Nothing captures our cultural duplicity quite like professional sports. We want athletes to be hard workers and upstanding citizens, but we also want to be entertained. We need a hero and a villain, but much like professional wrestling, it’s fine — preferred even — if the same figures toggle between each archetype. (See: Belichick, Bill.) We just won’t admit it.
Depending on your perspective, Terrell Owens is everything that is wrong or right with professional sports. He’s the kind of athlete that’s made the NFL the most popular sport in the country, not just because of the freakish athleticism and catching prowess he displays on a week-to-week basis — if his quarterback gets him the damn ball, of course — but because of the drama he creates off the field, from insinuating the quarterback that first made him an NFL star is gay to being involved in a bizarre overdose scenario during which his publicist helpfully reminded us that T.O. would never be suicidal because he had “25 million reasons (dollars) to live.”
Run-on sentences aside, the fact of the matter is that Owens is a first-ballot Hall of Famer who will likely finish his career third in league history in touchdowns. But a lot of people would like to hinge his legacy on the success of this particular Cowboys team, or whichever team comes next. The conventional wisdom is that he’s a locker room cancer, a player so self-involved that he detracts as much — if not more — from a team with his behavior off the field as he adds with his play on it.
This commonly held perception is largely of his own doing, of course. But it’s also the wrong way to look at it. The reasons the Cowboys could miss the playoffs this year are several, and almost none involve Owens.
First is that Wade Phillips is the NFL’s answer to Grady Little, a nice guy so painfully inept at making decisions at critical junctures that he puts his faith into hoping the talent Jerry Jones has amassed will win games on its own.
Second is that Tony Romo is indeed like Brett Farve — an entertaining quarterback to watch who is just as likely to win games with his gunslinging as he is to lose them. In recent losses to Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Romo almost single-handedly tossed the game away.
Are we supposed to believe this is because of Owens’ latest antics, which were arguably contrived and at a minimum blown out of proportion by ESPN, or because Romo threw some bad passes? That’s what I thought. And few would pin last year’s playoff loss on Owens.
So where’s the evidence? San Francisco was never a real contender during Owens’ time there, which leaves his tenure in Philly as the lone remaining stint to prove the idea of T.O. as team-destroyer.
In 2004, Owens caught 77 passes for 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns as the Eagles advanced to the Super Bowl. And while Owens missed two playoff victories with injury, lest we forget, Philly lost the previous three NFC championship games, so just getting to the big dance was impressive. In Super Bowl XXIX, Owens kept the Eagles in the game against a much better Patriots team, catching nine passes for 120 yards in a 24-21 loss despite playing on a severely injured ankle.
Owens’s departure from Philly was less that amicable, of course. But why this is supposed to taint his reputation is beyond me. He has always been a big mouth but also one of the few players — unlike even Cinco Ocho — who could back it up. We’re supposed to believe his career is irreparably damaged because he was controversial in addition to being talented?
Look, there’s a reason “SportsCenter” doesn’t have a “Top 10 Fundamentally Sound Bounce Passes” segment. As much as we crave sportsmanship, team-oriented play, “intangibles,” and “playing the game the right way,” we desire showboats and smack talk.
Ultimately, the argument against T.O. boils down to the loathing some people have for sharpie-featuring touchdown celebrations. To which I say: You’re fooling yourself. ‘Tis no nobler to hand the referee the ball after the score than to make some folks laugh or get riled up with a TD dance.
The articulated distaste for Owens’ particular brand of football has as much to do with rose-colored recollections of bygone eras and archaic perceptions of black athletes as it does any objective reality.
So whether or not Owens propels Dallas to a Super Bowl victory or leaves town in discord is irrelevant. He is the second-best receiver of his generation, a strange character who unquestionably makes football more entertaining. And you might not be able to admit it to yourself, but you’d have it no other way. You’ll keep watching him as long as he remains an elite receiver, regardless of how often he runs his mouth.
Getchya popcorn ready.
If justice prevails, when Terrell Owens retires, fans of the game will remember him as an emotionally crippled narcissist, driven by the extent to which his involvement in football allows him to be seen and heard constantly. A physical specimen to be sure, Owens is rotten on the inside. He’s not a thug like his hilariously consistent teammate Pacman Jones (building a real nice organization there in Dallas). And where new and brazen levels of embarrassing retardedness are concerned, Plexico Burress is the current heavyweight champion of the world.
But TO deserves a special place in the hearts of football fans somewhere in between Keyshawn Johnson and that little bastard in the Life Cereal commercials who won’t eat anything. The degree of his talent does not diminish the impact of his presence on a team. He is the insufferable bratty snotrag who touches the ball the more than anybody else and complains that he doesn’t get enough looks. He has more touchdowns than anybody playing in the NFL… period. But by his perception, Terrell Owens is the ongoing victim of a plot against Terrell Owens masterminded by the various quarterbacks and coaches in the league who have largely frozen him out as a producer and a contributor. For some reason, he seems to feel that people don’t like him very much on a personal level.
To reflect on the implications of this presumption, it might be worth noting that in his first two seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, nobody in the NFL dropped more passes. After flubbing 27 opportunities, you have to really admire the confidence of a guy who thinks he’s being underused. As Sal Paolantonio wrote for ESPN News in April, Jerry Rice this is not.
Quite to this point, Jerry Rice has three Super Bowl titles and Terrell Owens has dick. As Paolantonio points out, TO does have one Superbowl appearance in which, after making an unlikely early return from injury, he went an impressive 9 grabs for 122 yards in a losing effort for the Philadelphia Eagles. In the press conference following the disappointing loss for an Eagles team which had appeared in three prior consecutive NFC Championship games without his help, TO was nothing less then elated at his personal success. Of his miraculous recovery and individual performance he said, “Nobody in the world gave me a chance . . . God is good. God is great.” Sadly, he did not follow the proclamation by exploding himself in the presence of all the reporters that have helped to make him a constant draw for the public.
His perspective is a good window into understanding Owens’ accomplishments on the field. They are a showcase of individual stats that have translated to a dreary 4-7 postseason record and a single postseason victory in the last seven years.
Football is a sport, as we have all agreed during the course of this week’s discourse, where a man must be judged almost strictly on his contributions to his team. To date, Terrell Owens has played for three different quarterbacks, each of whom has experienced a degree of demonstrable success as a starter in the NFL. Respectively, Owens has publicly aired his grievances with Jeff Garcia’s sexual orientation, Donovan McNabb’s stamina and Tony Romo’s exclusive girls’ club with Jason Witten.
In roughly the period of one year, Owens succeeded in dismantling in Philadelphia what had taken ten years to build. The year which marked his departure saw the four-time consecutive NFC Champions post an abysmal 6-10 record.
This may be a lesser crime though than the libelous disruption of Jeff Garcia’s career at a point which should arguably have been its height. The bulk of TO’s productive success would be with Garcia at the helm. San Francisco was the last place that Owens won a playoff game. Of course, this did not prevent him from assailing Garcia’s credentials as a player and as a man. In the fallout of TO’s first atomic meltdown, the outspoken wide receiver bitched his way into the uniform of his choosing while his quarterback whiled his prime years away in football’s equivalent of Siberian exile, taking stints in Cleveland and Detroit before, ironically, landing a 2nd string spot in Philly. An interesting note: Garcia has more postseason victories as a starter in that space of time than has T.O.
As our dear editor Howard noted by Post this week, Dallas will be the tie-breaker for T.O. Who can say upon what principle voters will stand when the times comes for him to be judged? But if he follows suit in Dallas—and let’s be honest here, that ball is already rolling—then his opportunities will become lesser and his relevance more questionable. To what contending team will Owens be worth the drama and the inevitable verbal attacks spewed at its quarterback on any given off-week for either himself or Owens.
I close with a quote purloined from Chief Wiggum. Terrell Owens “is a cancer on this fair city. He is the cancer and I am the. . . uh . . . what cures cancer?”
Put T.O. in the Guinness Book for World’s Biggest Crybaby but leave him out of the Hall.