League would be just fine without Owens
At this point, he’ll probably never get there.
The debate over whether Owens will return this season after quietly having ACL surgery in April is largely irrelevant. Sure, some desperate team might take a chance on Owens, particularly as that yet-to-be-determined organization sorts through all its options once the lockout ends. But in Hollywood terms, Owens has become that once-fascinating star who has faded into “special guest star status.” He’s like Shannen Doherty or Christian Slater or all those has-beens who rotated into the various Quinn Martin Productions; people who seemed headed for something great until it was discovered that there simply wasn’t much to them.
That’s where Owens, who has worked his way down the NFL food chain through the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals the past two years, is in his career. In five to 10 years, he’s going to be sitting next to Jose Canseco on the Flavor Flav Talk Show, discussing his upcoming MMA bout.
You can hear it now rolling off Owens’ tongue: “For me, it’s all about the love of competition. That’s what I was always about, competing. Working my tail off every day to destroy that guy across from me. That’s what I’m going to do in this bout next Saturday in Trenton, New Jersey.”
For all the attention Owens has received and all the stats he’s produced (his 153 touchdowns are tied with Randy Moss(notes), appropriately, for second place all time), Owens has been a terrible football player in the ways that are most important. He’s a loser and a whiner, a bad teammate whose selfish antics and diva qualities destroyed teams. There’s a reason Owens has played for five clubs in his career, even getting traded in his prime by the San Francisco 49ers. Time and again, Owens has put his own balky ego ahead of everything and everyone.
[Dan Wetzel: Drama-filled Terrell Owens is good for the NFL]
Owens’ relationship with his various quarterbacks is the most telling. He once intimated that Jeff Garcia(notes) was gay, ripped apart Donovan McNabb(notes) and became suspicious of Tony Romo(notes). In Buffalo, he blamed the lack of an effective quarterback. The only reason he didn’t get into it with Drew Bledsoe in Dallas or Cincinnati’s Carson Palmer(notes) is that neither one of those guys cared enough to spar with him. He managed to work it out with Steve Young in San Francisco only because Young had the credibility.
Even Young, the Hall of Fame quarterback who tries frequently to explain T.O. to the masses as an ESPN analyst, struggles to make sense of Owens. Young’s earnest attempts and his intellectual curiosity about what makes Owens tick are commendable, but the menagerie of words that he uses ignores one simple credo: It’s not supposed to be that hard.
If it takes a case study for a guy to be a good teammate, that means he’s not a good teammate. Either you know how to fit into the network of a team or you don’t. That’s why Owens is so bad, so undeserving of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which is where he’ll probably end up. This has nothing to do with his histrionics. It has nothing to do with preening on the Cowboy star or grabbing the pom-poms or signing the football in Seattle. All of that stuff may be a sign of selfishness, but it wasn’t damaging. It was actually fun. It created debates and arguments over proper behavior, which made for good entertainment.
What Owens did that really hurt was when he wasn’t man enough to go to Romo and Jason Witten(notes), and figure out how to make the Cowboys’ offense better in 2008. Instead, he went to other teammates and coaches, and complained that Romo and Witten were designing secret plays behind his back. Worse, after a loss in Pittsburgh, he second-guessed Romo about a critical play that turned into an interception, even though there was no way Romo could have gotten the ball to Owens.
Owens’ behavior, such as when he upbraided McNabb for being sick at the end of their Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots, was divisive, not constructive. He made people want to shut him out, not join hands with him to do battle against an opponent. He made teammates and coaches go to management to get rid of him. In Dallas, owner Jerry Jones had enough of players and coaches saying Owens had to go and he finally cut him.
That’s telling because Jones, like Owens, is a man who is all about theater. Jones likes drama because it keeps people watching. As the saying goes, the Cowboys are a great story when they win and they’re a better story when they lose.
For today, Owens is a great story again because so many people are wondering what’s going to happen next. Really, it’s not that hard to figure out. If Owens plays, he’ll put up stats that’ll make it look like he can play, but his team will go nowhere. In critical moments, he’ll do what he did last year for the Bengals, such as stop running on pass routes or refuse to get hit even if it means picking up a pass interference penalty or breaking up a possible interception.
Owens’ attempts to transition to reality TV are perfect. As with most people, his time will run out because he’s a one-note character. Here’s one 45-second scene from a reality show that summed up his football career:
Owens was walking down the street with his girlfriend at the time when she appeared to get fed up with him. As they approached her Los Angeles-area apartment, she let herself in the security gate and closed it before he could come in. Owens quietly tried to convince her to let him in. No dice.
The look on her face was telling, the combination of weariness and annoyance, just like the look on the faces of his teammates and coaches throughout his career. In response, Owens shot a dumbfounded expression, as if he was trying to say, “Hey, what did I do?”
Nothing, T.O., you did nothing. And that’s the point.