Owens gets his first chance to silence the doubters Sunday when the Cowboys start the season at Alltel Stadium against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Owens has 716 catches for 10,535 yards and 101 touchdowns in 10 seasons, but is coming off a turbulent two-year stint with Philadelphia in which he was suspended the final nine games of 2005 for criticizing the organization.
While Owens did help the Eagles reach a Super Bowl, his constant criticism of quarterback Donovan McNabb and others in the organization eventually led Philadelphia to cut him.
But Bill Parcells, arguably the only coach in the NFL who could put aside the distractions Owens creates, was willing to take a chance on him in Dallas and is encouraged by what he has seen this week after watching Owens ride a stationary bike for most of August because of an injured hamstring.
“I’m just kind of talking to him a little bit about where he is, how he feels,” Parcells said. “He hasn’t had any problems that I know of since he returned to practice. He seems to be kind of accelerating his progress as we go now.”
For his part, Owens has avoided any problems with Parcells similar to his constant run-ins with Eagles coach Andy Reid.
“I listen to it, I read it, I hear it,” Owens said. “Other than that, I’m pretty immune to it at this point. Everybody is going to speculate, everybody has their opinion about me. ‘What’s going on with me? What’s going on with me and Bill’ and things of that nature. But I think we have a handle on it.”
While the media waited all preseason for a relationship-defining moment between Owens and Parcells— one that seemed inevitable as Owens missed a large portion of training camp due to the injury—Owens has spent this week trying to get healthy for the opener.
“I think if I had to play tomorrow, definitely I’d be ready to play,” Owens said Wednesday. “Every day, I’m getting better, definitely getting myself mentally in tune with the game plan to be able to go out there and communicate with Drew (Bledsoe). We’re trying to get on the same page and go out and make a statement.”
The Cowboys are hoping Owens can make a difference in the tightly contested NFC East after going 9-7 and missing the playoffs last year. Bledsoe, who threw for 3,639 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2005, has put in extra time with Owens this week trying to develop some cohesion.
“Our timing is getting there,” Bledsoe said. “It’s a work in progress and will continue to be for as long as we’re together. But it’s coming along fairly quickly and is probably ahead of where you might think considering the limited time we’ve been together.”
Julius Jones, who rushed for 993 yards last year, returns as running back for the Cowboys.
The Jaguars are again expected to contend for the AFC South title after finishing 12-4 last season—two games behind Indianapolis—despite not having starting quarterback Byron Leftwich and running back Fred Taylor for a combined 10 games due to injury.
Leftwich leads a Jacksonville offense that averaged 321.8 yards and 22.6 points last season. He had his highest career passer rating (89.3) in 11 games, going 175-for-302 for 2,123 yards and 15 touchdowns before suffering a broken left ankle Nov. 27.
While Leftwich did return for the playoffs, he was ineffective in Jacksonville’s 28-3 wild-card loss to New England, throwing for 179 yards with an interception. The fourth-year quarterback is optimistic about his team’s Super Bowl chances.
“Yes,” Leftwich said of whether the Jaguars can win a championship. “I believe that if we stay healthy and everybody plays to their potential, yes.”
The oft-injured Taylor, who had 787 yards and three TDs in 11 games last year, is again the starter despite hamstring and shoulder injuries that forced him to miss part of camp. Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio has already had to shuffle his backs after losing fullback Greg Jones for the season with a torn ACL in his left knee.
“It’s unfortunate,” Del Rio said of Jones’ injury. “The depth we have gives us a greater sense of security.”
Leftwich no longer has the luxury of throwing to wide receiver Jimmy Smith, who retired in the offseason. Ernest Wilford and Matt Jones combined for 77 receptions, 1,113 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, barely more than Smith’s season totals of 70 catches, 1,023 yards and six TDs.
The Cowboys have won two of three all-time meetings with the Jaguars, but this will be the first matchup in Jacksonville.