Six years ago, the Bengals opened up their season at Paul Brown Stadium against the Ravens. It was also Monday Night Football, so the sports world was watching. Chad Johnson was just coming off of two back-to-back first team All-Pro seasons. He was also beginning to challenge Terrell Owens as the most “extra” personality in the game. It was still a year before Chad would legally change his name to Ochocinco, but he had already spent a couple seasons as Chad the Entertainer. Dude used to put out PSAs for the public to tune in for his TD celebrations.
On that Monday night in September, Chad caught a 39-yard bomb for a score on the Bengals first possession of the season. That’s when he jetted to the sideline, found the cameras and threw on a huge, urine-yellow overcoat. On the back read: “Future H.o.F. 20??” As in, “what year will they vote me into the Hall of Fame?”
Some laughed, some smirked, others guffawed. Some were amused, some were offended, others yawned.
Chad was in beast mode that season (93 catches for 1440 yards and 8 TDs). He was also the poster boy of a peculiar era for wide receivers at its apex.
Remember that whole "Diva" Receiver Era?
Six years after Chad’s MNF stunt, things have changed. This week, we watched the Bengals tussle with the Ravens again on the early-season Monday Night stage. Chad left Cincy a while ago. In his place is A.J. Green, a consensus freak of nature from the University of Georgia. He’s gone to Hawaii both of his seasons in the league and has 20 touchdowns. That’s 20 times he’s been in the end zone, and you know what’s crazy? I still don’t know if the kid can dance. Furthermore, he spent his time on the grand MNF stage watching Andy Dalton passes sail over his head or eat grass a few feet beside him. And you know what’s crazy? I didn’t see the kid go in on his errant quarterback on the sidelines once. You know those ESPN cameras were waiting for him to skulk off the field and get his “someone effed up Mariah Carey’s rider list and forgot the blue whale cheese on her unicorn burger”-tantrum on. They didn’t even catch dude toss a Gatorade cup.
Chris Carter (with Jeffri Chadiha) wrote “Going Deep: How Wide Receivers Became the Most Compelling Figures in Pro Sports.” The book dropped this summer, right around the time Carter was inducted into the Hall of Fame (if it took Carter three tries, Chad can probably kiss Canton’s grits). It’s an engaging read that offers some keen insight not only into the mindset and disposition of pro receivers, but provides a nuanced timeline of how the position went from a non-descript lot to, perhaps, the most notorious position in sports. Many were responsible – from Bill Walsh (his West Coast offense initiated the NFL morphing into a passing league) to Jerry Rice (the icon) to Michael Irvin (the swag) to Deion Sanders (thank Prime, all you star slot receivers). The metamorphosis was a product of both a changing culture and a changing game.
I don’t even remember what Art Monk’s face looks like. By the end of the ‘90s, however, you had dudes like Keyshawn Johnson releasing books like Just Give Me The Damn Ball. My man had just finished his rookie season. Randy Moss was blowing our freaking minds on post routes….and squirting refs with water bottles because he felt they weren’t officiating the game properly. Terrell Owens set off the new millennium as the 49ers’ successor to Jerry Rice by infamously celebrating a touchdown on the Dallas star at the middle of Dallas Stadium. He nearly caused a brawl.
It didn’t matter that T.O. worked his butt off, Chad was a genuinely nice guy or players like Tory Holt and Marvin Harrison got busy with a lunch pal. These were great football players, but because of the theatrics and what was deemed ill behavior by mainstream America, the prevailing sentiment ten years ago was that the wide receiver position was home to personalities cartoonishly self-absorbed enough to elicit comparisons to Whitney Houston or Celine Deon on a bad hair day.
(Note: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the not-so-hidden racial undertones of dismissing a position of predominantly black men with the diva-tag when it was and will always be mostly the quarterbacks with their names on the marquee, rolling around practice in “hands off” red jerseys.)
But here we are in 2013 and the stars of the position for the past five seasons are guys like the understated two Johnsons (Calvin and Andre), workman Larry Fitzgerald, Green and his chill-mode draftmate Julio Jones. Some might presume Dez Bryant is a “diva,” but, if anything, he was more of a knucklehead – and he’s reined that in. Roddy White is brash, not a diva. Victor Cruz and DeSean Jackson have had tense holdouts (really, though, not too many non-QBs haven’t) and still like to jig in the end zone, but, for a variety of reasons (clout, impact, transgressions), they wouldn’t rate much past Cheryl Pepsi Riley on the historic diva scale. Alright, Anita Baker…J-Hud.
Could you imagine Fitz’ filming this?
Me either. (Greg Jennings? Eh, maybe.)
Calvin Johnson’s Acura ads were sleek, but about as drowsy as listening to Bon Iver on Ambien. That’s why Nike brought in Puff to shiny-suit up Megatron’s new “I’ll be Johnson” commercials.
The NFL is now home to a largely wooden corps of receivers. And, what? Low and behold we’re still watching, exceedingly content to be entertained solely by these men catching footballs. In Carter’s book, he said Owens’ teammates told stories of him practicing his touchdown celebrations. Maybe it’s just me, but rookie Tavon Austin just doesn’t seem like the kinda cat that’s in front of his hotel mirror rehearsing what to do on the Dallas star this Sunday.
It was fun while it lasted…for a little while, at least. But there’s some solace for all you folks that miss T.O. pouring popcorn through his face mask or Andre Rison slap-boxing with Deion Sanders after a deadball (a seminal moment…in the best way). His name is Marquise Lee.