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How Wide Receivers Became the Most Compelling Figures in Pro Sports
By Cris Carter
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From the time Cris Carter started his career as a supplemental draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1987 to his retirement in 2002, the position of wide receiver exploded in the NFL. Receivers went from being quiet and classy to being known for their electric play, off-the-field antics, and — in some cases — over-the-top personalities.
In Going Deep, Carter and ESPN journalist Jeffri Chadiha chronicle the rise of the wide receiver and explain how it became the most complex, compelling, and talked-about position in all of professional sports. Using stories from his own career to offer unprecedented insight into the position, Carter explains the players’ unique personalities, how their minds work, and why teams need to understand exactly what they’re dealing with when it comes to their wideouts — the NFL’s newest superstars.
Told through Carter’s opinionated voice, Going Deep covers all the important moments and people — from Michael Irvin, Jerry Rice, and Keyshawn Johnson to Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, and Chad Johnson — who have contributed to this revolution. He also tells stories readers have never heard about their favorite players, shares theories about the position that only get discussed in front offices and locker rooms, and offers revealing explanations on what these players mean to the league today, as well as why the NFL can’t go forward without them.
“One of the most riveting, insightful football books I’ve ever read. This book takes you inside the huddle, along the sidelines, and deep into the secret world that is the NFL. Breathtaking work.” — Jeff Pearlman, New York Times bestselling author of Boys Will Be Boys and The Bad Guys Won
“No one understands wide receivers better than Cris Carter, and I loved his book. If you want to understand how we think, and hear inside stories about the most over-the-top athletes in sports, read Going Deep.” — Jerry Rice, Hall of Fame wide receiver
“I am so glad someone got Cris Carter to sit down and describe what makes receivers tick. (It’s deeper than you think.) You’ll get to the last page of this book and say, ‘I really learned a lot here–and the pages flew by.’ ” — Peter King, senior writer, Sports Illustrated; author of Monday Morning Quarterback; and two-time National Sportswriter of the Year
I had just settled into a nice vacation in the Bahamas in mid-February 2012—one that I sorely needed after another long season of analyzing the NFL for ESPN—when my cell phone rang. I hadn't expected anybody to be calling me from the United States—least of all Randy Moss, my old teammate with the Minnesota Vikings. Randy and I hadn't talked in well over a year, and our most recent interaction, one that had occurred indirectly, didn't exactly generate love for each other.
That incident was one that I take blame for starting. While appearing on an ESPN radio show, I was asked about Randy's chances of returning to the NFL after his "retirement" in 2011, and I did what I normally do: I gave my honest opinion. I explained to the hosts that Randy was easily the most talented receiver I had ever played with and that his disappearance from the league had little to do with his ability. Instead, it had everything to do with his attitude.
You're talking about a player who had 954 receptions, 14,858 yards, and 153 touchdowns at the time—numbers that made him one of the best ever to play the position. But Randy also had one glaring flaw that turned people off over the course of his career. As I told the host that day, Randy has a quit mechanism in him. It was hard to understand because he wasn't a bad person and he also loved playing football. It's just that when times turned bad, he was usually the first person to pack it in. And me being me, I wasn't about to tone down that stance for the masses. What I said was this:
The one thing you have to address with Randy Moss is not a conditioning thing. It's not an age thing. It needs to be addressed. I believe it's the elephant in the room. It's the thing called quit. And Randy, not like any other superstar I've ever met, he has more quit in him than any of those other players. So I need to address that. I think that's what [New England Patriots head coach Bill] Belichick did when he brought him over from Oakland. He told him he wasn't going to have it.
By the time those statements hit the airwaves, I expected that people would be talking about them. I also assumed it would reach Randy, who eventually fired his own shot back at me. Via Twitter, he said:
@criscarter80 its sad how u stroked ur own ego when u were suppose to b my mentor!then u wonder why karma bites u in the ass!#goodlukwithhof
I'll be the first to say that my relationship with Randy should've never reached that low point. I also felt the jab about the Hall-of-Fame process was a cheap shot. I hoped that I had earned the right for my day to eventually come, but I also never felt that karma had anything to do with it.
Randy must have felt the same way when he called. Though our friendship has been filled with ups and downs that I'll get into later in this book, I still sensed that I was one of the few people he really trusted in the game. When I heard his voice, I was even more convinced of that. The first thing Randy said was "We need to talk." He followed that up by saying that there was no reason for people to suspect there was "a beef" between us because that was far from the truth. Randy even added that the last thing he wanted was "for our children to grow up thinking that we don't get along."
The most surprising part of that conversation wasn't that Randy had initiated it. It was that it happened at all, especially since I had criticized an aspect of his game. If there's one thing I've come to know it's that people who spend most of their lives playing the wide receiver position tend to have a hard time seeing the world around them. It's something that we all have inside of us, an inherent selfishness that makes us believe our interests are as important as, if not more than, anybody else's on our team.
That selfishness isn't necessarily a bad thing when it's channeled in the right way. However, it can be a huge problem if it gets out of control. I knew Randy had that selfishness in him. I did, too. It's what helped us dominate what has become the most compelling position in professional sports. Every weekend during football season, fans expect amazing performances from their team's star wide receivers. The by-product of that expectation is that many of the game's best players in recent years have soaked up the attention that comes with that spotlight… and pined for ways to keep it squarely on themselves.
But I'll be honest: Wanting the limelight was never Randy's major problem. As much as he fascinated people with his freakish combination of size (he is 6'4" and 210 pounds) and breathtaking speed, he never cared for the spotlight in the way stars such as Chad Johnson and Terrell Owens did at the height of their careers. Randy's issue was that he was so damn unreliable when faced with adversity. He'd worn out his welcome in Minnesota in 2004 and Oakland in 2006 for exactly that reason. When the New England Patriots traded for him in 2007, Randy enjoyed the best years of his career. Three years later, Belichick traded him back to the Vikings, likely because the head coach sensed Randy was about to get sideways with that franchise as well.
As it turned out, Randy wound up with two other teams that year. Minnesota placed him on waivers after four games because he was dogging it. Tennessee picked him up and rarely threw him the ball. But that wasn't where it ended for Randy. Once the lockout that killed most of the 2011 off-season concluded, there wasn't a single team that wanted to pay for the services of a player who'd been the game's most dangerous receiver for most of his career.
When I spoke to Randy, I told him that all was forgiven as far as we were concerned. I also reminded him that I'd always vowed to be honest with him and I was about to do so right then. "That guy I saw in 2010?" I said, referring to Randy's 28-reception season. "I don't know who that was."
When Randy explained that he wasn't happy about his performance that year, I was happy to know that, even at age thirty-five, there was still a chance for him to turn things around. He felt that Belichick had misled him, which ultimately fed the same distrust that has always been a huge part of Randy's personality. The moment Randy thought the Patriots had shit on him, he decided to take a bigger shit on everybody else. What he didn't understand was that, in the end, he was doing more harm to himself.
Randy likely thought there was no way the league would ever have a team that didn't want him. He couldn't see how all the headaches he had caused throughout his career could affect him to that point. Wide receivers can be like pretty girls that way. The more they hear how beautiful and desirable they are in their youth, the harder it is for them to ever think the day might arrive when they don't look so good anymore.
I'll never make the mistake of thinking that I understand why all receivers act the way they do all the time. I don't have special powers and I'm not interested in being football's version of Dr. Phil. What I do understand is the position. Randy Moss didn't become one of the most majestic and mystifying athletes in the game by sheer coincidence. He became that because he played a position that so easily demands attention.
Quarterbacks, by nature, are less dynamic. They typically say and do the right things because their words and actions carry so much weight, both inside and outside of the locker room. One mistake in judgment becomes a weeklong debate on SportsCenter. Even the smallest glimpse into their personal lives can lead to a feature story in People magazine. Quarterbacks don't need to seek attention. It's part of their job description.
As for other positions, it's hard to find any that compare to receivers as far as interest levels. Running backs handle the ball plenty, but the days of the feature back have almost disappeared. Most of today's teams believe in a running-back-by-committee approach, using several ball carriers who, in turn, face more questions about their long-term job security. Offensive linemen have never been trained to seek the spotlight and most defenders rarely have the opportunity to showcase their personalities in the same manner receivers can.
As I said earlier, wide receivers are naturally selfish people. We almost have to be that way. Remember, we didn't select the position to block. We need the ball in our hands to be effective. We don't get to handle it on every play like a quarterback does and we certainly don't have the luxury of having it handed to us in the way a running back does. We need a lot of things to go right for us to succeed—a smart play call, a good snap, effective blocking, and an accurate pass, among others—but we're cool with it. Once the ball is in the air, that's our time to shine.
I spent sixteen seasons playing wide receiver in the NFL and I can honestly say that you can get addicted to the spotlight you attract. We've seen it happen with Terrell Owens, Chad Johnson, and plenty of others. They get so wrapped up in the attention that comes with the job that it becomes their identity. The problem with that is that it doesn't last very long in the league.
The players who tend to enjoy the steadiest careers attract the spotlight solely for their on-field accomplishments. If you watch three of the best at the wide receiver position in recent years—Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald, Detroit's Calvin Johnson, and Houston's Andre Johnson—you see a number of similarities. They're all big, sure-handed, and quiet. They let their production do the talking and that's enough for them to sleep well at night. They play the game for admirable reasons: sheer love of the sport, an appreciation for the art of the craft, the desire to excel. Landing a reality show or gaining millions of Twitter followers isn't something that drives them to greatness.
But don't make the mistake of thinking that they want the ball any less than a more controversial player like Terrell Owens. Former Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison is a future Hall-of-Famer who never liked the limelight when he played. The man caught 1,102 passes in his career and he talked about as often as a mafia kingpin facing federal indictment. But Marvin would let former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning know when the ball wasn't coming his way enough. He would simply do it in a sly manner—maybe coming off the field after a failed possession or while standing with Manning on the sideline—to let him know it was time for his touches to increase.
Jerry Rice had a similar style in San Francisco. He once threw a tantrum in a 35-point win over the Washington Redskins in 1998. His chief complaint? He had caught only 4 passes in that contest, a crisis that led to him screaming at then head coach Steve Mariucci on the sidelines late in that contest. Rice yelled that he was basically "a decoy" and that he didn't even know why he'd traveled to that game. Mariucci just stood there quietly, knowing full well that the national television audience was catching every bit of the future Hall-of-Famer's tirade.
Mariucci was so concerned about the issue that he called a sure-fire touchdown opportunity for Rice when the 49ers forced a turnover a few minutes later. It would've been a great way to appease the star receiver if Mariucci actually could've found him. Instead of running out to the huddle for that play, Rice was sitting on the bench with his helmet off, pouting. So that sure-fire touchdown went to some other lucky receiver.
Rice might have looked bad in that moment, but he made up for it afterward. When the game ended, he ran up to Mariucci, put an arm around the coach's shoulder, and apologized.
"I went crazy, didn't I?" Rice said.
"Yeah, you are a psycho," Mariucci responded.
"I know. I can go off every now and then."
Still, the tantrum worked. Rice apologized publicly the next day and the ball started coming his way more often. The next week Mariucci called six of San Francisco's first ten plays for Rice in the 49ers' win over Atlanta. When the game's greatest receiver (and player, as far as I'm concerned) finished with 8 receptions for 162 yards and 2 touchdowns, everybody in that franchise likely breathed a lot easier going forward.
Every great receiver can relate to that feeling of being underutilized. Many of us have had moments we regret as well. One of my most memorable came toward the end of the 1995 season with Minnesota. We were 8-7 going into a potentially season-ending game against the Cincinnati Bengals, and our playoff chances basically ended by halftime of that contest. By that point, I was thinking about my chances of resetting the league record for receptions in a season. I had established the mark with 122 receptions in 1994, but Detroit's Herman Moore had surpassed that with 123 catches prior to our game with Cincinnati. I wanted that record back. I needed it back.
Keep in mind that the mid-1990s were a time when receivers were playing out of their minds and you truly earned the right to be considered among the very best. We all understood that Rice was in his own class, given how long he'd been playing and the numbers he'd put up in San Francisco. After him, there was a serious competition for the runner-up spot on the list of the day's top wideouts. You had Moore, Michael Irvin, Sterling Sharpe, Isaac Bruce, Tim Brown, and a bunch of others. In 1995 alone, twenty-three different players had more than 1,000 yards receiving.
It used to be that a 1,500-yard season was a big deal. Suddenly, you had players on the same team hitting that mark. The same was true for the 100-catch season. Reaching that point before those years was like dropping 60 points in an NBA game. It was rarefied air. Plus, I'd bet that most of the game's best receivers knew what everybody else was doing in those days. I know that I was keeping track. There were too many resources to study up on what other players were doing, too many times when you'd hear Chris Berman celebrating their feats on ESPN instead of yours.
I wasn't the only person thinking about that receptions record, either. Our offensive coordinator, Brian Billick, approached me in warm-up drills and said he was going to give me plenty of opportunities to reset the mark. The only problem was that his promise never materialized. I needed 9 receptions to surpass Moore and the second half of that contest was disastrous. We couldn't execute consistently. We played lethargically. We basically watched Cincinnati, one of the league's worst teams, outperform us in a game that meant even less to them when it started.
When I ended up with just 7 receptions (giving me 122 catches on the year), I fumed in the locker room afterward. Making matters worse, the media found me at exactly the moment when I was most heated. By the time that question-and-answer session had ended, I had blasted Billick for his play-calling, ripped into my teammates for quitting in the second half, and lamented both the defeat and our extinguished playoff hopes. The one comment I remember saying publicly that probably looked the worst was fueled by my notorious pride. As I told the reporters that day, the only thing that mattered to me at the end of that game was that record.
I don't think it's hard to understand why some receivers can reach that point. We've always wanted the ball but we've never been rewarded for our success in the ways we've seen recently. When I was a kid, pro football wasn't nearly as available as it is today. You watched two or three games on Sunday—generally featuring the local team or one within the region—and then you had Monday Night Football. There was no ESPN and no fantasy football, so no stat-crazed fan base. Aside from the quarterbacks and a few players here and there, there wasn't much individuality in the game.
That was before constant highlights, more focus on the game, and more opportunity for receivers to prove their value. The NFL we see today is a far cry from the one I grew up with in the 1980s. Back then it was a game of speed and power, one fueled by dominant running attacks and fierce defenses. Now it's a game of speed and finesse, a league that old-school types refer to as "basketball and grass." In that kind of world, where offensive coaches are always looking for freakish athletes to create mismatches against undermanned defenses, receivers had the opportunity to become bona fide superstars.
The popularity of the position also had plenty to do with the fundamental nature of it. People can relate to receivers because catching a football is one of the most basic things you can do on a field. Anybody can do it. You see people throwing the ball around when you drive through NFL stadium parking lots on game days and they're doing the same thing when the contest has ended. Sure, anybody can throw a football, but it takes arm strength, accuracy, and certain fundamentals to do it correctly. Being a receiver just means running forward and catching the ball when it comes your way. And when you think about it, nobody gets together with his buddies to re-create blocking schemes.
I even believe that some receivers brought their own unique personalities to the game before we ever recognized them. As an ESPN analyst, I spend a lot of time talking to fellow ex-players about today's game and their own experiences. Tom Jackson, another ESPN broadcaster and a linebacker who played with the Denver Broncos from 1973–86, once agreed that he remembers some interesting characters from his own playing days. He wouldn't identify one memorable person, but the story he provided about this player was enlightening:
The Broncos were preparing to leave for a road trip, and Tom was one of the first to recognize a problem with the bus that would take them to the airport: One of the receivers wasn't on it. This wouldn't have been such a big deal if the player had been ten minutes late for the team's departure. Even twenty minutes could've been explained away. But after an hour, Tom, his teammates, and his coaches were all wondering what the hell had happened. This was during the 1970s. It wasn't like there were cell phones in those days. You were off the grid the minute you got stuck in traffic.
It wasn't until the team had been waiting for more than ninety minutes that the receiver finally pulled his car into the parking lot and boarded the bus. When he came down the aisle, Tom wondered why nobody was asking why the guy was so late. That concern changed as soon as Tom saw his teammate's right hand. It wasn't a car accident that had held him up, nor was it some sort of family emergency. Instead, the receiver's explanation had everything to do with a more basic need: He was carrying a plastic bag filled with three boxes of Church's fried chicken.
That story tells me this position was destined to be a little different from the start. It just took a few decades and a certain set of circumstances to bring us to where we are today. We needed the television networks to take the popularity of the game to an entirely new level. We needed innovative minds to revolutionize football and open up the passing game. We also needed a run of quarterbacks the likes of whom we'd never seen before in the 1980s and 1990s—legends like John Elway, Dan Marino, Warren Moon, Jim Kelly, and Brett Favre, who started throwing the football in ways we'd never imagined.
Those signal-callers received ample credit for what they did for offensive fireworks in their day. What we didn't know was how much they were creating a platform for receivers to become bigger stars in their own right. I remember the best pass-catchers of the 1980s—most notably Jerry Rice, Steve Largent, James Lofton, and Art Monk—as gifted performers in dynamic offensive schemes. Over the last two decades, we've become more accustomed to the idea of teams building their offenses around featured receivers… along with those receivers ranking among the loudest voices in the locker room.
When the New York Giants upset the heavily favored and undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, it wasn't Giants quarterback Eli Manning who predicted a victory in the same way Joe Namath did for the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. It was wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who also caught the game-winning touchdown pass. The Patriots also had the league's most prolific offense ever that season and not only because they had Tom Brady playing quarterback. The arrival of Randy—who caught a league-record 23 touchdown passes in 2007—ultimately transformed a very good offense into a legendary one.
In addition to those players, we've seen far more receivers in recent history serving as the faces of their teams than ever before. Before Drew Brees arrived in New Orleans and helped the Saints win Super Bowl XLIV, Joe Horn was the most prominent player in that franchise. Rich Gannon may have won the league MVP with the Oakland Raiders in 2002, but for many years Tim Brown was the only star on that team. Even Michael Irvin—despite all his off-the-field issues—was a driving force in the Dallas Cowboys dynasty in the 1990s. Troy Aikman was the quarterback and Emmitt Smith the star runner, but Irvin was unquestionably the heart and soul of those teams. Ask anybody who'd spent time around them during those glory years.
The only problem with this trend is that sometimes teams make the mistake of putting too much responsibility on wide receivers. I've long believed that players at that position shouldn't be team captains because there are too many reasons the job is beyond their capabilities. The New York Jets discovered as much during the 2011 season. They started the year with great ambition, eager to challenge for the AFC East title and hopeful that wide receiver Santonio Holmes, a team captain, could help lead them there. By January, they were sifting through the wreckage of their season and trying to decide if Holmes should even remain on the roster.
Those issues revolved around one area: Holmes wasn't happy with the quarterback. The more erratic Jets starter Mark Sanchez became, the more Holmes sulked. There were reports that Holmes wouldn't attend the quarterback-receiver meetings that Sanchez arranged each week and that teammates privately disliked the receiver's attitude. Holmes's situation became so toxic that former offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer actually benched him during a game late in the season.
Now, does any of this surprise me? No. The minute the Jets elected Holmes as a captain, they were making a huge gamble. This was the same guy who had won the Most Valuable Player award in Pittsburgh's win over Arizona in Super Bowl XLIII and then became such a headache for the Steelers that they traded him for a fifth-round pick two years later. That's a pretty hard feat to achieve. But the Jets probably felt like they had a steal at the time, and they did for a bit. Holmes played very well in his first season, making clutch catch after clutch catch and helping New York reach the AFC championship game in 2010.
That success was enough to make them forget the type of receiver they had acquired. They probably figured that Holmes was more mature than Sanchez and that he'd help the young quarterback blossom. Instead, Holmes became the same player he'd been for the Steelers. Only this time, it wasn't off-the-field issues that hurt his standing with the team. It was the same trait that had been growing in him since the first time he ever lined up as a receiver. He had a natural inability to deal with a world where the football wasn't constantly coming his way.
Holmes's 2011 season with the Jets was also an example of another characteristic common in receivers: We want more than what we have. If we catch five balls, we want seven. If we catch seven, we want ten. If we go to the Pro Bowl, we want to start. If we lead the league in receptions for one season, we want to do it every year after that.
In the case of Holmes, I guarantee you that he loved the idea of being in New York because it was a step up. When he was in Pittsburgh, he was part of a franchise that already had plenty of star power on both sides of the ball. Ben Roethlisberger was the two-time Super Bowl–winning quarterback while fellow receiver Hines Ward was the heart of the offense. Outside linebacker James Harrison was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2008 and strong safety Troy Polamalu was widely considered one of the best defenders in the game. Even head coach Mike Tomlin, the man who produced a Super Bowl win just two seasons after replacing Bill Cowher, had a higher profile.
The minute Holmes arrived in New York, he was hailed as a savior for an offense that needed a big-play threat. He likely ate that up, all the while believing this was his opportunity to show the world what he could really do. Does that make him any different from most receivers? Not at all. Holmes probably thought he'd take his game to the next level in his new franchise, which can be a common mistake for some wideouts.
We saw Deion Branch leave the New England Patriots—just one season after helping them win their third Super Bowl in four seasons—for a forgettable five-year tenure with Seattle. Peerless Price signed a huge deal with the Atlanta Falcons in 2003 after making a name for himself during four seasons in Buffalo. He never enjoyed a 1,000-yard season after that point and lasted only two years with that franchise. Dallas fans also have to remember the free-agent flop of Alvin Harper. He left the Cowboys as a number two receiver in 1994, eager to make big money as a number one target after helping that team win two Super Bowls. He wound up in Tampa Bay, then Washington, New Orleans, and finally Dallas again. In all, he caught 67 passes over the final five seasons of his career.
These receivers all wanted the same things I wanted when I came into the league. They wanted the world to see how truly exceptional they were, how much they could do for a team with the ball in their hands. That they lost sight of their own limitations isn't surprising. The more we succeed at the position—regardless of how much help we get from fellow players and coaches—the more we believe it's all the result of our own extraordinary skills.
It's that level of confidence (or cockiness) that makes the best players at the position great. It's also why teams will put up with plenty of headaches if a receiver can put them over the top. When Randy Moss was at his best in Minnesota, I know for a fact that head coach Denny Green was willing to give him a long leash. Randy was so dangerous that all you had to do was keep him motivated on game days. His talent would take care of the rest as long as he had his head on straight.
I'll give you an example. When Minnesota reached the NFC championship game in 2000, I knew it might be one of my last opportunities to reach the Super Bowl. I had come close back in the 1998 season and that year still ranks as the most heartbreaking moment in my career. We had lost one game all season and yet the Atlanta Falcons upset us at home in the NFC title game. To this day, people still consider that Minnesota team one of the best to never win a championship.
Since Randy had been a rookie on that 1998 team, he understood full well how hard it was to reach another NFC title game. We talked about it plenty as we advanced through the 2000 playoffs and especially during the week prior to that contest with the Giants. I still remember thinking about the significance of that moment as I was driving to get a haircut on the Friday before we left for New York. It was a ritual that Randy and I always had before games. We'd go to our favorite barber in Minneapolis on Friday mornings and be ready for the cameras come Sunday.
Only this time, Denny decided he wanted to change the team schedule on that Friday morning and hold a mandatory meeting prior to our departure. He called me as I was driving toward the barbershop, asking that I give the message to Randy. When I got ahold of Randy, I could sense him getting upset before I got all the words out. He was already so close to the shop that he didn't see the need in turning around.
I tried explaining to Randy that we had to be at the meeting. I also reminded him that it would be fairly easy to find a barber in New York who could come to our hotel and provide the same service. We'd done it before.
But Randy wouldn't hear it. "I've got to get my hair tight," he said. "We're going to New York!"
- On Sale
- Jul 30, 2013
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Hachette Books