Whither the wideout?

Once he was an "end," more likely to be blocking for a power running game than sprinting through the secondary. When he did run a route, he took pride in going over the middle to pick up 7 or 8 yards for a tough first down.

What happened to that guy? How did he become this guy, the preening diva with the capital-A Attitude and the temperament of a prima ballerina or Westminster Dog Show winner? How did the star wide receiver become the most obnoxious genus of player in the National Football League?

Once there were possession receivers. Now there are receivers who appear to be possessed.

And the secondary question: Does being a wide receiver make you a jerk, or do jerks just naturally gravitate to the wide receiver position?

One member of the defending Super Bowl champions took a gun to a nightclub and accidentally shot himself in the leg, ending his own season and jeopardizing the team's chances to repeat. He was a wide receiver.

One member of a playoff contender was at the center of a huge public imbroglio with his quarterback and the team's star tight end, jeopardizing his team's chemistry in the season's final month. He was a wide receiver.

One player got suspended earlier this season for getting into a confrontation with an assistant coach during a meeting, which wouldn't seem so awful if this same player didn't turn up in headlines pretty much every week for some shenanigans or other. He was a wide receiver.

And none of these three are all-world lightning rod Randy Moss.

Other position players get in trouble off the field. Other position players are unhappy with playing time or have disagreements with coaches. It happens. But there is something exquisitely dramatic and staggeringly selfish about a wide receiver in full pique.

Why?

Once upon a time, the quarterback was the superstar on every team. He was the equivalent of the volatile movie star with his own trailer and entourage of pampering sycophants. Now the star quarterbacks in the league are the strikingly unglamorous Manning brothers, or they're as revered for their toughness and resilience as their stats: Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb have personas more like linebackers than pretty boys.

Even the prettiest of QBs, New England's Tom Brady, manages to seem humble and hard-working while hobnobbing with supermodels in his free time.

There's a clue in there. As the NFL evolved into a pass-oriented offensive league, playing quarterback became infinitely more difficult both physically and mentally. That's why wonks like the Mannings or Drew Brees or Jeff Garcia have replaced freewheeling, nightlife-loving swells as personified by Joe Namath.

You can see this process in action in Arizona, where Namath heir Matt Leinart has been displaced by ancient nerd Kurt Warner.

The game is too brutal for offensive and defensive linemen. They don't have the energy for ego-tripping. With rare exceptions - Ray Lewis, anyone? - linebackers and safeties are also too caught up in the game's violence to preen or strut. Even running backs, the other guys who carry the ball, take too much of a beating to be as self-centered as wideouts.

There are exceptions. Former Eagle Ricky Watters certainly had his moments. Washington's Clinton Portis, who will face the Eagles tomorrow, has a wideout-size ego and just had a public dust-up with head coach Jim Zorn.

But wideout is where you find the perfect combination of skill, glamor, body type and free time - the formula that produced Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson, Plaxico Burress and Randy Moss, Michael Irvin and Keyshawn Johnson.

Aside from the kicking jobs, wide receiver is the single easiest position to play in the NFL. Because the other seven or eight offensive players all have to learn more and work harder on each play, they tend to understand when a QB misses a throw or a running play gets stuffed.

The wideout, flitting around and waving his arm - always open, at least in his head - knows only that the play would have been better if the ball had been thrown to him. The quarterback didn't see him, the running back failed to pick up a blitz, the tackle got beat on the outside - all of these elements conspired to deprive him, the wideout, of the chance to make a big play.

Offenses are designed to let him run free. The rules have been changed to protect him from harassment by defenders. On running plays, he blocks like a man learning to waltz. When he is tackled, it is often by a cornerback who is trying as hard to avoid contact as he is. If there is the threat of real trouble, he steps nimbly out of bounds or dives to the ground.

His ego is more easily and more frequently bruised than his body, and that's where the trouble begins - for everyone else.

Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.