Any discussion about the top receivers in the NFL probably wouldn't take long before the names of Larry Fitzgerald, the Panthers' Steve Smith, Chad Ochocinco and Wes Welker came up.
But this season, those players have had to watch as their numbers have taken a big hit. And some of them are not happy about it.
Anyone watching Ochocinco's meltdown last night in the Bengals' loss had to know that it was killing him to see Terrell Owens clearly take hold of the team's passing game. Once again, Batman was kicking Robin to the sidelines and it was driving him batty.
By anyone else's standards, Fitzgerald's 510 yards receiving and four TDs would be quite respectable. By his standards, it's grounds for self-immolation. As the Cardinals have shuttled back and forth between Derek Anderson and Max Hall, Fitzgerald has been burning up inside. There have been whispers of his desire to get the heck out of town, even amid new talk that Donovan McNabb might be the team's quarterback in 2011.
Welker and Smith, similarly sized wideouts and friends off the field, clearly have far different situations on the field. Welker is part of a 6-2 football team that seems destined for the playoffs. Their QB, Tom Brady, has employed a spread-it-around attack in the passing game since Randy Moss left, but Welker really has little to complain about with his team winning games. Still, it eats up any competitor — even a team-first guy such as Welker — when they are not getting the ball. He has only 11 catches the past three games and no more than 70 yards in any contest this season.
But Smith really is struggling to deal with his situation. He's lined up next to a slew of young receivers, replacement offensive linemen and a QB situation that could get worse before it gets better. Matt Moore, the guy Smith has defended up and down, now is out for the season. Jimmy Clausen, his assumed replacement, hasn't even been told if he'll start for sure in Week 10. He was pulled for Tony Pike, who was on the practice squad not long ago. At 1-7, the Panthers seem to be a rudderless team with a head coach who is eight games away from taking off for greener pastures. Smith is on pace for one of his worst statistical full seasons since becoming a starter.
No other position, really, is so dependent on another one in order to have an impact. Sure, receivers are asked to block and run good routes even when they are not getting the ball. But their primary job is to catch the football — and the only way they can do that is if it's thrown to them by their QBs. Properly, too.
Bad passing is not the case for all these players. Clearly, Welker is on a good offensive team with Brady. And Carson Palmer, despite all his critics, is doing what he is taught to: throw away from bracket coverage. Ochocinco is getting it, Owens isn't as much, though that clearly should change after last night.
And I realize that most receivers are genetically predisposed to carry the "diva" strain in their DNA, something that often drives their coaches and quarterbacks crazy. They tend to want the ball all the time in every situation possible. Covered or not.
But on some level you have to feel for them a little. Clearly their talent has not been taken advantage of as much as they would like. Running backs can get the ball 25 times a game, easily; you just turn around and hand it off. You can understand when a star back complains about not getting it enough. But when a receiver sounds off about his workload, there's only so much a coach can do to appease him when the quarterback is struggling and defenses make it their point to take the player out of the game with tricked-up coverages.
It's the nature of the position, and for Fitzgerald, Smith, Ochocinco and Welker it's something they just might have to deal with. And when it comes to receivers, that always makes for interesting subplots.