Thursday, March 5, 2009

Does Cutting Terrell Owens Bring Dallas Closer to Winning a Championship?

Although the declining economy has forced many owners of professional sports franchises to make moves purely to cut costs, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones--who just built a new football stadium that cost more than $1 billion--is not one of those owners. So, any evaluation of his decision to cut wide receiver Terrell Owens can be boiled down to answering one simple question: "Does cutting Terrell Owens bring the Dallas Cowboys closer to winning a championship?"

Terrell Owens is consistently portrayed in a negative light in the media, so it is not surprising that many commentators immediately praised Dallas for releasing him. The interesting thing about Owens is that even though he has had celebrated and very public disagreements with one or two players on each of his previous teams (including Philadelphia and San Francisco before he arrived in Dallas three years ago), when push comes to shove most of Owens' teammates have publicly taken his side in those disputes. ESPN's Mark Schlereth asserted that this is because Owens "lobbies" the other wide receivers and the defensive players in order to divide the locker room but that makes no sense; those players are all grown men and if there were not good reasons to support Owens then I'm sure that they would ignore his alleged entreaties. Usually, when most of a player's teammates support him that is considered to be something that speaks in his favor; Owens is the first player I've ever heard of who is considered by some people to be a bad guy because he allegedly "lobbies" his teammates to be in his camp. If Owens is that good of a "lobbyist" then maybe he should get a job on Capitol Hill.

Owens has never had any off field problems, nor has he ever run afoul of the law, so when Keyshawn Johnson--of all people--says that Owens will probably be signed by someone because a team would sign Charles Manson if Manson could play that comment is more than a little out of bounds. How can anyone justify comparing Owens to a murderer who tried to incite a race war?

ESPN reporter Michael Smith--one of the network's supposed resident football experts--hemmed and hawed when asked if Owens should be voted into the Hall of Fame. Fortunately, Smith prefaced his answer by noting that he does not have a vote. Let me clear things up for Mr. Smith: Owens ranks second in career receiving touchdowns (behind only Jerry Rice), is tied for fourth in career all-purpose touchdowns with LaDainian Tomlinson (trailing only Rice, Emmitt Smith and Marcus Allen), ranks fifth in career receiving yards (behind only Rice, Isaac Bruce, Tim Brown and Marvin Harrison) and is tied with Andre Reed for sixth in career receptions. He has led the NFL in receiving TDs in three different seasons and has ranked in the top ten in that category in 10 of his 13 seasons. He has three signature postseason moments: the game-winning TD catch for San Francisco versus Green Bay in 1999, his nine reception/177 yard/two touchdown performance in San Francisco's 39-38 come from behind win versus the New York Giants in 2003 and his nine reception/122 yard performance on one leg in Philadelphia's 24-21 loss to New England in Super Bowl XXXIX. Owens is a five-time first team All-Pro and a six-time Pro Bowler. He should be a first ballot Hall of Famer. Of course, Hall of Fame voting is highly mercurial, so I make no prediction about what actually will happen but it is absurd for anyone to even hesitate to say that Owens has accomplished enough to deserve to be inducted.

No one has ever questioned Owens' work ethic, preparation or on-field effort. In fact, Steve Young--who was Owens' quarterback in San Francisco for three years plus the first three games of the 1999 season and is ESPN's best, most thoughtful NFL analyst (along with Ron Jaworski)--said that Owens is the only player he has ever seen whose work ethic "challenged" the work ethic of the legendary Jerry Rice. Owens has had disagreements with Dallas Coach Wade Philips and Offensive Coordinator Jason Garrett, neither of whom could be accused of overpreparing the Cowboys last season; the Cowboys often looked unprepared and undisciplined--that kind of environment frustrated alleged malcontent Corey Dillon in Cincinnati but after Bill Belichick signed him Dillon helped the Patriots to win a Super Bowl. Schlereth snidely noted that Owens has been in the NFL for 13 years and has yet to win a Super Bowl--but I don't recall seeing Philips or Garrett holding any Lombardi Trophies, either (I'm not counting the two Super Bowl rings that Garrett won as Troy Aikman's clipboard holder). The Cowboys went 31-17 in the regular season during Owens' three years with the team after going 25-23 in the three previous seasons. Owens led the NFL in TD receptions in 2006 with 13 and ranked third in that category in 2007 (15) and fifth in 2008 (10). He not only makes plays but he demands extra defensive coverage that opens up opportunities for his less talented teammates.

Owens will be 36 years old in December, so he is obviously much closer to the end of his career than the beginning, but thanks to his brutal workout routine he is in terrific shape. He claims that he is faster than ever and his 15.2 yards per reception average in 2008 (better than his career norm of 14.8) belies criticisms that he is too old, too slow, unable to get open or unable to separate from defensive players.

The Philadelphia Eagles made the Super Bowl in Owens' last full season with the team after posting 13 regular season wins, the most in franchise history. As mentioned above, Owens caught nine passes for 122 yards in Philadelphia's 24-21 Super Bowl XXXIX loss to New England, making a miraculous comeback from a serious ankle injury that he suffered earlier in the season. Owens risked his career to try to help his team win a championship and, as he noted, Brett Favre would have been universally praised had he done what Owens did. Instead, after Owens asked to renegotiate his contract and criticized quarterback Donovan McNabb's Super Bowl performance, the Eagles released Owens in the middle of the next season and they have only won 10 regular season games once in the past four seasons. When the Eagles got rid of Owens, Michael Irvin said that they were "losing their ass to save their face" (i.e., appeasing McNabb for public relations purposes but actually making the on field product worse).

It will be interesting to look at Dallas' record in the next two-three seasons but it is hard to believe that cutting the team's hardest worker and most productive playmaker really brings the Cowboys closer to winning a championship.


Anonymous said...

There's one fundamental problem with your argument - even if T.O. is "right" he is still obviously a divisive force in the locker room...

David Friedman said...


The interesting thing is that TO is called "divisive" but it is generally--if not always--the case that most of his teammates support him; this was certainly the case in both Philly and Dallas (I'm not sure if this was also true in San Francisco).