Sideshow attractions

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

Former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms sat down at a pre-game meeting at the team's hotel one Sunday morning when he was still playing. Nearby was teammate and future Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who was carving out his career as one of the greatest defensive players in the history of the game.

And also as one of the NFL's most off-the-wall players.

"Hey Phil," Taylor called quietly to Simms. Simms looked over and Taylor flashed a silly grin. Then, from underneath a fur coat Taylor had draped over his shoulders, Taylor flashed his wrists.

They were in handcuffs.

"I just said, 'What the heck?'" Simms recalled.

Taylor had been cuffed the night before by a woman who went on to steal most of his belongings. It was one of the many crazy stories from Taylor's wild life, which also included drug abuse and a suspension from the league.

But what Taylor's career also included was two Super Bowl championships with the Giants. For all the insane things that he did while being coached by Bill Parcells, Taylor helped his team win.

Now with the Dallas Cowboys, Parcells is dealing with another high-maintenance player in wide receiver Terrell Owens. But where Taylor helped his team win, the 32-year-old Owens has spent a career being more sideshow than main event.

On Sunday, Owens returns to Philadelphia, a place he turned into a circus last year on his way to being cut in the offseason. All of that came only one year after Owens helped the Eagles reach Super Bowl XXXIX.

Owens is the ultimate test for NFL teams. He is both a phenomenal talent and a phenomenal distraction. Already during his time in Dallas, where the Cowboys signed him to a three-year, $25 million contract, Owens missed most of training camp with a questionable hamstring injur, has broken his hand, and created a stir last week with an adverse drug reaction that initially was reported as a suicide attempt.

"I was watching the coverage and I thought the president died," said former Pro Browl defensive end Rob Burnett, who spent much of his career with Cleveland and Baltimore and helped the Ravens to the Super Bowl title in 2000. "I swear I was watching it and thinking, ‘What happened to Bush?'"

To Burnett, guys like Owens are not worth the trouble.

"You just watch guys like that and you know that they're not pulling in the right direction with everybody else," Burnett said. "I mean, this game is really hard and if everybody isn't in it together, it's that much more difficult. Guys like that can rip apart your locker room because it's like, ‘What are we dealing with today?' Or, ‘What did he do now?'

"Some guys, they may be great players, but for whatever reason, they have to have the spotlight on them all the time. They have to do something to create attention for themselves."

Of course, Burnett and the Ravens survived perhaps the greatest distraction in NFL history on the way to their title. Linebacker Ray Lewis was on trial in the spring of 2000 for his role in the cover up of a double murder in Atlanta. The charges were dropped after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in June, but the story generated headlines throughout the season … until the very end when Lewis was named Super Bowl MVP in Baltimore's victory over the Giants.

The key difference in that situation was that Lewis found escape in football. After the murder charges were dropped, he immersed himself in the game and his teammates rallied around him.

"Whatever we had to deal with week-to-week in that situation, we knew Ray was all about Sunday, about taking care of business on the field," Burnett said.

Said Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome: "I know Ray. I know his mother. I know the people who helped raise him. And I knew that was really a situation where he was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end, also knows about dealing with guys who have issues.

"Oh, I've got stories," said Newsome, who ironically entered the Hall of Fame in the same class with Taylor. "Look, I don't think we give enough credit to a lot of these guys for surviving through some very tough circumstances. Not only surviving, but succeeding … At the same time, you have to know that some guys who come out of these situations are going to have a tough time handling a structured environment. They're always going to drift toward that gray area because that's what they know and they're comfortable in."

To Newsome, the way to dealing with that is two-fold.

First, there have to be strict rules for players who have discipline problems.

"You can't allow them to drift. There have to be consequences," Newsome said.

Second, you can't have too many players like that.

"It kills your team if you have too many because you spend all your time worrying about what they're doing instead of focusing on what you have to accomplish as a team," Newsome said. "Basically, if you have more than four or five guys like that at any time, you're asking for trouble."

All of that said, there was a point where Newsome was willing to take Owens. In fact, Baltimore completed a trade with San Francisco to get Owens in 2004 before Owens ultimately demanded that he go to Philadelphia instead.

At this point, Newsome said he didn't wish to talk about Owens. But Ravens tight end Todd Heap flashed the look of a man who had just dodged a falling piano when asked about Owens and the fact they could have been teammates.

"I really believe that things happen for a reason," Heap said. "At the time, when he didn't want to come here, we were all a little upset, but I kept thinking this happened for a reason.

"Then you see what happened last year and you think, ‘Man, that could have been us.' I know (the Eagles) had success with him the year before, but some stuff just isn't worth it."

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