Legacy of Terrell Owens: Sad Waste of Talent

Posted Mar 5th 2009 10:15 PM by Jay Mariotti

It isn’t often, especially in sports, when a man with muscles like rocks has a psyche like Jell-O. Thus, I’m still not certain whether to give Terrell Owens a hug or punch him silly. A side of me suspects he’s in dire need of professional help, recalling the 2006 episode in which he “accidentally overdosed” on pain medication when no one’s sure it was accidental. And part of me thinks he’s just a petulant 35-year-old who should be tossed into the Octagon with three MMA fighters, two pitbulls and Rosie O’Donnell.

For now, it’s not America’s problem. Finally, mercifully, pro football’s most disruptive internal force was released Thursday by the Dallas Cowboys, who have come to realize that entertainment, marketing and buzz are so much stale popcorn when the franchise hasn’t won a playoff game in 13 years. T.O. was short for Toxic Overload. He was a little boy with a disturbing paranoiac streak who thinks the Cowboys were out to get him, just as he thought the Philadelphia Eagles were out to get him and the San Francisco 49ers were out to get him. Never mind that owner Jerry Jones, his enabler, presented him with a $12 million bonus last year and stretched so far for Owens that some of his Botox injections exploded. Never mind that Tony Romo, the carefree quarterback, treated him better than he treats Jessica Simpson. Never mind that he caught 235 passes for 3,587 yards and 38 touchdowns in his three Dallas seasons, which indicates a strong desire to find him action.

A hopeless attention junkie, he needed more footballs, more face time, more end-zone stunts and more love from a land that never has understood him. We’ve marveled at his talents and raved about his dedication as a physical specimen, but in the end, Owens has been a career disappointment because his personal dysfunction always overwhelmed his on-field production. We should be talking about T.O. as a future Hall of Famer.

Instead, we speak of him as a player with no future.

Oh, sure, some desperate team eventually will reach out and inquire about him, such as the Oakland Raiders, who have become a cliche in that we always match them with available renegades. But anyone trying to win a championship — including Tennessee and New Orleans, two stated possible destinations — should avoid him like poison ivy in a nudist colony. Only once in recent memory, when he worked religiously to rehab from a severe ankle injury and played in Super Bowl XXXIX for the Eagles, can we say he showed more heart than hubris. If Owens couldn’t make it with built-in advantages in Dallas — if he persisted in being a 24/7 distraction and accused Romo and his close friend/road roommate, tight end Jason Witten, of plotting against him in the game plans — then why would another owner, general manager and coach with pride want any part of this out-of-control freak show?

“In the aftermath of the season, we talked about change,” said Jones, who takes a $9 million salary-cap hit in the transaction. “Some of what is changing involves the process and some of it involves people. This is a decision that was made based upon consideration for an entire team. We will move on now with a new team — a new attitude — and into a new stadium. The evaluation process and the prospect for change will continue at every level of the organization.”

For the Cowboys to abandon their crazed, five-ring-circus existence and try to find normalcy and professionalism, Owens had to go. At last, Jones is listening to those of us who’ve criticized him for his high-profile character gambles, spending recent weeks dumping Pacman Jones, Tank Johnson and Owens. Unlike the others, T.O. was not a criminal presence. But he was a carcinogen inside the locker room, where chemistry is supposed to take shape and funnel itself into performance and camaraderie. We now hear that he and Witten, a down-home and likable guy, almost came to blows over T.O’s insecurities — jealousies? — about his relationship with Romo. Still, the wildest story involves Owens’ relationship with former Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, who, in terms of commanding the respect of players, might have the highest quotient of any NFL coach ever.

Guess what? Parcells and Owens were incommunicado.

“You’ve gotta realize that Bill bought into Terrell joining our team, and don’t think Terrell didn’t come to this team without Bill’s blessing,” Jones related. “He wanted to win and use the talents of Terrell as much as anyone in this organization … the entire time Bill was coach, they never spoke.”

When Parcells and the Cowboys parted ways, Tuna looked drained and ready for permanent retirement. He was another victim of T.O., yet Jones foolishly believed in Owens because he adored him as a publicity magnet. Somewhere along the way, after winning three Super Bowls early in his ownership run, Jerry became a master of ceremonies first and a responsible owner second. He thought the competition was about gaining the most attention on SportsCenter, which he accomplished at the expense of non-stop underachievement on the field. What the Cowboys need, now that their Taj Mahal stadium is opening, is for Jones to entertain people in the suites while a real GM runs the franchise. At least he listened to Owens’ numerous detractors, including Romo and son Stephen Jones, when he made the excruciating decision to cut T.O. And at least he and his son delivered the news personally to Owens, in a Florida meeting with agent Drew Rosenhaus. “This was certainly a tough decision,” Jones told the NFL Network. “And I have all the feelings that I should have as far as Terrell as the great player he is and the impact he has made. I do appreciate what he has been for our team. But we certainly felt that this decision is the way we ought to go.”

Anyone who thinks Owens is jumping off a bridge today is mistaken. He is shocked. He is hurt. Behind the scenes, I’m sure he needs a straitjacket. But he hasn’t called 911 yet as far as we know, preferring to thank the Cowboys and his fans on his Web site. “Thanks for the opportunity to be a member of the team for the past three years,” he wrote. “A big thanks to the fans — you’ve been awesome! I look forward to the upcoming season and continuing to play in the NFL.”

If only he could maintain that good cheer on the sideline, where he was seen screaming and storming almost every week, usually in frustration over offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. All the superglue in Texas couldn’t keep Owens from dividing the Cowboys, in the same manner he divided the Eagles and 49ers. The shame of it is, Romo tried to make it work. He shrugged off T.O’s barbs, something Donovan McNabb wouldn’t do in Philadelphia, and he kept looking for him. But on third downs last season, Owens caught only 35 percent of the balls thrown in his direction, the sign of a former game-breaker in decline. Most elite receivers, including Jerry Rice, begin to deteriorate in their mid-30s regardless of physical conditioning. From this point on, expect Owens to be a third receiver at best, assuming anyone gambles on him beyond the new United Football League. Maybe someone will heap money upon T.O. and Michael Vick in that ridiculous new autumn venture, a show no one with any sort of life will watch.

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