This is how carefully, how meticulously, how extraordinarily attentively the Dallas Cowboys are handling the time bomb known as Terrell Owens.
After T.O.'s third training-camp practice in Oxnard, he saunters toward the end zone to indulge the note pads and cameras which have journeyed from Jersey and Japan to gauge, and perhaps gouge, the most explosive athlete in sports. But before he hops onto his soapbox riser, flashes his infectious smile and chats about fresh starts and bygones and Super Bowls, the NFL's best receiver and worst teammate takes a quick time-out with a team official.
Parcells on T.O.: Huh? Hey, Bill, have you met this new guy Terrell? You know, Owens.
"Hey," Owens deadpans, "is my nose clean?"
While my thought bubble--like yours right now--instantly fills with punch lines, the staffer bends his knees. Cocks his head. Surveys the landscape. And, finally, gives T.O. the all-clear.
"Yep. No boogers."
No snot. No boogers. No bursts. No blemishes.
No way it can last.
Owens has skated through the first two weeks of camp cleaner than the Dalai Lama's rap sheet. But check back in October. Or December. Maybe even 2007. With Terrell Eldorado Owens it's not if, only when.
"I think everybody's speculating and kind of waiting for something to happen," say Owens and his immaculate nostrils as about 5,000 fans chant "T.O.! T.O.!" in hopes of an autograph and about 50 journalists listen intently in hopes of a churlish signature sound bite. "Sorry, but you guys just keep on waiting."
What the...?! Did Owens actually just utter the word "sorry"? Or did he somehow misquote himself? With T.O., anything is possible, from Super Bowl to seismic blow-up.
You know it's going to be a fun, fascinating football season when the first question hurled toward Cowboys owner Jerry Jones at training camp goes something like this:
"Jerry, were you drunk?"
To his credit, Jones laughs off the sarcastic query about signing Owens from WFAA-Channel 8 sports anchor Dale Hansen. But on a shaded tennis court at the Marriott Residence Inn complex just a couple wind sprints from the Pacific Ocean, Jones soon turns Super Bowl-or-bust serious.
"We've made decisions that indicate we're going for it this year," Jones says. "It's pretty obvious we have high expectations."
The motivation for the optimism is Owens. Right?
Gotta be. It sure the hell isn't last year's disappointing 9-7 team that cratered after a 7-3 start and flat-lined in an embarrassing home loss to the godawful St. Louis Rams on January 1. And it certainly isn't that the Cowboys are 40-56 this millennium, haven't captured a division championship since '98 and haven't won a playoff game in nine seasons, the longest stretch of celibacy in the franchise's 46-year history. Murmur. Mur-MUR. MUR-MUR!
"Certainly it's humbling not being in the playoffs," Jones says the first Sunday night of training camp, braving London-like mist and temperatures in the 60s to reboot Cowboys confidence via TV interviews spanning San Antonio to Tyler to Mike Doocy. "It kind of limits you as far as coming out here and feeling real optimistic. But having said that, I really think this is the best team on paper that we've had in the last five years."
There are, however, reasons for even more pessimism in 2006.
With the release of future Ring of Honor and Hall of Fame offensive lineman Larry Allen last spring, Dallas has zero players with Super Bowl experience as Cowboys. Just like that, the days of homegrown heroes such as Roger Staubach and Bob Lilly and Emmitt Smith and Tom Landry have gone the way of stamps, stewardesses and Southfork. Worse, '05 captain Dat Nguyen retired while captain Dan Campbell and locker-room leaders La'Roi Glover and Keyshawn Johnson shuffled off via free agency, leaving Dallas with only a soft underbelly of veteran voices.
"We lost some guys I relied on, no way around that," says head coach Bill Parcells on day three of camp. "But these players have to figure that one out for themselves. You can't just mandate a leader."
They'd best anoint one--Survivor: SoCal?--quickly. Starting with the season opener September 10 at Jacksonville, the Cowboys play six of their first nine away from Texas Stadium. And, as usual, the playoff-caliber Redskins, Giants and Eagles have the NFC East meaner than a mailman with bunions.
Before making reservations for Super Bowl XLI on February 4, 2007, in Miami, Parcells first wants to create an identity.
"I don't think I've ever talked Super Bowl in training camp," he says, spewing wintry surliness under the Southern California sun. "What's the purpose? That's what the media and fans do, just hopscotch the whole regular season and go right to February. But it's all conjecture."
Let the speculation begin. For the Cowboys to have a successful season, at the very least they must win a playoff game. But to envision a team that's only 25-23 in Parcells' three seasons being ready to make the leap from .500 to February, you'd have to be drinking some Jonestown Kool-Aid.
For all the logical reasons to pick the Cowboys again to miss the playoffs, there's one dynamic element prompting experts such as Sports Illustrated's Peter King to choose Dallas not only to get to the Super Bowl but to win it. Same reason the Cowboys are again the center of the NFL universe. A year ago today the most despised athlete in Dallas, Owens is now changing jerseys, loyalties, hearts, opinions and prognostications.
"If I'm here for the full amount of years in my contract, I'm promising a championship," Owens told KXAS-Channel 5's Newy Scruggs in a sit-down interview just before camp. "I'm ready to take this city and put it on my back and let's go to Miami."
Typical T.O., in one succinct swoop both guaranteeing a Super Bowl and planting doubt that he'll be here long enough to unpack his considerable baggage.
Owens' hype and hope, of course, come with a price tag. There are lifelong, die-hard Cowboys fans--though their numbers already seem to be dwindling--abruptly CTL-ALT-DELing America's Team for selling its soul to Beelzebub and signing blood oaths with Owens and new flagship radio station The Ticket. Both entities, turns out, built their empires in part by belittling the Cowboys.
But for the 5,500 fans (a Cowboys Oxnard record) who show up for Owens' first practice as a Cowboy and the mesmerized masses vaulting his autobiography--T.O. --onto The New York Times' best-seller list and his jersey, No. 81, to the top of the NFL sales heap, the uncertain reward is worth the risk. They realize Owens' unique blend of size, speed, will and skill should make Drew Bledsoe a better quarterback, Julius Jones a better running back, Jason Witten a better tight end, Flozell Adams a better blocker, Mike Vanderjagt a better kicker, Parcells a better coach, the Cowboys a better team, Brad Sham a better play-by-play voice and your wife a better cook. And they realize that, on the heels of Cowboys legends Troy Aikman and Rayfield Wright getting inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last weekend in Canton, Ohio, Owens is the lone Cowboy who could hang 'em up today and make a solid argument for football immortality.
The owner, too, saw past the potholes and into the infinite upside. And in the proud tradition of firing Landry and cutting Aikman, Jones--a moment of silence, please--inked Owens on March 18 to a three-year, $25 million contract, $10 million payable this season. As is the case with some of Parcells' maniacal media machinations, Jones doesn't necessarily condone T.O.'s asshole actions. "They once asked Bear Bryant if he'd grow his hair long if that's what it took to win," Jones says through the drizzle. "And he told 'em, 'Throw away the scissors.'"
Make no mistake; in 2006 the Cowboys have age, urgency and a newfound addiction to gambling. With Parcells turning 65, Bledsoe 34 and Jones driven by desperation, they're shoving their chips to the center with pocket 9s. They're one Owens mood swing from Parcells going to the racetrack, Bledsoe going into retirement, Jerry going bald and T.O. holding cockamamie press conferences while doing chin-ups in the driveway of Mark Cuban's guest house.
But they're also one average T.O. season--sans turbulence--from a return to glory.
Parcells, who went two months before speaking publicly about the addition of Owens, stubbornly claims not to know the name of the receiver's book and refuses to refer to T.O. by name, instead calling him "the kid" or "the guy." (See sidebar, "Parcells on T.O.: 'Huh?'") But even if he isn't 100 percent on board with acquiring Owens, under the coach's crusty exoskeleton seeps a quiet optimism that "the player" can help him add to his legacy in Dallas instead of continuing to destroy it.
"I support everything we do, and we do it collectively," Parcells says of the Owens all-in. "That's what we did in this case."
Assures Jones, "I didn't feel myself having to coax Bill into it."
This season isn't all about T.O.
Well, yeah, actually it is. In fact, if the experiment works, Owens' new teammates will become as anonymous as Joan Jett's Blackhearts, Ricky Bobby's pit crew and Dolly Parton's ankles.
Says Bledsoe after a practice, "I've never played with anybody that draws as much attention as he does."
Anchored by Pro Bowl safety Roy Williams and emerging star cornerback Terence Newman, who didn't allow a touchdown pass last season, Dallas' defense might be its best since the No. 1-ranked unit of '03. Even better if it creates turnovers. Last year only eight teams produced fewer takeaways than the Cowboys' 26. And too often the defense shut down its opponent for 55 minutes--Washington (ugh) and Seattle (double ugh) come to mind--only to allow dramatic scores in heart-breaking losses.
Behind you-know-who, the biggest off-season addition is Vanderjagt. The most accurate kicker in NFL history as a Colt, he is a dramatic upgrade from last season when the Cowboys, by Parcells' count, lost three games directly because of foot failures by Jose Cortez, Billy Cundiff and Scott Suisham.
Says Vanderjagt: "I've got three games placed on my shoulders."
If a wobbly offensive line can keep Bledsoe upright, he'll be throwing to Dallas' best skill players in almost a decade. Running backs Julius Jones and Marion Barber, tight end Witten and receivers Owens, Terry Glenn, Patrick Crayton and fourth-round rookie Skyler Green compare favorably to every team in the NFC. Despite being as immobile as a mailbox and sacked an alarming 50 times--only three teams allowed more--Bledsoe raised eyebrows and earned respect by starting all 16 games last season and throwing for 3,639 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Unfortunately, Dallas' offensive line has more holes than Keith Davis' wardrobe. Scarier, Bledsoe's backups--Tony Romo and Drew Henson--ooze all the potential of Siegfried and Roy. If training camp's first two weeks have proved anything, it's that if Bledsoe goes down, so do the Cowboys.
Off-field drama be damned, at least we can expect eye-popping numbers from Owens on the field. Or can we?
In 18 seasons as head coach, Parcells has produced only six 1,000-yard receivers. And it's no secret he covets the style and substance of the Super Bowl XL champion Pittsburgh Steelers, who threw the fewest passes in the league.
"We've got some good skill players," Parcells says, all but latching leg irons on the T.O. Show. "But if our speed doesn't open up our running game where we can control the ball and the clock, we're not gonna win."
Though signing former Public Enemy No. 1 may seem as traitorous as putting Robin Ventura in charge of the Nolan Ryan Museum or hiring L.H. Oswald & Associates as Dallas' public relations firm, it's not often an NFL team can steal an elite player in exchange for only cash and credibility.
But of course, the Cowboys signed the most controversial, combustible player in franchise history not because of who Owens is but rather what Owens is.
"You've seen what he can do to teams," says Glenn, the main beneficiary of Owens drawing double-coverage. "He's so big and strong and fast. He can dominate defenses all by himself."
Just as he did while emulating Hall-of-Famer Jerry Rice by wearing No. 80 at Benjamin Russell High School in Alexander City, Alabama, and at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, Owens has embarrassed NFL defenses with his devastating combo of ferocity and fluidity. The vision of him plucking passes, shrugging tacklers or outrunning pursuers often overrides the blink reflex.
"People say this or that about T.O.," Roy Williams says. "But nobody questions his skills on the football field."
At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds of muscles, moves and implausibly long arms--admit it, you've envied his ripped 33-year-old physique and at least once thought to yourself "steroids?"--Owens was inexplicably the 11th receiver drafted in 1996. In 10 seasons with the 49ers and Eagles, he's amassed 700 catches, 10,000 yards and 101 touchdowns, fourth-most in NFL history. He goes deep. He goes over the middle. And yeah, from time to time he goes crazy.
Owens, who will almost certainly become the Cowboys' first Pro Bowl receiver since Michael Irvin in '95, holds the league's single-game record with 20 catches. More vividly, he forced you to fling your Funyuns at the TV during his man-amongst-'Boys, three-touchdown masterpiece of a Monday Night Football game at Texas Stadium in '04, and has, if you believed the controversial pre-game promo that November night, seen Nicolette Sheridan very naked.
Even Parcells, the crotchety coach who's been designing schemes longer than Owens has been breathing, seems genuinely excited to run plays for T.O. "Only a fool wouldn't try to take advantage of the skills of a player like that," Parcells says. "Now, if you're asking me if we're changing to the West Coast offense because of him, the answer is no. But I know he'll command a lot of defensive attention. And that's a great thing for us."
Despite possessing two autobiographies and zero rings, T.O. instantly commands respect at training camp. And, no, it has nothing to do with always being fashionably just-in-time for practice, or a fashion faux pas that finds him wearing Spandex tights (who is he, Lord of the Prance?), later accessorized with a blue "Owens 81" terrycloth skirt (who is he, Axl Rose?).
During the first practice of summer, fans serenade him with "T.O.!" as he catches a touchdown in a half-speed drill, then punch up the decibels when Owens wildly waves his arms, briefly turning from Cowboy to conductor. Like him or not, he's a special talent afforded special treatment.
You can see it in pass-catching drills when passing game coordinator Todd Haley chides young receivers J.R. Tolver ("C'mon J.R.!") and Miles Austin ("C'mon Miles!) then falls on his sword when Owens makes an identical drop ("Bad throw. My bad."). You can hear it when Owens sits out seven consecutive days of practice with a twinge in his left hammy and nobody as much as clears their throat. This is the same organization, remember, that once designated an "asthma field" for wimps and the same coach, remember, who indirectly-directly guilted Julius Jones into staying on the field with a broken shoulder in '04.
Owens has--small steps--made it to August without being suspended. He even threw a barbecue bash last weekend attended by teammates, staff and actress Sanaa Lathan. But, because of his injury, he's spent more time in Oxnard pedaling a stationary bike than catching footballs. And--a slap in the face to Dallas' medical staff--he's flying in three of his personal doctors and a hyperbaric chamber to accelerate his healing.
"I have to do what's best for me regardless of what anybody thinks," Owens tells the media after Monday's practice.
Other than a subtle, slump-shouldered sulk or two after a misconnection with Bledsoe, Owens had been so far, so good. When the team's charter landed at nearby Point Mugu Naval Air Station, Owens, who had clearance to arrive on his own, was on the runway waving like a giddy son anticipating the return of Daddy.
Look and listen closer, however, and Owens' motives may already be a tad misplaced. During individual weight-lifting sessions in Oxnard he often grunted his way through repetitions of "Ten...eight... ten...eight," his return to Philly on October 8 playing the role of carrot.
"I've been looking forward to that game since the schedule came out," Owens said one afternoon. "That one won't be just another game."
Meanwhile, the other 80 players in camp and their coach have a different, more unified goal.
Says Parcells, "Everything we do here is geared toward one thing, getting ready for Jacksonville."
Therein lies Dallas' delusion, naïvely counting on T.O. to remain the superstar player he's always been yet somehow transform into the selfless person he never was. Because while Terrell Owens is a freak who can Taser a team to greatness, T.O. is a freak show capable of ripping the soul from a franchise.
"In the business world I'd probably take a look at his track record and I wouldn't hire him," says none other than Staubach a week before camp. "In sports you've got to consider the risk-reward factor, and he could make a huge difference in the Cowboys getting to the playoffs and beyond. It's a heck of a deal if he's a new person. If he learns to put the team ahead of himself. I hope it works, but there's nothing really in his past that says this is going to be any different.
"Besides, it seems like he doesn't like quarterbacks."
Actually, T.O. doesn't like anybody he doesn't trust. Complicating the matter, he doesn't trust anybody he doesn't like. But before you can defuse a bomb, you need to know how it was built.
Owens developed his general distrust as a defense mechanism for being raised in a dysfunctional Alabama home by his 17-year-old mom and disciplinarian grandmother. Believe it or not, the NFL's cockiest adult was a profoundly insecure kid. In T.O. , Owens tells of being picked on for his dark skin, crooked teeth and skinny frame. He says once while he slept on the bus, the school bully spit into his open mouth. In his '04 book, Catch This!, Owens writes of flirting at age 11 with a neighborhood girl, only to be warned by a family friend to stay away. Why? The girl, turns out, was his half-sister. Not exactly the ideal introduction to your dad.
During the last year, Irvin, well-versed in sideline tantrums and illegal entanglements, has become one of T.O.'s best friends, biggest role models and one of the few allowed to psychologically pry into the real Terrell.
"No doubt, there are authority-figure issues with T.O.," Irvin said shortly after Owens' signing last spring. "I have some regrets. I told him he'll wish 10 years from now he didn't have those same regrets."
There are excuses, more flimsy than viable, for talents like Owens and Larry Brown and J-Lo being shoved into a Bedouin existence. Like no other Cowboy before him, Owens, now with his third team in four years, has a past marked by a tendency to make disputes personal and, ultimately, permanent.
In San Francisco he hinted that quarterback Jeff Garcia was gay. In Philly he labeled Donovan McNabb a quitter. Asked recently in an HBO interview if being the common denominator in the quarrels was merely a coincidence, T.O. responded smugly, "Could be. Why couldn't it be?"
He's famous for yelling "I love me some ME!" on the sidelines and talking trash that would make Mel Gibson blush. He's hyper-sensitive but doesn't give a damn or a second thought to what he says about others. He can be a self-aggrandizing, money-grubbing anthrax, though in the mirror seeing nothing but pure powdered sugar.
T.O. --a book he claims misquotes him despite "writing" on page two, "These are my words, straight from me to you"--is 242 pages and $21 of "it wasn't me." Last season with the Eagles, Team Obliterator skipped a minicamp, wouldn't shake hands with head coach Andy Reid, failed to show up at two mandatory autograph sessions, slept through a team meeting, parked in coaches' and handicapped spaces and repeatedly violated the team dress code.
Oh yeah, and then had the nerve to publicly blast the organization for not sufficiently celebrating his 100th career touchdown.
Owens claims he's misunderstood and vilified and that those nasty labels he'll never be able to peel off are merely a manifestation of a sinister media conspiracy that he cannot explain.
"Those who really take some time to get to know me," Owens says to the daily mob surrounding him after a practice, "find out I'm just a normal, cool dude."
Not that he cared, but his arrival in Dallas wasn't the smoothest. He immediately alienated some fans by showing up to a Mavericks NBA Finals game in a Heat jersey and then appearing dreadfully late to his own youth football camps in North Richland Hills and Duncanville.
His debut at training camp, while on-time, also generated trepidation. Carefully, we approach the beast after Dallas' first practice. And the second. And the third. And the fourth. And you know what? While talking to T.O. our ears didn't start bleeding and our watches didn't stop working and our manhood wasn't challenged.
Attention is Owens' oxygen; solitude his Kryptonite. But--who knew?--part of T.O.'s media presence is being polite, even engaging. He isn't conducting one-on-one interviews during camp, but during daily media gangbangs he's more than accommodating. And even more so with fans. Climaxing the team's third and final year in Oxnard (next year camp moves to San Antonio), every day Owens slowly trudges along chainlink fences, reaching over to shake hands, sign autographs and, yep, even kiss a baby. Or maybe he was signing a boob. With T.O., it's all a blur.
"They came out to see us, to see me," Owens explains of his post-practice diligence. "I need to show them some love, that I appreciate it. I really do."
Out of his pads, Owens becomes a delicate balance of Terrell and T.O. In each ear he wears a doorknob-size diamond earring that cost more than your Jetta but on his wrist he sports one of those cheap-ass rubber bracelets with his cutesy "Getcha Popcorn Ready!" He cruises around in a customized gold Cadillac Escalade but wears mainstream mall Crocs. He has a mansion in Atlanta with a secluded basement he calls the "Chocolate Room" but only a modest 2,000-square-foot loft in downtown Dallas. He has passions for his girlfriend (a former Phoenix Suns dancer), chain-restaurant chicken (from Boston Market) and, according to his mom, possesses a likable, even lovable, low-key disposition.
"He's really a humble man," Owens' mother, Marilyn, says as the sunny Saturday practice is momentarily interrupted by blue Powerade shooting out my nostrils. "He has God in his life, and he's taking everything like he should, one day at a time. He's going to be OK."
Fine, go ahead, trust T.O. While you're at it, have faith that the word gullible isn't in the dictionary.
"I don't foresee any problems," Owens says for the 113th time in his kaleidoscopic career. "Don't feel like there'll be any distractions throughout the whole year."
Owens, whose outlandish celebrations included the infamous Sharpie and the hilarious pompoms, hesitantly talks about his grand re-entry into the theater of touchdown punctuations at Texas Stadium. Considering his desecration of the most sacred star in sports back in '00, his first score as a Cowboy might be a mid-field beg for mercy as much as a belated encore.
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"I don't know...don't have anything planned yet," Owens says, before his eyes suddenly widen. "But some of the guys are trying to convince me to go back to the star."
Get ready to cheer. Get ready to cringe. Get ready with your popcorn.
Because booger-free and hell-bent on revenge against his critics, Owens' play will make you forget. But will his persona ever allow you to forgive?