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.
"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."