Keyshawn Johnson is right--and so is Terrell Owens. For those of you who may have missed it--pretty hard to do considering that this "controversy" is in full 24 hour rotation on ESPN now--on last Sunday's "NFL Countdown," Keyshawn Johnson looked directly into the camera and offered some advice to Owens: "This team that Terrell Owens is on--Bill Parcells built it. And you may go on to win the Super Bowl but you're always going to be linked to Coach Parcells, because he helped build this team. The one thing that you have to get over--and I'm talking to you, T.O.--leave this man alone. Stop messing with Coach Parcells and that staff. Stop needling, because you are not going to win in this situation; you are only going to make yourself look bad. You're having a terrific year. You're playing out of your mind. If I had votes for Player of the Year, you'd be right up there with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Just leave it alone. You're not going to win with Parcells. Just get the Super Bowl ring--that's it. Leave it alone."
Owens has actually been quite circumspect with what he has said about Coach Parcells and he has really spent more time praising his current Coach Wade Phillips than he has saying anything negative about Parcells. There really should not be any controversy here at all but Johnson is right that a lot of people hate Owens so much that they will gladly twist his compliments about Phillips into shots at Parcells; from that perspective, there is probably a point of diminishing returns for Owens in terms of continuing to publicly say how well the current coaching staff is using him, even if those statements are 100% true.
Unfortunately, Owens took such umbrage at Johnson's advice--or how that advice was portrayed to him--that he apparently disregarded Johnson's talk about him being a candidate for Player of the Year and just interpreted the whole thing as a cheap shot, possibly coming from Parcells in some fashion. That led Owens to fire back with both barrels: "He's going to be a hater and do whatever he can to throw me under the bus obviously because he and Bill are real good friends. I mean, nobody would even know he won the Super Bowl unless you checked the roster. My thing is we came out the same year. He was a first rounder and I was a third rounder. I'm still playing, he's not. You compare our stats until up until the time that he retires and it's a no-brainer...Here's a guy who writes a book, Just Give Me the Damn Ball--106 catches and one touchdown and that was off a tipped pass...It's not a matter of me giving or not giving Bill credit. Everybody wants to make a big deal that this is a team that he built. It doesn't matter--if you have a house and you design it one way and you have a new designer who comes in then it's a whole new look...A lot of people just don't want to give credit for what Wade has done and what wasn't done last year. That's it. I'm not trying to be negative or trying to point out Bill but the proof is in the pudding...I challenge him (Johnson) to come out of retirement and try to come take my position. ESPN producers, let him go. Let him go."
Those Owens quotes come straight from SportsCenter and the ellipses (...) indicate portions that any careful viewer can tell that ESPN edited out (a technique that the network learned from 60 Minutes, among other shows). That means that we don't know everything that Owens said or what questions prompted his answers (sorry for shouting, but that is a very important point). We also don't know if Owens actually even heard exactly what Johnson said. In fact, I would not be surprised if Owens did not even see firsthand what Johnson actually said and that Owens' comments are responses to questions posed to him in the locker room. This is what athletes mean sometimes when they say that they are quoted out of context even if their responses are on tape--if Owens was misled about what Johnson said and that is not shown on SportsCenter, then Owens' seemingly brash comments are indeed being taken out of context. For instance, suppose that a writer said to Owens, "Hey, did you hear how Keyshawn ripped you on Sunday?" Perhaps if Owens had a different personality then he might simply say, "No" and leave it at that--but what would you do on the spur of the moment if someone told you that a good friend of your ex-boss who you did not get along with said something bad about you on national television? This is an ESPN manufactured "controversy" in which ESPN analyst Johnson will not only get the last word but in which the questions posed to Owens and Owens' answers will be edited before you ever see them. Just keep that in mind--not just in reference to this story, but in general. This is a fine little case study about how the mainstream media works.
As for what ESPN showed us of what Owens said, Owens is right that he is a better receiver than Johnson ever was and that there is more than a little irony for the author of Just Give Me the Damn Ball to provide advice about what a player should or should not say to the media. However, there is also irony to Johnson praising Owens for the most part but telling Owens that Owens cannot win by making certain comments in the media and Owens then responding with precisely the kind of comments that Johnson pleaded with him not to make.
Here is the real deal about Owens, as deftly pointed out by Slate's Robert Weintraub: "While (Brett) Favre is lionized for playing through tragedy, Terrell Owens' success has never been given the same kind of context." Owens' brash exterior is largely a front to mask how deeply he wants to be respected and appreciated for his accomplishments--and it is not an exaggeration to say that instead of providing this kind of positive reinforcement Coach Parcells dehumanized him. How else can you describe repeatedly referring to Owens as "the player"? Parcells very literally stripped Owens of his individuality and humanity. In contrast, Phillips made a point in his very first press conference to mention Owens by name; he obviously understands that this is not just a matter of being polite but something of deep symbolic significance. Maybe calling Terry Glenn "she" worked for Parcells back in the day and maybe bringing an empty gas can to the locker room and asking a player if he has anything left in the tank was a good motivational tool in another instance but that kind of treatment will never, ever work with someone like Owens. As John Madden said over and over when Parcells was coaching Dallas, Owens is the best player on the team and he produces when he is given the chance, so why not get him involved in the game plan early in the game? Yes, Owens dropped some passes last year but he also led the NFL in touchdown receptions despite playing with a broken finger that later required surgery.
For the record, Johnson accumulated 814 receptions, 10,571 yards (13.0 average) and 64 touchdowns from 1996-2006. Owens either has a very good memory or did some research, because Johnson did indeed have only one touchdown in 2001 when he caught a career-high 106 passes. Johnson is a three-time Pro Bowler and a member of the 2002 Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers (he had six catches for 69 yards in the Super Bowl). Owens had 801 catches for 11,715 yards (14.6 average) and 114 touchdowns from 1996-2006 and he has 74 catches for 1270 yards (17.2 average) and 14 touchdowns so far this season. Owens is a five-time Pro Bowler (and a lock to make it for a sixth time this season) and a member of the 2004 Super Bowl runner-up Philadelphia Eagles (he had nine receptions for 122 yards in the Super Bowl, returning to action less than two months after breaking his leg).