SAN ANTONIO – As former NFL coach Bum Phillips observed his son Wade preside over Dallas Cowboys practice, he was asked if he ever had a problem dealing with a player in his nearly 35 years in coaching.
"Not that I can remember," Phillips said, hesitating just a bit under his trademark Cowboy hat. "Not twice anyhow."
That's an important consideration for the Cowboys these days because the face of the franchise is wide receiver Terrell Owens, a guy who wears controversy the way most people do underwear. Owens is known for clashing with authority. He is a man looking for unconditional love in a game where appreciation rises and falls with every win or loss.
When Owens arrived in Dallas last year, he gave then-coach Bill Parcells all due respect. When Parcells gave Owens the cold shoulder throughout the season, making Owens work for appreciation, Owens produced mixed results. Owens led the league in both touchdowns receptions (13) and dropped passes (17). Owens eventually turned on Parcells.
In Philadelphia, Owens and Eagles coach Andy Reid had one of the great honeymoons of all time in 2004 as the Eagles reached the Super Bowl. It was followed by an ugly public feud that led to his departure after two seasons. In San Francisco before that, both Dennis Erickson and Steve Mariucci sought Owens' respect, but ultimately were treated with scorn.
Despite such treatment of coaches, Owens remains one of the NFL's high-maintenance hot chicks.
"We had 11 men we interviewed for the head coach position this offseason," Dallas owner Jerry Jones said. "Every one of them said they wanted T.O. on the team. They all talked about how he changes what the defense does and how he has to be accounted for."
Of course, coaches love nothing more than a player who can make an opposing coach have to rewrite his X's and O's.
So now, it's Phillips' turn to do the T.O. two-step. If the first couple of days of training camp were an indication, Phillips may be the right mix of cool hand and subtle taskmaster to handle Owens.
Then again, "handle" might be the wrong word.
"I think Wade's like me," the elder Phillips said. "You don't handle people, you work with them and I think T.O. will appreciate that."
On Wednesday, Wade Phillips opened training camp in odd fashion. The players didn't hit each other. They didn't wear pads or even the lighter protective shells. It looked more like another offseason mini-camp day. The Cowboys also practiced in the air-conditioned comfort of the Alamodome.
"I haven't done that before," said Phillips, a 31-year NFL assistant and head coach. "I just wanted to do this. I wanted to see them run and see what kind of shape they were in."
This is a young team that didn’t know how to finish last season. At one point, the Cowboys were 8-4 last season. They were the hottest team in the NFC and had notched an impressive win against Indianapolis along the way. Dallas then got thumped at home by New Orleans, starting a 1-4 run to finish the season, including a heartbreaking loss at Seattle.
Just as important as restoring the young team's confidence, Phillips needs to have some good vibes coming from Owens and the practice move may help. Owens is notorious for hating to practice. He has caused problems in the past by telling fellow players they didn't need to practice so much either. Unfortunately, not everyone is so gifted or sculpted as Owens, who will do fine as a model for Men's Fitness when he's done as a player.
"I'm looking good right now," Owens said with no small measure of confidence.
While Phillips kept practice light in terms of hitting, he also kept Owens occupied on the field. Owens worked at both the X (flanker) and Z (wideout) spots in practice, something he didn't do all last season.
The goal was two-fold. First, keep Owens thinking about something other than how much he hates practice. Two, make Owens know that the coaches feel confident in his ability to do anything. In other words, play to his ego.
The bigger question is whether all of that will work on the complex psyche that is Owens.
"I've never had a problem with a player," Phillips said, echoing his father. "They all want to do well and I expect the same thing out of him."
That sounds good and it's certainly a nice way to simplify the situation. At the same time, Phillips knows things can change.
"It's a long process," Phillips said. He was talking about the team and the season generally, but it applies to Owens just the same.
Even though Dallas has plenty of cap room and owner Jerry Jones loves the idea of having a bell cow running back, don't expect Dallas to be at all interested in Kansas City running back Larry Johnson if and when Johnson goes on the trading block. Jones said he was very impressed with how Julius Jones and fellow running back Marion Barber performed in the offseason. Barber looked to be exceptionally powerful in the first day of contact work on Thursday.
Owens and Tony Romo provided the highlight of the first two days of practice when they connected on a 60-yard throw over cornerback Anthony Henry. Romo hit Owens in stride on the throw down the left sideline and Owens caught the ball clean. Earlier in practice, Romo and Owens showed that they were also in synch on some shorter throws, including a quick out against soft zone coverage.
Owens said Thursday that he's working on a third book. The book is still in the formative stage, but the plan is for it to be a workout and training book, a big departure from his last piece of work – a children's book.
On his left wrist, Owens has a dark green rubber wristband like the kind made popular by Lance Armstrong's "Livestrong" campaign. On the band is inscribed a phrase made popular by Michael Jordan, "I own the guy guarding me."
Owner Jerry Jones made quite a splash in San Antonio this week. On Tuesday night, the Cowboys held a rally at the Alamodome. The event drew some 17,000 people and featured a brief performance by Los Lonely Boys. On Wednesday, Jones spent roughly 30 minutes signing autographs after practice.