By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
This column is being delivered in a whisper.
Don't want to wake the devil, you know. The one named T.O., which sits opposite the microscopic angel on the shoulder of Terrell Eldorado Owens. Keep him slumbering and the Dallas Cowboys just might wind up in the Super Bowl. Provoke him and, you guessed, all hell could break loose. Again.
"I am happy," Owens says early in training camp in San Antonio. "The atmosphere this year is refreshing. I'm looking forward to being more involved in the offense, to catching the ball better and to helping this team reach its potential. And I think we have more than a good opportunity to get to the Super Bowl."
This is too good to be true. Or to last.
Like the pitcher flirting with a no-hitter or the IRS mistaking your payment into a refund, we're not supposed to talk about this lest we invoke a jinx. But T.O. this happy in the pre-season—or ever, really—happens about as often as an NBA referee admitting to gambling.
I mean, just look at him.
There he is, picking up some pompoms and jamming to Los Lonely Boys at the team's kickoff party at The Alamodome last month. There he is, donning a Spider-Man mask during a practice and a backward camouflage cap during a game. There he is, amiably chatting up the media and—gasp!—getting along with his latest, perhaps greatest quarterback, even conducting a side-by-side, post-game interview with Tony Romo after beating the Indianapolis Colts two weeks ago.
And there he is, consistently and magnificently beating cornerbacks Anthony Henry and Terence Newman in camp, all the while maintaining a surprisingly subdued demeanor that allows Romo to be a bigger presence in the gossip mags, Greg Ellis to be a bigger distraction and guys like Michael Vick and Pacman Jones to be bigger scumbags commanding the embarrassing headlines.
"He's working hard, he's playing hard and we're developing a good thing between us," Romo says. "My approach to him? Nothing will surprise me. How's that?"
As camp moved north to Valley Ranch, Owens has playfully dumped ice down Romo's back, laughed on the sidelines with owner Jerry Jones and stayed on speaking terms with receivers coach Ray Sherman. With no George Teague around to knock him off the star, no Bill Parcells around to belittle him and no Kim Etheredge around to embarrass him, Owens' Hades, for now, remains a skating rink.
"I expect a big year out of Terrell," says Jones, who cemented Owens' return to Dallas with a $3 million roster bonus paid in June. "He's more comfortable being a Cowboy than a year ago, and that can only mean positive things for him and for us."
Even Owens' slip-ups have been hiccups.
He's sat out eight training camp practices, each of them excused by the team. And, best we can tell, he's been late only one time—a 20-minute tardy to last Thursday morning's practice with the Denver Broncos. But—almost like a real football team dealing with real problems with a real plan—coach Wade Phillips talked with Owens, likely fined him and moved on. No dramatic press conferences. No acerbic, surreptitious messages from Parcells.
"We had a player late for practice, and it's been handled," Phillips says.
Owens, who returned to practice Friday and caught one pass for 12 yards in Saturday night's exhibition with the Broncos at Texas Stadium, seemed almost amused that one of his mountains had downsized to a mole hill.
"That's cool," says Owens, later apologizing to the team for getting stuck in traffic. "Coach already addressed it, so there's no need for me to address it."
Adds Jones, "He and Wade worked that out, and that's good. Both were very satisfied with how it worked out."
There will, of course, be bigger incidents in 2007. Because with T.O. it's not if he'll vomit, it's how efficiently you clean up the mess. 2006, anyone?
His two books, T.O. (an autobiography he claims somehow misquoted him) and Little T Learns to Share (which will surely spend its short shelf life in Dewey Decimal's fiction neighborhood). His stationary bike and hyperbaric chamber in training camp. His constant spats with receivers coach Todd Haley. His falling asleep in meetings, throwing a birthday party for himself, spitting in Atlanta Falcons' cornerback DeAngelo Hall's face and, of course, his accidental overdose which debuted as a suicide attempt but climaxed with Etheredge (whom Owens has since fired and replaced with a New York firm) infamously and insensitively boasting, "Terrell has 25 million reasons why he should be alive."
His, in the wake of the incident, becoming the first player in NFL history upgraded from suicidal to probable in a matter of hours.
"Last year? I don't remember that. I'm having a memory lapse," Owens jokes during camp.
Deadpans Phillips, "I wasn't here last year."
Despite the drama, Owens' worst transgression was his performance. He led the team with 85 catches and 1,180 yards. But after urging us to "getcha popcorn ready" he played with extra buttered fingers, neutralizing his league-leading 13 touchdown catches with a league-leading 17 drops.
"That's just a stat they made up and pulled out, just for me," says Owens, who seems to drop at least one pass per day in camp yet usually dwarfs it with an impossible grab between three defenders. "But I know I can be better."
So why is he happier? More cordial? Optimistic?
Because he's here. And Parcells isn't. The former coach, who referred to Owens only as "the player," last spring finally admitted that signing T.O. "wasn't my decision."
Because at 33, he already possesses Hall of Fame credentials.
Because after two off-season surgeries on his right ring finger and the team-mandated rest of his sore back in San Antonio, he's healthy.
Because Phillips, Romo and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett promise to get him the ball early and often. The first play of camp was a reverse to T.O.; the first play of the pre-season an 8-yard pass to him. Barring injury or insanity, Owens this season will catch 100 passes, become the Cowboys' first Pro Bowl receiver since Michael Irvin in 1995 and lead Dallas to its first playoff win since '96.
Because "gullible" isn't in the dictionary. Or is it?
"I'm feeling good and looking good. I ought to be playing good," Owens says. "I had an opportunity to spend a lot of time with my trainer this summer. I lifted weights. I ate well. I'm ready to have a great season. I'm happy.
"But I'm always happy, man. I was happy last year."