Real reason behind T.O.’s exit from Dallas

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ARLINGTON, Texas – Three and a half months have passed since the Dallas Cowboys cut Terrell Owens(notes), and we’ve been subjected to more spin than a stuntman from “The Fast and the Furious” film franchise. From what I could tell, the receiver’s release was necessitated by every consideration known to man, except the most logical ones: He’s a nightmare when things don’t go his way and he undermined the authority of the franchise quarterback.

Why, supposedly, did T.O. have to go? To paraphrase the polarizing wideout’s former publicist, Kim Etheredge, it seemed Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his son, Stephen, had 25 million reasons to get rid of him.

Photo The Joneses believe a split will lead to a happier – and better – Romo (right).
(Jason Bridge/US Presswire)

The only problem was, none of the reasons they provided – until now – was remotely believable as a primary cause. A conviction that Roy Williams is ready to take over as the No. 1 receiver? A sense that young wideouts Patrick Crayton(notes), Miles Austin(notes) and Sam Hurd(notes) are about to emerge? An effort to create opportunities for backup tight end Martellus Bennett(notes) and halfbacks Marion Barber(notes) and Felix Jones(notes)? A cost-cutting strategy? A youth movement?

Please, make it stop.

All of these factors may have played a role in the decision, but there had to be something more compelling as a catalyst. Now, after lengthy conversations with each of the Joneses over the past several days, I can finally give you a more realistic sense of why Owens is no longer in Dallas.

Yes, it has plenty to do with Tony Romo(notes). Absolutely, Owens’ penchant for being a major pain in the ass played a role. And, as most of us have suspected, this did come down to his effect on team chemistry. Oddly enough, however, T.O.’s popularity in the Cowboys’ locker room is precisely why he was asked to clear out his belongings.

The bottom line, team executive vice president Stephen Jones said Thursday, is that he and his father came to this conclusion: For the team’s highly paid quarterback to become a truly influential leader, the big man on campus had to be jettisoned.

“It’s hard to take over leadership when you’ve got a strong personality like Terrell,” Jones said. “If you look back at our old teams [from the 1990s], a lot of people would say maybe Michael [Irvin] was the leader. Then you might say, ‘He was a receiver. What about Troy [Aikman]? He was the quarterback. Wasn’t he the leader?’ And the answer is, yeah, Troy was a leader. But if Michael wasn’t supportive of him, Troy would’ve had problems.

“A lot of our players thought the world of Terrell – they still do. They loved the way he prepared and how hard he played, and everybody respected his skills and what he’d done in the league. And with him here, I think he was always going to carry that kind of weight.”

So the Joneses shed 224 pounds of combustible material, reasoning that it was preferable to get rid of a 35-year-old receiver on the downside of his career than to restrict the clout of a 29-year-old quarterback who’s on the front end of a six-year, $67 million contract.

Oh, and all that stuff about Williams being ready to take over as a No. 1 wideout? That’s what the Joneses need to believe, given that they traded three draft picks (including their first- and third-round selections in ’09) to the Lions to acquire him (and a seventh-round pick) last October. To justify their investment, the Cowboys will give Williams every chance to be The Man, and we all know how that approach would’ve gone over had Owens still been on the team.

“One of the key things that impacted the decision was the ability of Roy Williams to do what we think he can do,” Jerry Jones said Tuesday afternoon as we sat in 50-yard-line seats at Cowboys Stadium, the team’s spectacular new facility. (I’ll have more on the stadium opening, and the owner’s conflicted emotions in wake of the tragic collapse of the practice bubble at the team’s training headquarters, next week.)

“When we traded for Roy,” Jones continued, “one of the questions was, ‘Can two high-profile receivers get along?’ Terrell never complained about that; he was in favor of Roy coming. But when I saw it in practice, with an emphasis on how it impacted players and the approach to the game plan, then I did see it was a factor. It came down to the progress Roy can make, the responsibility he has with [Owens] not here and a little bit of concern with not enough balls to go around.”

Whereas the Joneses are convinced of Williams’ star potential, at least one of them believes Owens is on the decline. It’s a potential development, Stephen Jones is convinced, to which the proud wideout would not take kindly.

“At some point, when does a player drop off?” Jones asked rhetorically. “When do the skills diminish? And unfortunately, with somebody like Terrell, I don’t know whose fault it would be if his skills did diminish.

“I don’t think it would have been his.”

If the younger Jones’ words seem a bit frosty, it’s not all that surprising. Stephen, like any devoted son, is inclined to stick up for his father. Owens, who has since signed with the Buffalo Bills, essentially called Jerry Jones a liar earlier this month, telling AOL Fanhouse of his reaction to being released: “I was very disappointed, especially when you established a lot of trust gained for three years that I was there, and when somebody blatantly tells you you’re not going anywhere on two different occasions, and you’ve established that bond. If you don’t have a man’s word, and it doesn’t stand for anything, there’s really nothing left and there’s not a whole lot of trust.”

Owens also has implied, as others have speculated, that outside forces (i.e. Romo, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett and Stephen Jones) convinced the owner to change his mind. It’s true that Owens’ strained relationships with Romo and Garrett factored into the decision, but Stephen scoffs at the notion that he forced his father’s hand.

“Some people share things with me that it’s a little harder to share with Jerry, so I let him know about those things,” Stephen said. “I wasn’t totally against Terrell. People give me way too much credit to think I made that decision. I can assure you Jerry made that decision in the end, as he makes every big decision.”

Jerry Jones has gone out of his way to avoid criticizing Owens, but he rejects the notion that he broke his word. “I understand expectations,” Jones said. “I did intend when I looked ahead … I saw Terrell with more years with the Cowboys. As we ended up last year and started off the offseason, I didn’t have thoughts of him not being here. But my thinking changed.

“No one knew the ultimate decision of him being on the team or not being on the team until right before we made the decision. I’m talking about countable hours before I told him. He was really the first to know. Before that, our relationship would not have been subject to, ‘I’m on the fence.’ That’s just not the nature of how you make a decision like that.”

Photo Williams caught just 1 TD pass in 10 games with the ‘Boys last year.
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Translation: If I ever indicated to the employee that I wanted to keep him around, that meant that I wanted to keep him around for the time being. This is a fluid business, and I’m a businessman, and if he thinks that means I was dishonest then he’s painfully naïve.

OK, let’s take a step back and assess the fallout.

Owens loves to play the martyr, as evidenced by his Twitter post last month in response to a fan who regretted his departure from Dallas: “blame the OC and Romo!!” That’s one way of looking at it; another is that Owens brought this on with his reported criticism of the quarterback’s pass-distribution patterns late last season, when their interpersonal connection clearly deteriorated, as did the receiver’s relationship with Garrett. Even if you don’t completely believe the stories that Owens was jealous of Romo’s bond with tight end Jason Witten(notes) – and that Owens and Witten nearly fought at the team’s training facility – the tension among the principals was inescapable as the Cowboys’ playoff hopes collapsed. The evidence shows that Owens, for all his perceived slights, had a healthy percentage of balls thrown his way, yet he still wasn’t satisfied. So he flexed his power in the locker room, and that got his bosses’ attention. In that sense, his suggestion that he was a victim is laughable.

Given the increasingly dysfunctional environment, the Joneses took the path of least resistance. Sure, they could have made wholesale changes, including the firing of coach Wade Phillips, Garrett or both, but that would have been a statement that the Cowboys, as currently configured, aren’t championship-caliber. Neither Jerry nor Stephen believes that. They see the ’09 Cowboys as an ultra-talented ensemble that’s as similar to the ’07 team which went 13-3 and earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC (before losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants in a divisional-round playoff game) as it is to the seemingly discombobulated bunch that tanked down the stretch in ’08. “Our chemistry is fine,” Stephen Jones insisted. “It was ‘great’ chemistry two years ago, and it was ‘bad’ last year – and if we win again this year, it’ll be ‘good’ again. I don’t see anybody panicking.” Ultimately, the Joneses decided to address the most obvious source of intra-team tension while preserving as much of the status quo as they could. That meant Owens had to go.

What all of this means is that, even more than before, the bulk of the pressure is on Romo. As if being the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys isn’t loaded enough, Romo is now the guy who is rightfully viewed, externally and internally, as the prime reason that Owens plays in the shadow of Niagara Falls. Never mind that Romo, for all we know, had no direct role in Owens’ demise in Dallas. The reality is that the man who signs his hefty paychecks felt Romo’s best chance to lead the Cowboys to a championship was to remove T.O. from the roster, and the many admirers Owens left behind are now well aware of where the power lies. In the end, I’m not sure this is such a horrible thing. In North Texas, as in the rest of the NFL, it almost always comes back to the quarterback, and the Joneses are savvy enough to understand that. It’s nice that after 3½ months of tiptoeing around the subject, one of them finally admitted that Owens’ departure was intended to facilitate Romo’s arrival.

TAKE IT TO THE ATM

Plaxico Burress(notes) and Donte’ Stallworth(notes) will both score touchdowns in NFL games before Michael Vick(notes) plays in one. … If comedian Artie Lange catches fire in the presence of Joe Buck, and the FOX and HBO announcer is able to save him by extinguishing the flames with bodily fluid, Buck will decline to do so. … The NFL will waive its provision against cross-ownership of teams in competing markets to allow minority owner Stan Kroenke to purchase a controlling interest in the St. Louis Rams.

LIES, LIES, LIES

1. Raiders rookie Darrius Heyward-Bey(notes) is a real gamer.

2. There is a better ice-cream parlor in America than McConnell’s of Santa Barbara.

3. If anything happens to actor Seann William Scott before the next “American Pie” sequel, Texans kicker Kris Brown(notes), who signed a contract extension on Wednesday, will play the role of Stiffler.

OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE

Is it possible, in this era of microblogging, to be too quick when it comes to content delivery? Apparently it is, as the announcement I teased in Tuesday’s column about a hot microblogging venture is being pushed back a few days while the smart people get things in fighting shape. I’ll tell you all what’s going on in next Tuesday’s column, but here are a few things you need to know: While it’s not Twitter … It’s the Place to Be, and thus a lot of my friends and favorite interview subjects will be hanging out there as well. … And naturally, you’ll be invited to join us. So stay tuned, and for what it’s worth, if I had made my microblogging debut this week, here are a couple of things I would’ve discussed: Like many, I’m amazed that Stallworth (like Rams defensive end Leonard Little(notes) before him) got 30 days in jail for a crime that took a person’s life, while Michael Vick’s sentence was 23 times that long for offenses that led to death of dogs. And, as we’ve discussed before, I’m not down with the whole “drunk driving is an accident, while dog-killing is the premeditated act of a sick mind” argument. And while I commend NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s strong and swift reaction to the sentence, I believe this is another case of the NFL Players Association’s troublesome capitulation in matters of discipline. As with Vick, an “indefinite suspension” is absurd. The union’s stance should be: Decide what penalty the offense dictates, and levy the punishment. And we’ll appeal to an independent third party. Oh well, maybe in the next collective bargaining agreement.

LET’S DO SOME DON JULIO SHOTS FOR …

My man Mark Cannizaro of the New York Post, who has battled his way back from a serious illness and is doing what he does best this weekend: covering the U.S. Open with the same broad-based knowledge and relentless intensity he applies to the New York Jets beat. Seven years ago, Cannizaro was my spiritual guru and de facto seeing-eye dog at Bethpage Black as I tackled the ’02 Open for Sports Illustrated, reacting with the necessary dose of good humor when a doofus USGA press officer temporarily confiscated my armband for, as far as I could tell, breathing as a Tiger Woods putt was falling into the cup. I’m rooting for another Tiger-Phil classic this weekend, but with Cannizaro on the course, it’s already a glorious weekend in my book.

THIS WEEK’S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

Senior discus thrower Martin Maric ended his collegiate career in style, capturing a 2009 NCAA title in Fayetteville, Ark., last Saturday. The 2008 Croatian Olympian moved from third to first on his final attempt, winning with a throw of 196 feet, 3 inches. Meanwhile, Valerie Arioto, the Golden Bears softball star I profiled in Pure Silver on Rivals.com’s Cal page back in April, will join 15 other standouts – including the great Jennie Finch – on the USA. team for the Japan Cup in Sendai, Japan, from July 31-Aug. 2.

YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK

digital I’m on a boat

ROLLIN’ WITH THE ROYALS

The 2009-10 Football League Championship fixtures are out, and Reading opens at home against Nottingham Forest for the second consecutive season on Saturday, Aug. 8. The following Saturday the Royals will travel to newly relegated Newcastle United in a rematch of the game that started my whole Reading crush. In other news, manager Brendan Rodgers announced his coaching staff, and it includes Frank Lampard Sr. If the elder Lampard could get his son, Chelsea and England national team midfielder Frank, to come with him, then I’d be really excited. Finally, longtime Royals keeper and U.S. native Marcus Hahnemann is going back to the Premier League – he signed a one-year deal with Wolverhampton, which was promoted after winning last year’s Football League Championship crown (despite an 0-2 record against Reading). That means I’ll be rooting for the Wolves come August, which should come pretty naturally to this Los Lobos fan.

LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK

After Browns wideout Donte’ Stallworth pled guilty to DUI manslaughter Tuesday in Miami, he immediately began serving a jail sentence that, as per terms of a deal with prosecutors, will be completed well before the start of training camp. (His indefinite suspension from the NFL, announced Thursday by commissioner Roger Goodell, will undoubtedly keep him from attending.) Though Stallworth told the judge, “I will bear this burden for the rest of my life,” I suspect he was singing inside. On that note let’s cue up some Humble Pie – a term with which Stallworth became familiar during his time with the Patriots – and imagine Stallworth doing the Steve Marriott thing, to the tune of “30 Days in the Hole”:

30 days in the hole
30 days in the hole
30 days in the hole
(laughter)

Miami Beach, sippin’ that Bahama Breeze
A crowded bar and a luxury car
Please hand me my keys, come on
Forget limousines, ‘cause I can drive as I please
A taxi cab, is such a drag y’all
You know it just ain’t my scene

30 days in the hole
30 days in the hole
30 days in the hole
That’s what they give you
30 days in the hole

Check from the Browns, I’m tellin’ ya, can sure go to town
Gonna have some fun – when the mornin’ sun comes
You’re on some dangerous ground
If you live on the road, well there’s a new highway code
You can drink and drive but don’t mess with Fido
Or your life’s in the commode

30 days in the hole
That’s what they give you now
30 days in the hole
30 days in the hole
30 days in the hole

How you doin’ sir?
You here for 30 days
Make your, make your make, make your self at home
Get ready to play

Copped me a plea, and paid off the family
Gonna do my time, then run some nine routes
And say a few Hail Marys
Back with the Browns, ooo for two years I’m home-bound
And if you’re Michael Vick, well it must make you sick
Shouldn’t have messed with those hounds

30 days in the hole
30 days in the hole
30 days in the hole
30 days in the hole …