OXNARD, Calif. – Terrell Owens walked off the practice field to a chorus of high-pitched screams, perking up as the fans attending the Dallas Cowboys' star-studded training camp began chanting his nickname.
"T.O! T.O!" they bellowed as the 34-year-old wideout, a chiseled figure in his trademark black spandex, approached the fence beyond one of the sidelines Saturday afternoon and dutifully began to sign. He paused as someone handed him an iPhone, affixed his autograph and offered a bemused smile. "Super Bowl, baby!" a fan yelled, and T.O. nodded his approval.
Next Owens spent 10 minutes answering questions in a group interview that included about 30 reporters – more than will cover a month's worth of, say, Kansas City Chiefs practices.
Finally, as he stood in the middle of the now abandoned field behind a Residence Inn, Owens let down his guard and talked about how happy he is to be playing for the Cowboys – now – and how hard it was to endure the dysfunctional player-coach relationship that previously existed.
"Overall, this is a great situation, and I love playing for Wade Phillips," Owens said. "He's treating me as a human being. It's all about respecting me as a man and treating me as a man, period. I'll play hard no matter what the situation, but when you have a head coach who treats you like that, you'll go above and beyond."
Any guesses as to what the follow-up question was?
Before we get into the disdain T.O. (and other Cowboys) felt for former coach Bill Parcells, it's important to remember just how much was on the line for Owens when he showed up to this same Residence Inn two years ago. As he arrived at his first camp with his third team, the NFL's most valuable and volatile receiver was on the verge of losing everything.
After the Philadelphia Eagles cut him in March of 2006, most teams avoided T.O. as though he had a hellacious case of B.O. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had bucked the trend and taken a chance on Owens, giving the free agent a three-year, $25 million contract in the wake of his lost season with the Eagles, which included a four-game suspension after he made disparaging public comments about quarterback Donovan McNabb and fought with team ambassador and former Philly defensive end Hugh Douglas. After his suspension ended, he was deactivated for the final four games of the regular season.
Upon signing with the Cowboys, the veteran wideout, having been publicly perceived as a toxic presence in the locker rooms of two franchises, understood that one more misstep could essentially end his football career.
What followed was a setup for disaster: Owens pulled his hamstring, keeping him out of numerous training-camp practices (including 14 workouts in a row) and thus violating one of the prime tenets of the Parcells Play-Or-Else Handbook. With his owner, Jones, encouraging him not to push it, T.O. spent his early camp practice sessions riding an exercise bike near the entrance to the fields, as television cameras filmed away.
In what he swears was a humorous attempt at mocking the spectacle – yet, for all intents and purposes, was an act guaranteed to get Parcells to boil over – Owens showed up one afternoon dressed up like a Tour de France rider (he wore the uniform of Lance Armstrong's Discovery Channel team) and proceeded to hop on the stationary bike.
When nose tackle Jason Ferguson, who had played for Parcells with the New York Jets, began screaming at the top of his lungs across the practice field, "Bill, what are you gonna do?" there wasn't a whole lot of ambiguity about the situation.
Parcells, a noted bully, never directly confronted Owens, instead invoking a passive-aggressive strategy to tweak him. That included treating Owens as though he didn't exist, to the point where Parcells made a point never to mention his name in interview sessions. Instead, he referred to Owens as "The Player," something that caused many Dallas players to regard him as "The (Expletive) Coach."
"I thought it was kind of lame," veteran cornerback Terence Newman says. "Everybody did."
The Player's take? "It's ignorance, if you ask me," Owens said. "I didn't make a big deal out of it. You just chalk it up for what it is."
It's a good thing for Owens that he never snapped. As great as he is, he might not be playing in the NFL – let alone for a Super Bowl contender, with a fat new contract – if he'd clashed with another authority figure.
In fairness, Parcells wasn't the only coach with whom Owens had issues. T.O.'s friction-filled relationship with Steve Mariucci essentially ended his stay in San Francisco, which traded him to Philly after the '03 season (after Owens rejected a deal that would have sent him to Baltimore), and he couldn't handle Andy Reid's taskmaster tendencies during his infamous contract dispute that became such a spectacle during the Eagles' training camp in '05. In each case, Owens felt that his coach sided with a quarterback (Jeff Garcia with the 49ers, McNabb with the Eagles) over him, adding to his sense that he wasn't being extended the proper measure of respect.
"Honestly, of all the head coaches I've had I can definitely say, yeah, this is by far the most respect I've ever been given," Owens said. "Mooch (Mariucci), I felt, showed favoritism toward the quarterback in certain situations. In Philly, it was a battle from the start. I've been wearing spandex (in practice) my whole career, and right away he wants me to wear shorts. I guess they tried to throw their authority around."
Then there was Parcells, who simply pretended to ignore him. In T.O.'s case, that may even have been worse.
Owens is a sensitive man in a profession that does not celebrate such a quality. If you know much about his background, you have a better understanding of why this is so, just as you are given clues as to why he has such an obvious need for attention.
You would also realize, as Jones and many of his players do now, that Parcells could not have done a worse job of bringing out the best in a truly gifted athlete – one who, despite his faults, has consistently performed with passion, intensity and toughness. Yet somehow, the man who defied doctors by playing in Super Bowl XXXIX on a severely sprained ankle and fractured fibula – and nearly spurring the Eagles to an upset victory over the Patriots while making nine catches for 122 yards – was marginalized by Parcells as a wimpy malingerer.
"Honestly, dude, I don't really know what to say," Owens said of his relationship with Parcells, who resigned after the '06 season and is now the Dolphins' vice president of football operations. "It's probably like one of the worst experiences that I've had. I didn't show it, but it was hard. But I dealt with it.
"Look, it's not just me. You've heard so many comments about how this team is much different under this coach and how we've responded to him. I'm not alone. Trust me. Overall, this is a great situation."
Just as significant as the personal animosity between Parcells and Owens were the creative differences that occurred on a professional level. Owens, who had ripped up the league for the Eagles in '04 (he caught 77 passes for 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns in 14 games before hurting his ankle), wasn't the clear No. 1 option in an offense that also featured wideout Terry Glenn and Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten.
The greatest indignity came in the Cowboys' 21-20 wild-card round playoff defeat at Seattle. Though a wave of injuries in the secondary forced the Seahawks to play two corners who'd recently been unemployed, Owens caught just two passes for 26 yards and no touchdowns.
"I personally don't think Parcells used him in a way where we could win more ballgames," Newman said. "You could see that in Seattle – they had guys off the street playing corner, and we didn't even go after them. I don't think Parcells could've been any worse for T.O. In order to get respect, you've got to give it. Wade gives him a lot of respect, as he should. He hasn't done anything not to deserve it."
In return, Owens has given the Phillips-coached Cowboys a better version of himself. In '06 his route-running was imprecise and his attention to detail wandered. Always dedicated, Owens was nonetheless considered undependable at times by former quarterback Drew Bledsoe, a classic pocket passer who favored crisp, precisely timed throws.
When the mobile and improvisational Tony Romo replaced Bledsoe in October of '06, things improved for Owens. But it wasn't until last season, when he put up near-career-best numbers of 81 catches for 1,355 yards and 15 touchdowns, that the All-Pro version of T.O. resurfaced.
"Oh yeah, from when he first got here, things are completely different," Newman said. "He used to get by with his sheer athletic ability, but now he's concentrating on running excellent routes and being a complete receiver. Some of that was because Terry Glenn was here, and he was a playmaker, too. It was equal opportunity, and if he wanted to get more balls, he had to step it up."
Owens did, and as a result he's no longer vulnerable. In June, Jones gave him a reported four-year, $34 million contract extension, something the owner says he did without hesitation.
"Now, going into his third season, he's a fixture," Jones said. "He's a real positive teammate, and he's a real plus from the leadership standpoint of the team. He's in the best shape he's been since he's been here, and he still has his gear. And with the type of player he is, someone who doesn't rely on blinding speed or quick cuts to get his edge, I'm not worried about a dropoff."
As Jones spoke, Owens strode toward the left sideline to take his place in a 7-on-7 passing drill opposite an even more controversial teammate, cornerback Adam (Don't Call Me Pacman) Jones. The former Titans speedster, who missed the '07 season after being suspended by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for violations of the league's personal conduct policy, battled T.O. on a go-route and broke up a pass 40 yards downfield. An official who was working the scrimmage threw a flag for pass interference, and the fans cheered wildly.
AccuScore on the Cowboys
Despite being in a very tough division, the Cowboys lead the NFC in playoff probability making the playoffs in 84 percent of the season simulations. The running game should thrive with Marion Barber firmly entrenched as the starter and while Tony Romo has to prove he can win in the playoffs, he certainly has proven himself in the regular season. The Cowboys are averaging over 27 points per game in simulations. The defense is forecasted to allow 1 more point per game this year despite upgrades because this season the team plays six games against teams that were in the Top 12 in points scored last season (compared to just two last season).
AccuScore looked at the individual simulations for Cowboys games and found that Dallas' winning percentage does not increase when Romo passes for over 300 yards. In fact, the more yards Romo passes for, Dallas' winning percentage decreases. This is the case for many QBs since more passing yards often result in games where a team falls behind by a big margin. However, when Romo throws no more than 1 interception, the Cowboys' chances increase by 10 percentage points. It is more important for Romo to throw under 15 interceptions than it is to pass for over 4,000 yards.
Projected Record: 11-5
Playoff Probability: 84%
"Look at (T.O. and Pacman)," the owner said. "They're asking for it – they stepped up to go first in this drill and line up against each other – and what it does is it lifts everybody else up. When people see the way they want to compete, they raise their level of competition, and pretty soon you get what you had when Michael Irvin was here."
It was the second time in the interview Jones had invoked the Hall of Fame receiver's name. Earlier, in describing Owens's comfort level with Romo, the owner said, "Through a lot of repetitions, they're on the same page. They're so connected, it's starting to look like (Troy) Aikman-Irvin."
Jones obviously has a vested interest in this, and it doesn't take a cynic to note that Owens remains capable of imploding if things turn bad. The Cowboys, coming off an NFC-best 13-3 regular season, squandered an opportunity by losing their first playoff game to the Giants in January, and there's a lot of pressure on this team to win it all, right now.
Owens cried after that playoff defeat, in defense of Romo, who had been questioned for making a high-profile trip to Cabo San Lucas with actress/girlfriend Jessica Simpson the weekend before the game.
If the Cowboys fall short again, T.O. certainly is capable of expressing his emotions in a far less supportive manner.
My suspicion, however, is that Owens will keep it together for the rest of his time in Dallas. I've known him since he was a wide-eyed, painfully shy 49ers rookie in 1996, and for all of his wild mood swings and polarizing antics, he's a lot less complex than many people often portray him to be.
He loves football, he craves attention and, like many of us, he wants to be loved and appreciated for his accomplishments. The no-frills Phillips isn't being particularly solicitous of his star, but he isn't going out of his way to flex his power, either, and with T.O. that goes a long way.
"He's always been happy to be here," Romo said. "It's just that now we've been through so many together, and he cares about everyone around here and is totally invested in what we're all trying to do."
Added offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, Aikman's former backup: "He's done a tremendous job for us. One of the things I learned playing here in the '90s was this: When your marquee players are the hardest workers, it sets the tone for the entire group. As a coach, it's great when you can say, 'Watch 81 run this route' and know that everyone else will aspire to that standard."
And what does The Player say about all of this?
"Everybody's expecting great things for the season," he said. "So am I. I've worked very, very hard for this. We all have."
It's tough not to respect that.