The T.O. Saga: Dallas Makes a Foolhardy Decision

March 9, 2009

Last Thursday, the Cowboys continued their roster makeover by releasing star wide receiver Terrell Owens. Although the outspoken Owens had performed well during his three seasons in Dallas, he apparently brought a little too much personality for management's liking. The impact of this move can be summarized best in two words:

Big Mistake.

Over the past three seasons, Owens has led all NFL receivers in total touchdown receptions. Although Owens is now 35 years old, he has displayed no real signs of physical deterioration. His one flaw -- dropped balls -- has always been a part of his game, and does not correlate with an increase in his age.

Two areas where an aging wideout might exhibit a decline would be in his health or in his ability to beat one-on-one coverage. In Owens' case, he grades out well in both areas.

With Dallas, Owens has been a near injury-free player, appearing in 47 out of 48 regular season games. Contrary to media depictions of a primadonna T.O., Owens played much of his first season in Dallas with an injured hand. By all indications, T.O. has proven to be durable, tough, and a fast healer.

More importantly, T.O. has lost little, if any athleticism with the passage of time. He still is fast enough to be a deep threat, and can overpower any individual DB with his strength. Unlike declining 30-something Marvin Harrison, Owens remains a top 7 wideout, who usually must be afforded double-team attention.

So was T.O.'s personality in Dallas really so bad as to warrant the removal of such production from the lineup?

Owens has had a well-documented history of causing problems in the locker room. In San Francisco he trashed Jeff Garcia, calling him a homosexual. In Philly, he showed a lack of judgment in openly stating his preference for Brett Favre over his then QB Donovan McNabb. His antics at both stops led to suspensions and a "cancer" label from the press.

However, in Dallas, Owens' behavior demonstrated a newfound maturity. Still outspoken, T.O.'s comments rang as more of an overly honest whistleblower, than as a locker room sellout. In Dallas, he essentially was T.O.-lite.

When the Cowboys blew their playoff home game against the Giants two years ago, it was T.O. and T.O. alone who stood up and tearfully backed quarterback Tony Romo. Similarly, when the Cowboys came up flat against the Eagles in last year's playoff-deciding season finale, it was T.O. who again deflected attention away from Romo's multiple turnovers by emphasizing that Dallas had lost as a team.

At times, Owens even displayed some veteran leadership, as he demanded high standards and accountability from his younger teammates. One such example was seen earlier this season when he yelled in center Andre Gurode's face after Gurode had made a mental mistake on the field.

For the most part, T.O. appeared to have earned his teammates' respect.

Although Owens did have his controversial moments in Dallas, these were of a much different character and tone compared to his previous stops.

Under the Parcells' regime, Owens had his legendary "suicide" attempt when he consumed too many pain pills. Although Owens had suffered a leg injury during training camp, and stated that the overconsumption was inadvertent, the corporate media rolled their collective eyes and refused to take his word at face value.

The press spun the story as another example of T.O. being a cancer, failing to recognize that in this instance, no teammates were insulted or involved. The incident only involved Owens himself.

That same year, T.O. was often seen venting on the sidelines after stalled drives. Of course, the media perceived it as "T.O. acting up again," but ironically, the Tuna seemed to be sharing the exact same thoughts. In other words, both men were frustrated over the ineffective performances of Drew Bledsoe. By midseason, Parcells had named Tony Romo as the starter, and T.O.'s judgment had proven correct.

Last year, T.O. found himself in a controversy over his offensive role. And once again, his assessment proved correct.

Owens targeted his complaints toward Tony Romo, Jason Witten, and indirectly, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. The gist of his complaint was that he was being underutilized on offense.

As to Garrett, this was clearly accurate. Garrett's play-calling last year was unimaginative and failed to take advantage of the team's talent. Too often, he was gameplanned by opposing defensive coordinators, as he seemingly had no counter for any unorthodox blitz packages thrown his way.

As to Romo, his complaint seemed to be in good faith, as T.O. was Dallas' only healthy playmaker during the season's second half.

In other words, Felix Jones was out for the year, Marion Barber had a busted toe, Witten was nursing a variety of injuries, and Roy Williams was still adjusting to his new team. In T.O.'s eyes, he had a valid argument that the team would benefit by Romo looking in his direction more often. His complaints seemed less "me-first" and more focused on improving team production.

Still, even this controversy was a bit overstated by the press, as shortly thereafter, Romo, T.O., and Witten were playfully engaging each other on the sidelines in an attempt to make light of the issue.

So, if the team chemistry problems were a bit exaggerated, then what truly caused Jerry Jones to kick Owens off the team? There are four possible explanations, only one of which should be acceptable to Cowboys fans:

#1 Was T.O. Too Expensive?

No. Owens did command a high annual salary, just like any other elite receiver. However, by waiving both Owens and safety Roy Williams, Dallas has suffered a salary cap hit of well over $16 million. Financially, the move made little sense.

#2 Did Tony Romo Demand T.O.'s Departure?

For Cowboy fans, the one acceptable reason for cutting Owens would be if Romo demanded it.

The fate of the franchise, for better or for worse, is in Romo's talented hands. Quite simply, Dallas sinks or swims depending on his performance. Because Romo is The Franchise, and because he rightfully should be viewed as such, he must be given every tool necessary to facilitate his success. Therefore, if T.O.'s presence made Romo uncomfortable, or in any way hindered Romo's ability to maximize his talents, then waiving Owens was a necessary evil.

But is the loosey-goosey Romo really the type of guy to get uptight just because his wideout wants a few more touches? Probably not.

It is highly likely that T.O.'s alleged comments about secret plays probably annoyed or angered Romo. But it is wholly another matter to claim that Romo used that temporary anger to oust T.O. from the team.

If Romo is the competitor that he appears to be, then he would demand to have the best talent around him, as that talent would give him the best chance to win. In fact, it is hard to believe that any quarterback of a championship-caliber team would want to be rid of his number one receiver.

Naysayers might contend that without T.O., Romo can now relax, drop back, and go through his progressions without worrying about pleasing Owens. However, there are two key flaws with this theory.

First, T.O. and Romo inherently took much of the pressure off of each other. When Romo was made a starter, he became the media's darling, and relegated Owens to the back pages of the papers for the first time in years.

Likewise, when Romo began taking heat this year for not winning the big one, Owens began to get some publicity, and the spotlight was taken off Romo.

The net result was that each player benefitted to a degree from the other's presence.

Second, there was no real evidence that Romo's play was affected by Owens' comments, as Romo did not suddenly start forcing balls into Owens' direction.

Quite frankly, it is almost ludicrous to think that when facing a 270-pound, pass-rushing lineman, Romo would be more worried about placating T.O.'s ego, than finding the open man and getting rid of the ball. Such conjecture by the media is the byproduct of too much ivory tower thinking.

Therefore, it appears that Romo did not cause Owens' departure.

#3 Did the Coaching Staff Hasten T.O.'s Departure?

This is a much more likely culprit. And if true, it gives Jerry Jones all the more reason for canning Wade Phillips and Garrett if they fail again next year.

T.O.'s "secret play" controversy created the perception that the coaches lacked control. So, at a certain level, one could see how the staff might have resented T.O. Since coaches are paid to control egos, any perceived lack of control could undermine a coach's very job security. Hence, it is easy to see why the coaches would want to remove a player who was unafraid to criticize his teammates or his coaches.

One problem with appeasing these coaches' wishes, is that this staff is on the hot seat, and could easily be gone by next year. A second, more crucial issue, is that a more competent staff should have been able to work with T.O.

NFL coaches are paid to manage personalities and mold a group of starkly different men into a cohesive unit. So, if Garrett and Phillips are unable to deal with T.O.'s personality, the solution is not get rid of the player, but to find the right coach capable of working with that individual.

Under a legitimate coach, such as the Tuna, T.O. was unhappy, but for the most part was kept in line by Parcells' icy glare.

In Phillips' case, his hands-off approach inevitably was going to result in somebody testing the boundaries. When it happened, he lacked the iron will to properly resolve the situation.

Quite frankly, there was a reason why nobody other than Jerry Jones would hire Phillips during the '07 offseason. In other words, the same things that make Phillips a good assistant coach and a Jones' favorite -- his easygoing demeanor and player-friendly personality -- also make him unsuitable for many high profile head coach positions.

Meanwhile, Garrett probably put in his two cents on the situation to Jones, maybe even more so than Phillips. Again, if Jerry gave any validity to Garrett's opinions, then he made another error in judgment. By all accounts, Garrett did not get T.O. enough consistent touches over the 16-game season. Since Garrett failed to use T.O. properly, Owens indeed had every right to complain about the offense.

Jerry pays millions to these guys to coach. Rather than make T.O. the scapegoat, they should have done their jobs.

#4 Did Jones Kick Out T.O. to Protect the Team's Media Image?

For years, Jones has stuck to his guns and disregarded the opinions of the media. Upon buying the team, he immediately fired legendary coach Tom Landry. When he cut Jimmy Johnson loose, he raised some eyebrows by making himself GM.

More recently, he has brought in a slew of "second chance" players that most other more conservative franchises would not have touched. In each instance, Jones committed to his decision and stuck by it.

However, the recent bad publicity seems to have gotten the best of Jones. This offseason, he has gone against his nature by taking the conventional route. Unfortunately, the conventional path is the same method followed by all the dull, small market nobodies of the league who never win Lombardi's.

Rather than firing the coaches, or trying to resolve issues among the talented players, Jones has taken the easy way out and rid the team of PacMan Jones, Tank Johnson, and T.O.

The PacMan decision was reasonable -- the man screwed up again and created a distraction. His bad judgment caused the 'Boys to lose him for four games at a time when he was needed.

The Tank Johnson move, however, does not seem so reasonable. By all accounts, Johnson shut up and did his job. He only had a so-so impact on the field, but Dallas needed his body this year to offset the loss of versatile Chris Canty in free agency. The fact that he was let go despite the team need for D-Line help, shows that Jones might have made a media-conscious decision to rid the team of any "cancers."

The Owens situation appears to parallel Jones' thinking in the Tank Johnson move. Rather than making winning the goal, Jones seems to have bought into the media-generated idealistic notions of having an all choir boy squad.

What Jones must realize is that the majority of his fan base cares nothing about good citizenship. For them, Lombardi trophies are their chief and only concern. Unfortunately, such trophies are not usually had without talent.

In the End, What Effect Will T.O.'s Departure Have on the Cowboys?

The effect of Jones' "choir boys only" decision is that Dallas will have a less explosive offense.

The 2009 version of T.O. would have provided stellar run blocking down the field to spring the Cowboys' stable of talented runners.

The 2009 version of T.O. would have commanded the attention of opposing secondaries, and thus, allowed Jason Witten and the wideouts to roam freely.

The 2009 version of T.O. would have provided the Cowboys with a receiver who would not only stretch the field with his speed, but also would run the tough crossing routes over the middle.

Clearly, then, his loss will hurt production on the field.

Are the Other Receivers Capable of Filling T.O.'s Void?

On the positive side for Big D, the tight end position is set. A healthy Jason Witten helps enormously, as he is the game's most complete player at the position. Backup Martellus Bennett also has shown that he is a capable athlete and pass-catcher.

The wide receivers are another story.

Last year, Roy Williams showed no indication of being a ready-made, true number one receiver, as he was clearly less effective than Owens. Despite several seasons under his belt, Williams still seems more like an "upside guy," than a developed star.

Although he has better hands than Owens, Williams is by no means as polished a route runner. Nor is he as clutch, as it was Owens, not Williams, who played well against the Eagles in last year's must-win game. Hence, Jerry Jones is taking a minor leap of faith in assuming that the talented Williams can step right in and replace Owens.

As for Patrick Crayton, he is best utilized as the third receiver in the slot. Crayton is a good player, and has decent hands, but too often has failed to come through in big moments. A prime example of this was seen in the Cowboys playoff loss to the Giants, where he dropped a likely touchdown pass. Because of T.O.'s departure, he now becomes the number 2 receiver.

Miles Austin is the team's second best receiving talent next to Williams. Over the last three years he has proven to be a speedy big play deep threat despite limited playing time. However, with his role expanding, will Austin be able to handle the spotlight? He is quite capable, but again Jones is placing his Super Bowl hopes upon another leap of faith.

Backup Sam Hurd remains a raw prospect who certainly cannot fill # 81's shoes.

Outside of this group, Cowboy fans cannot expect much receiving help. Not only do the Cowboys lack a first rounder (bye bye Michael Crabtree), but Jones has publicly stated for years that his draft policy is to avoid using selections on receivers.

Of course, there is the free agent route, but the best free agent wideout of this offseason happened to be the recently cut Terrell Owens! Although Jones could try to sign a veteran, such as former Cowboy Joey Galloway, he probably will stand pat with the current roster.

In the end, Dallas' passing offense will suffer without T.O. The Cowboys must now hope for some improvement from Tony Romo, as well as for better health from Felix Jones and Marion Barber. Only then, will the offense be re-energized and able to compensate for Garrett's overrated coaching.

Ironically, in his attempt to avoid "losing" another season to T.O.'s temperament, Jones may have ultimately dashed his Super Bowl hopes. For Dallas, the sum of the whole now must be greater than the individual parts.

By Mike Elliott
Staff Editor for

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