Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis did very little to discipline Johnson after his outburst during halftime of the team's playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. In fact, he was given a contract extension in the offseason.

"There's no doubt that people are coming to watch guys like T.O., Chad, Steve Smith and our guys, Marvin (Harrison) and Reggie (Wayne)," Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning said. "Those are the playmakers who can really impact the game. Just look at what (Smith) did against Chicago in the playoffs. It was like a one-man show at one point."

But there can be problems when one guy has that much importance.

"They still function within a team setting, but they are really separate in a lot of ways," Dungy said.

Said Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez: "I'll say it. A lot of those guys are prima donnas. They think that they are bigger than everything else on the team, and I don't think I have to specify who I'm talking about."

In the case of Owens, his year-long battle with Philadelphia Eagles management and quarterback Donovan McNabb became an all-encompassing story. Owens was suspended by the Eagles, but never really was gone from the horizon.

"I felt bad for both of those guys because I'm friends with both of them," Manning said of Owens and McNabb. Two years ago, he had a sideline flare up with Wayne, but it never mushroomed. "That kind of stuff can never get out in the public. You're going to have disagreements. That's just the nature of how it works. Marvin and I don't agree on everything, but when we don't, we work it out in here (the locker room). That's how it has to be done."

In the case of Owens, he's stirring the pot again. He spent most of training camp nursing a hamstring injury and irritating Cowboys coach Bill Parcells along the way. Perhaps by drawing attention to himself by riding a stationary bike during practice while wearing a Lance Armstrong-like cycling outfit. And definitely by missing team meetings and a rehab session, which reportedly led to a fine.

The daily reports on Owens' rehab was over-the-top stuff, taking on the feel of news coverage of a labor strike. From a distance, Dungy found the situation absurd.

"I have seen more about Terrell Owens in the last three weeks than I saw about Jerry Rice in his whole career," Dungy said. "As much as we wrote about Rice, and deservedly so, if you asked me who we have seen more of, Terrell Owens in the past two years or Jerry Rice in 15, I'd have to say Terrell Owens and something does not add up about that."