After years of observation and mounting disbelief, I’ve decided it’s time to take action.
I have chosen to address this topic not just because of my admiration for Terrell Owens as a football player, but also because of its relevance to our society as a whole. I can not vouch for the man’s character in his everyday life; I’ve never met him in person. That isn’t the point of this discussion. What I can vouch for is the simple fact that he does not deserve the criticism he has received.
In fact, he does not deserve any criticism as it pertains to his football career whatsoever. This is where I lose people, because it seems to contradict a general narrative and everything that branched out from it; one they mistakenly think has to be rooted in some degree of truth. It isn’t. It’s completely smoke-and-mirrors, and everything you think you know unravels once the underlying cause of the mythology and the actual facts are revealed.
The media’s portrayal of Owens and the subsequent public reaction and regurgitation of this portrayal is a microcosm of the general public’s inability, or refusal, to think independently and remain critical of what they’re told.
I would like to say something along the lines of, “never before has one man drawn so much irrational hatred from people who have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about,” but sadly, we all know that’s probably not the case.
Terrell Owens is nothing more than the victim of a media sensationalism snowball effect, and I will illustrate this using pertinent information that has somehow escaped both the mass media and its audience.
At the risk of sounding condescending, the simple fact is that I know more about this subject matter than anyone else on the planet. I am far from the first person to defend Terrell Owens, but the reality is that most others who have taken on this task have simply done a poor job of it. They don’t really get it.
So let’s begin.
Part 1: The Task At Hand
What makes this task an especially difficult one to undertake is the staggering amount of misinformation surrounding Terrell Owens.
To illustrate this point, have a look at this link to ESPN.com’s “Terrell Owens timeline.”
This document was last updated in 2006, yet ESPN already had 40 different dates correlating to incidents they deemed newsworthy.
Herein lies the problem for those of us who take on the false claims: For every incident we thoroughly debunk, our opponent easily reaches for another in his bag of myths to send our way. The microscope that Owens was under throughout his career created a climate in which the media would report on so many insignificant non-stories that we’d need another lifetime just to address them all.
And when we address and defuse a large enough number of media reports, we begin to look like extremists, and our credibility comes into question. After all, it can’t be that all of these are misunderstandings, inaccurate reports, and downright non-issues, can it?
Well, actually, it can. Because it all emanates from a single point. The core of the snowball got the ball rolling, so to speak. Once it was rolling, “incidents” deliberately contrived by the media to create controversy stuck to the growing legend until it became larger than life.
Typically, others who take up Terrell Owens’s defense make the mistake of picking a select few issues and trying to pass blame or excuse alleged misdeeds. What they fail to recognize is, first of all, that’s a losing strategy, and secondly, there’s no need to pass blame or make excuses because they’re responding to events that have been framed to make it look like Owens did something wrong when he did not, events that never happened, events that are unsubstantiated, or events that are completely irrelevant that the media has somehow managed to make people think are newsworthy.
Given the circumstances, I’ve decided that the best way to illustrate my point is to start at the beginning and go in chronological order. This way, you will be able to see how things snowballed into what they are today.
Part 2: The Pre-2000 years
As far as media controversy is concerned, Owens had four uneventful seasons in his first four years in the NFL. From 1996 up until the year 2000, nobody had a bad word to say about the guy. He was an emerging young star and the only things written about him were positive. Here’s an excerpt from an article in Sports Illustrated, which was written in 1998:
Owens is less comfortable asserting himself. “I don’t think it would be advantageous on my part to have an outburst, to say, ‘Give me the damn ball,” Owens says. “I’ve never been a ball hog. I know there’s been a lot of hype lately about them injecting me into the game plan, but if you look at what’s going on, that’s really not the case. I’m just trying to be the silent assassin and let my play do my lobbying for me.”
If anything, Owens has been undemanding. He stunned Mariucci shortly before the season opener by approaching him on the practice field and saying, “You know, I don’t have to start”—defusing a potential controversy, though the Niners’ frequent use of three-receiver sets has rendered the matter moot.
This article highlights things that Steve Young has said numerous times about what Terrell Owens was like when the two were teammates. To Young, Owens was this completely different teammate to the one he saw portrayed in the media in the years after he’d retired. He knows that something changed after he left, but he can’t figure out what it was.
As you’re probably aware, Owens caught a legendary winning touchdown pass against the Green Bay Packers in the 1998 wildcard playoffs. But what happened to Owens’s reputation the year after this monumental event, after Owens had agreed to terms on a new contract in the off-season?
Nothing at all. The 49ers fell to 4-12 the following season as Steve Young suffered a career-ending concussion, while still not a shred of anti-Owens sentiment appeared in the media.
So before we go on, take a moment to ponder the following questions:
Did Terrell Owens become a completely new person in 2000? Did he just suddenly change after four years for seemingly no reason at all? Or might it have been simply a matter of his media portrayal after one incident being the thing that changed, while he remained the same person?
Part 3: 2000
In week 4 of the 2000 NFL season, everything changed. After catching a touchdown pass, Owens ran to the center of Texas Stadium and stood on the Cowboys’ logo. Later in the game, after catching a second touchdown pass, he did it again. Cowboys safety George Teague chased after him and knocked him down as he was celebrating. A scuffle broke out between a couple players, and after the game, all hell broke loose in the media.
Compounding matters was the fact that Owens was unrepentant. He didn’t think he’d done anything wrong. When asked about it after the game, he responded by saying he would do it again. The transformation from being a “fine young man,” according to Phil Simms in the 1998 season opener against the Jets to, “a selfish, immature receiver with tons of baggage” was complete. In the blink of an eye, he had emerged as one of sports’ biggest villains. Not for criminal activity. Not even controversial verbal statements. He achieved this through a demonstrative touchdown celebration that many thought was going too far. He had one chance to save his image: by giving a dramatic, tearful apology after the game, and moving on. He instead chose to be defiant.
It mattered not that his first celebration was rooted in the team pastor’s suggestion to the 49er receivers during the walk through that they look through the hole in the roof and “praise God” if they score a touchdown. It was irrelevant that others on the team already knew exactly what he was planning to do before he did it. And pretty much nobody blamed Emmitt Smith for responding to Owens’s celebration by taking the ball to the star and slamming it down after he scored a touchdown of his own, turning it into a game within a game.
The mass media and the public saw this celebration as taunting. They saw it as a brash, arrogant, obnoxious athlete drawing exaggerated attention to himself. That was the only thing it could be.
The snowball was firmly in motion at this point, and the straw man that is “T.O.” had been crafted, giving the media and fans something to knock down repeatedly for more and more absurd reasons, all-the-while oblivious to the fact that the person they were heaving such animosity toward did not even exist.
Here is a video I made reflecting this sudden transformation:
But here’s the caveat: if the incident had simply remained an incident, it eventually would have ceased to be relevant. The permanence and intensity of Owens’s media-created crucifixion, one that still occurs to this day, was the result of Steve Mariucci’s reaction to the celebrations.
When the first celebration occurred, Owens was not even so much as penalized. Mariucci said nothing to Owens on the sideline to condemn it. Even after Owens went for the second time in response to Emmitt Smith doing it, it was George Teague who was ejected from the game for knocking Owens down on the star and starting a scuffle, not Owens.
Owens believed with complete conviction that Mariucci should have supported him as his player. After all, the Cowboys didn’t publicly express disapproval of Emmitt Smith for doing the same thing. Mariucci never went to Owens after the first celebration and told him he wasn’t having it. And if you’d like an example of how a coach is expected to handle incidents such as this, look no further than how Tom Coughlin reacted to Odell Beckham Jr’s cheap shot on Panthers corner Josh Norman, despite the public outrage and Beckham clearly being in the wrong on the field, making it clear he was going to support his player no matter what.
But how did Mariucci react to what Owens did? He publicly condemned Owens and personally suspended him for a game. A one game suspension for something Owens thought was not only not deserving of a suspension (and it wasn’t), but something that wasn’t even wrong. The first time, he was celebrating a touchdown in a different way just out of a creative impulse. The second time, it was just a little competitive back-and-forth between athletes. There was nothing immoral about these harmless celebrations to deserve the contempt he received.
Now, this is the important part to take away from this: the fact that Owens and Mariucci were openly butting heads over the incident transformed the incident to a narrative. That narrative being, “Owens and his coach are feuding.” And a narrative can stay in the news indefinitely and has long-term potential to spawn other contrived controversies. An incident, on the other hand, generally has a short life span. Hence, Mariucci’s reaction to Owens’s celebrations was the crucial, catalytic phase 2 of the incident that forever changed his life.
Part 4: 2001
Owens came into the 2001 season a marked man not only because of what had happened the prior year, but also because the 49ers had traded Jerry Rice to the Raiders, essentially passing the torch to Owens as the team’s go-to receiver. Owens had enjoyed a breakout season the year before, adding to his media scrutiny with first team Pro Bowl and Associated Press All Pro selections. With 1,451 yards and 13 touchdowns on 97 receptions, including a game in which he caught a then-NFL record 20 passes against the Chicago Bears, Owens now found himself mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Randy Moss when people discussed the best receivers in the game.
The first sign of media trouble in 2001 came after a week 2 loss to the Rams. This time he drew criticism for committing the heinous crime of not speaking to reporters after the game, instead moping in the locker room. The next day, he finally spoke to reporters and blamed himself for the loss.
“Personally, I feel I can chalk up the loss on this team for this one,” said Owens, who dropped four passes against the Rams, all of them pivotal plays that could have either kept drives alive or gone for big yardage – or more. “I really felt what I did or didn’t do on the field really lost the game.”
“I owe the team an apology. I can say I lost the game for the team, despite of what anybody else may say. The things I do on the field can make or break us.”
Note the prior quote any time you hear the commonly stated and incredibly inaccurate belief that Terrell Owens never accepts any responsibility or blame for a loss. There are other examples I can cite, but that’s a separate topic.
For additional reading, I recommend perusing an article about this coverage written by Susan Holtzer, which I have linked at the end of this post. It does an excellent job of painting the picture of the media climate surrounding Owens at the time. He was being deliberately targeted and there was nothing he could do about it.
Anyway, this lambasting over nothing would soon be forgotten about as the 49ers began winning games, but after they lost their second game of the season to the Chicago Bears, Owens was once again being criticized for his reaction after the game (this time during a weekly press day).
According to numerous media sources, Owens blamed Steve Mariucci for the loss, saying he went to a conservative game plan in order to avoid blowing out the Bears because of his friendship with Bears head coach Dick Jauron.
This claim by the media was, however, false.
“And I think, hopefully, it means coach now, he’ll probably change his mentality about, you know, about us just really destroying teams now. I think he, his buddy system with all the coaches around the league, I think he tries to spare them sometimes, just like he doesn’t want to embarrass a team. But you gotta understand, if you’re trying to win a championship, you have to spare feelings sometimes.”
Not exactly blaming Mariucci for the loss, is it? Being critical of a philosophy that he thought contributed to the loss – that being a philosophy of trying not to run up the score after building a lead out of “respect” for the opponent? Sure. But at no point does he blame Mariucci for the team losing the game.
And notice what’s missing from this. We have a quote…but what we don’t have is the question that led to this particular response. This would be a recurring theme throughout Owens’s tumultuous career.
Owens does not make comments in a vacuum. He does not walk up to the podium and start offering up observations unprompted. The questions he gets lead to the answers he gives. But they rarely publish the questions he’s asked. This is no accident.
In this instance, the question was specifically asking Owens what he thought about the seemingly more conservative play calling in the second half, which is the only reason Owens was addressing it in the first place.
And on this particular occasion, he made the mistake of responding with a toned down version of his honest opinion. But it didn’t matter what he did. As we saw earlier, if he didn’t say anything, he was blasted. And as we will see repeatedly in the future, if he simply failed to phrase something the way a tenured public relations agent would recommend, it would lead to his comments being thoroughly scrutinized and a resulting uncontrollable public outcry. Even replies from public relations professionals themselves wouldn’t have been enough. With Terrell Owens, it was acceptable to not only “read between the lines,” but to infer things from his body language or tone of voice. But that’s jumping ahead.
Now let’s go back.
One thing immediately stands out to me about this quote. I’ll write it again:
“And I think, hopefully, it means coach now, he’ll probably change his mentality about, you know, about us just really destroying teams now. I think he, his buddy system with all the coaches around the league, I think he tries to spare them sometimes, just like he doesn’t want to embarrass a team. But you gotta understand, if you’re trying to win a championship, you have to spare feelings sometimes.”
I think. Hopefully. You know. Just really. Sometimes. Sometimes.
These are the words of a man trying to figure out the right way to phrase a critical observation without causing an uproar. Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful. And the reason he was unsuccessful was simply the fact that he was under more scrutiny than other players and the media was looking for a way to twist any response he gave into a controversial “scathing remark.” He was Terrell Owens, a marked man from his celebration in Dallas just a year ago. And the narrative was, “Terrell Owens and Steve Mariucci hate each other.”
Some players are extremely media savvy and have the ability to circumnavigate trap questions. Most players aren’t. Every year, numerous players are critical of coaching decisions in the media at some time or another. Rarely do they draw much attention or criticism.
Clinton Portis took numerous blatant shots at Jim Zorn and the Redskins organization in the press, for example, yet he received a mere fraction of the negative publicity Owens received for toned down answers to inflammatory questions. In 2008, Portis, when addressing sitting on the bench during crucial points in a game, sarcastically stated,
“We got a genius for a head coach, I don’t know, I’m sure he on top of things. He’s got everything figured out. Hey, that’s up to him. All I can do is when he calls a play is go out and try to execute to the best of my ability.”
In this same interview, he also stated:
“You know, one day it’s chip on your way out, then if you don’t chip and you get out and the quarterback gets sacked it’s like, ‘Oh, you need to help this man out.’ So they don’t know what they want. They want you to chip, they want you to block, Jason’s on his ass all game long, you’re trying to stay in and help, and then it’s, ‘Oh, you should have gone out, they was coming to you.’
Imagine if Terrell Owens said this. He wouldn’t, though, because he actually has a thick filter. He doesn’t realize this about himself, but he was actually quite politically correct throughout his career. He simply wasn’t skilled enough at it to handle the level of scrutiny he was receiving as a result of the touchdown celebrations, and as more faux-incidents transpired, it reached a point where it wouldn’t have been possible for anyone to have avoided the media manipulation of words and actions.
The reality is Terrell Owens was and still is simply held to a higher standard than any other player in the NFL.
Following this 2001 media manipulation, the purported Terrell Owens/Steve Mariucci feud was now front and center. Mariucci heard the media’s interpretation of what Owens had “told them” and was livid. He angrily stated in the press that the “comments” were “devoid of any deep thought.”
Numerous sources claim the strain on their relationship began after Mariucci suspended Owens for one game following his celebration on the star in 2000, yet a quote from Owens himself suggests it was rooted even further back.
An excerpt from an article:
However the mood did not change much as Owens admitted his relationship with Mariucci is less then ideal, and does not expect it to change. “It’s been that way since he’s been here, since we’ve been together,” Owens said. “Four or five years, it hasn’t changed. I don’t think it’s going to change.”
Wait a minute. The entire time Mariucci was there? Four, five years? This would mean it dated back to the 1997 season. You know, the period in which Owens was “undemanding” and a “fine young man?”
Media transparency is everything. There are players and coaches who don’t like each other much in every locker room. We never hear about most of it.
With Owens, we hear about all of it. Even if it’s not true.
And certainly, Owens was upset with Mariucci for suspending him for the star celebrations, which he acknowledged. But Owens was not running around the media bashing Mariucci, despite the media’s attempts to twist a tactful answer to an inflammatory question into a “harsh criticism.” He was, in his own words, respecting him as a coach and having no relationship aside from that. And that’s how it’s really supposed to be, regardless. They harbored resentment toward one another but generally kept it to themselves.
Part 5: 2002
During the off-season, Steve Mariucci flew out to Terrell Owens’s home in Atlanta in an effort to smooth things over. The two reportedly had cleared the air and settled their differences. This paved the way for what was ultimately Owens’s most uneventful 49ers season post-1999 in terms of the quantity of media incident reports, but still one major incident did occur.
On Monday Night Football in week 6, he celebrated a touchdown by autographing a football in the endzone with a Sharpie.
The backlash was astronomic. Television and print media tore into their number one villain relentlessly. As it was with the Dallas celebration incident, Owens refused to back down and apologize. The difference this time around was the fact that Owens had overwhelming support from the 49ers organization, Mariucci included. While the 49ers organization came out in support of Owens, the incident still further fueled the media’s desire to use him as a controversy catalyst in an effort to appeal to the masses.
At the end of the season, after the 49ers had lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the divisional round of the playoffs, Mariucci was fired and replaced by Dennis Erickson. As it turns out, Mariucci had upset 49ers management (namely owner John York and General Manager Terry Donahue) by interviewing for the Notre Dame and Tampa Bay coaching jobs in the prior off-season.
Part 6: 2003
The 2003 season was defined by the expansion of Owens’s alleged character flaws into new genres. Prior to this season, the character defamation barbs were limited to references to his excessive touchdown celebrations, and his dislike of Steve Mariucci. At the same time, the print media alleged that he wasn’t popular with teammates, but as time progressed, numerous teammates came out of the woodwork to reveal that they had forged friendships with him, showing once again that the media was not interested in accuracy. In 2002, he had taken young running back Kevan Barlow under his wing and spent much of the off-season training him. He also trained in private with safety Tony Parrish. He and the team’s other receivers, most notably J.J. Stokes, had forged a close bond many years earlier. Veterans such as Derrick Deese and Bryant Young have come to his defense numerous times in the press since he left San Francisco, and stories of how teammates played dominoes with him in the locker room surfaced.
To anyone keeping score, it would seem that Owens was actually quite popular among his teammates. Of course, the media was more interested in finding one or two guys on the team who didn’t like him (but for some odd reason wouldn’t say that unless they were in private and speaking under the condition of anonymity) and making them out to speak for the whole team. And of course, it’s OK to throw Terrell Owens under the bus and hide behind anonymity.
Still, the term “team cancer” had never been applied to him at this point. They just claimed he was “unpopular.” Nobody was accusing him of dividing or destroying the team/locker room. That rhetoric didn’t come until later.
(Also, be sure to check out the link to a compilation of what Owens’s former teammates have said about him at the end of this post.)
The turning point in the 2003 season came during a game against the Minnesota Vikings in week 4. What is it about week 4?
The 49ers entered the game with a disappointing 1-2 record and were trailing 28-0 in the 3rd quarter. On 4th and 2, with 10 men in the box, offensive coordinator Greg Knapp called a running play (Knapp insists it was Erickson who had actually made the call). Not surprisingly, Kevan Barlow was stuffed. A frustrated Owens shouted for a few seconds at offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, and one of the network’s 80 or so “T.O. Cams” caught what was happening. Owens was again demonized for behavior the media falsely insists was inappropriate. No one even knows what Owens actually said, yet he looked frustrated and upset, and being frustrated and upset while your team is getting blown out is not OK if your name is “Terrell Owens.” The media sensationalism was ignited.
And the reason there were so many cameras on Owens this game and the reason it led to the angle the media took? It was the 49ers vs. Vikings and the media was billing it as Terrell Owens vs. Randy Moss. They latched onto this game they love to remind you is a “team game” being about just two players going against each other, even though they weren’t even on the field at the same time. And when Moss was “winning,” having a dominating performance as his team was up 28-0, and Owens was “losing,” it was the perfect time to go with the narrative that Owens couldn’t handle “losing” to Moss.
Interestingly enough, that very same Sunday, Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon was caught screaming at head coach Bill Callahan during their game. While this did barely make the news, Gannon was not criticized and the incident was decidedly on the back burner, way behind the Owens story.
This brings us to the issue of sideline outbursts in general, and how they differ in terms of how they’re perceived when Owens has one, as opposed to another player.
It was no secret that Jerry Rice had sideline outbursts. They simply weren’t seen as important. The difference between Rice and Owens is the simple fact that Owens once celebrated two touchdowns by running to the center of Texas Stadium and posing on the star and Jerry Rice did not.
It’s also worth noting that the television sports media was not nearly as sensationalist-driven and controversy-hungry during Rice’s prime years as it was when Owens played. By the turn of the century, which is when television sports media began to take a major turn for the worse, Rice was almost unanimously regarded as the greatest receiver in NFL history and seen as a living legend. After years of television focusing almost exclusively on Rice’s incredible performance on the field, while only local print media reported on his non-performance related aspects in search of controversy, it didn’t make much sense for sports television networks to begin a defamatory quest at that point in his career. Kicking over pylons in a fit of rage because he didn’t catch a pass in a game his team won, as he did when he was a member of the Raiders in 2004? Not newsworthy.
To further underscore the double standard when it comes to Terrell Owens having an emotional outburst on the sidelines, I have attached a video of one of Rice’s many sideline eruptions, along with the aforementioned one from Terrell Owens. Included in this clip is the commentary from the announcers.
As you may have noted, Rice was screaming at Mariucci after his team had just scored a touchdown and was leading 10-3. Conversely, Owens’s outburst took place after the 49ers had just been stuffed on 4th and 2 with 10 in the box trailing 28-0 late in the 3rd quarter. Who is the selfish one and who is the team player?
The media would have you believe Owens is the selfish one while Rice was the consummate team-oriented guy. And that is the general consensus view among the public.
Owens actually wrote about this particular Rice outburst in his first book, “Catch This.” As you may notice in the video, Owens was right there, trying to calm Rice down. According to Owens, Rice was repeatedly screaming, “tell him to throw a fucking spiral! A fucking spiral!”
“Him” was referring to Jeff Garcia. So how does that fit into the notion of “undermining the quarterback” or “calling out the quarterback?” You be the judge.
Ultimately, sideline outbursts are not only not abnormal on NFL sidelines, they are expected. They occur in practically every game in some fashion. Many of these outbursts, including many of Owens’s, as seen on NFL Films clips, are nothing more than players amping themselves up in their best Muhammad Ali impression. Not to turn this into a racial issue, but the failure of white journalists to recognize and understand the culture of a football game is underscored by their frequent misinterpretations in which they make these things into something they aren’t. Only a clueless white journalist would think to take a sideline exclamation of, “I love me some me” as a serious, literal statement. What’s next, Mike Singletary thinks a football game is a “party” and plans to be there all day? What is wrong with him? Beer has no place on the football field.
As cliche as this may sound, football is an emotional game. For some reason – the reason I already gave – when it comes to Terrell Owens, this blatantly obvious and indisputable fact is thrown by the wayside and every little smile, frown, head shake, hand gesture, shift in body language, and movement of lips is painstakingly over-analyzed. The smallest details are deemed important. And the media and the public always finds fault with them.
If his team is losing the game, Owens has four possible choices for how he can act on the sidelines, and he will receive criticism from some people no matter which he chooses.
Option 1. He can sit on the bench with a stoic expression on his face. When he does this, it leads to accusations of indifference towards the team’s performance and is used as an argument to support the assertion that he is selfish. People assert that he has mailed it in and just doesn’t care. I witnessed people accusing him of this during his tenure with the Bills in 2009.
Option 2. He can sit on the bench with a frustrated or disappointed look on his face. This leads to accusations of pouting. The term “pouting” carries negative connotations and is used to support the narrative of Terrell Owens somehow being “disruptive.” Numerous people actually argue that him projecting negative body language during a game is disruptive to the team, and divisive. “Pouting” on the sidelines, therefore, is clearly unacceptable if your name is Terrell Owens.
Option 3: He can sit on the bench with a smile on his face. The result of this option is similar to option 1, only worse. It leads to accusations that Owens is selfish; his team is losing the game, yet he’s sitting there smiling. Clearly, he does not care about the team’s performance if he’s smiling while they’re losing. And it would be especially bad if he happens to have good numbers while the team is losing.
Option 4: He can stand up and shout things at people in an effort to fire guys up and motivate the team. The result? You’re all familiar with this line: TERRELL OWENS BLEW UP.
Now he obviously was screaming at people to throw him the ball. It couldn’t possibly be motivational speaking. The players who say after the game that he was just trying to fire guys up? They must be lying about it to cover it up.
Four options. And what they amount to is playing Russian Roulette with a bullet in every chamber.
The Terrell Owens Sideline Predicament is a prime of example of why he is in a No Win situation.
So back to the Owens vs. Moss billing and its role in what followed. The media’s interpretation to Owens’s outburst was viewed trough their lens that this was Owens being upset over being outperformed by Moss, rather than frustration over the team being beaten badly and Owens feeling he needed to be more involved in the offense to help the team win. So in the post-game questions, the reporters asked Owens questions with the specific intent to claim that story. The 28-0 on the scoreboard would be dismissed as far as being a factor in Owens’s frustration. Owens celebrated touchdowns in a grandiose fashion, hence he must be selfish, and hence he must care as much as the media about “Owens vs. Moss.”
In the 4th quarter of this game, Garcia had been benched for backup Tim Rattay. Naturally, Owens was asked if he thought it was time for a quarterback change–switching from Garcia to Rattay. His response was as follows:
“Who knows?” Owens said. “That’s not my position to go ahead and make a quarterback change, but Rat (backup Tim Rattay) did a good job when he was in there. Whoever is in there, I’m going to catch the ball. Even if it’s (Ken) Dorsey, I’m going to catch the ball. All the quarterbacks can throw deep. It’s all about timing.”
This response was spun into the following title for one article: Irritated Owens spreads blame, calls out Garcia
Do you see any calling out of Garcia in that statement?
Other articles claimed Owens had, “called for a quarterback change.”
Do you see Owens say that it was time for a quarterback change in that statement?
This was Owens answering an inflammatory question with a politically correct response. And it didn’t matter because the media was targeting him as that villainous player who celebrated touchdowns in a controversial fashion and was unapologetic about it.
This is a recurring theme: Owens says one thing, the media says he said something else. If they don’t claim he said it, they claim he implied it. But implication is subjective. And Owens can not help what he thinks; he can only help what he says. The vast majority of quotes from Owens’s career that were deemed controversial were attempts at articulating answers to questions in a politically correct manner. While quotes from Owens after he’d departed from the 49ers reveal that he did, in fact, want Rattay to replace Garcia as the starting quarterback, his statement after the Vikings game, while he and Garcia were still teammates, was clearly made with an effort to address the question with a politically correct response. He avoided saying that he thought it was time for a quarterback change and avoided criticizing Garcia’s play. Why? Because he was trying to be a good teammate. He was refusing to speculate on who should be the starting quarterback because all of the quarterbacks were his teammates. But because he didn’t outright call them crazy for suggesting starting Rattay over Garcia, the media inferred Owens was on board with the idea.
It didn’t end here. The media opted to run with the fabrication that Owens had “hinted at” a quarterback change and fed their “interpretation” of Owens’s answer to Garcia himself. As it turns out, Garcia isn’t an expert on how the media works and took them at their word, replying with an actual insult directed at Owens. “We can not allow this sickness to spread.” Owens learned of Garcia’s response and, naturally, took offense.
Suddenly, thanks to the sports media, for the first time in 7 1/4 years in the NFL, Owens is in a feud with his quarterback. Both men are angry and hurt over what they think the other said, only in Owens’s case, Garcia did actually say it. And thanks to this, despite 7 1/4 years in the NFL of never having a single “feud” with a quarterback, Owens could add the label, “quarterback killer” to the “T.O.” image. He would never shed it.
PART 7: 2004 and 2005
After finishing the 2003 season, Owens was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent once he voided the final years of his contract. However, in a bizarre turn of events, the deadline to void the final years of his contract was not met and Owens remained under contract with the 49ers. This obviously does not happen very often, so the obvious question to ask is, “why him?” I mean, what are the odds, right?
It’s no coincidence. Owens had remained loyal to his first agent, David Joseph, who had represented him when he was just a 3rd round pick from a small college. Unlike the vast majority of star athletes, Owens was not a high profile draft selection and did not have top agents clamoring to represent him. He was from a small college and was the 89th pick in the draft. Joseph was a relatively unknown agent and claimed to not have received notice from the NFLPA that under the updated collective bargaining agreement, the deadline to file for free agency had been moved up, causing Joseph to miss said deadline.
After learning that Owens was still under contract with the 49ers, Owens and Joseph requested a trade. General Manager Terry Donahue agreed to entertain offers, and one of the primary suitors was the Philadelphia Eagles. After this offer, Donahue told Owens, his agent, and the Eagles that they could start negotiating a new contract. The assumption was that sooner or later, Owens was going to be a member of the Philadelphia Eagles. Quickly, however, and without giving the Eagles ample time to come up with a counter-offer, Donahue sent Owens to the Baltimore Ravens instead, in exchange for a 2nd round draft pick. Owens, Joseph, and the Eagles all insisted that Donahue lied to them, and Owens and Joseph filed a grievance with the NFL, seeking to void the trade and become an unrestricted free agent.
With the 49ers, Eagles, and Owens each afraid of losing the grievance, a 3-team trade was worked out in which Owens would be sent to the Eagles in exchange for Brandon Whiting and the Ravens would receive their 2nd round pick back in return. However, before the Eagles would agree to the trade, they insisted on coming to terms with Owens on a contract. They offered him a heavily backloaded 7 year, $49 million contract with not all that much more guaranteed money than what he had received for the contract he’d signed with the 49ers in 1999, after just his 3rd year in the NFL. Despite warnings from the NFLPA not to sign the contract, Owens and his agent were terrified of losing the grievance and winding up stuck in Baltimore. With no leverage in the negotiations, Owens opted to agree to the contract so that he would wind up on the team he wanted.
That summer, a Playboy interview with Owens came out that led to further controversy. The interviewer had asked Owens if he thought Jeff Garcia was gay (there had been rumors about Garcia’s sexuality for years; so much so that Garcia voluntarily told writer Matt Maiocco during an interview regarding the 49ers’ long-time gay trainer, Lindsey McClain, that he had heard rumors that he himself was gay and those were untrue). Owens responded by saying, “like my boy tells me – if it looks like a rat, smells like a rat, by golly, it’s a rat.” His “boy,” in this case, was his childhood friend, Theron Cooper, whom he’d heard this variation of “walks like a duck” from (Cooper was not the originator, though…it had been around quite a long time; so no, he was not comparing gay people to rodents).
The revisionist historians love to claim Owens threw “his quarterback” under the bus in this interview, despite the fact that Owens and Garcia were no longer teammates at the time.
Once again, here’s a controversial idea that had nothing to do with Owens becoming attributed to him because he was asked about it. Owens answered by implying he thought he was, but made no actual accusations. He was asked if he thought he was, after all. And when it hit the fan, Owens immediately clarified in his press conference the next day (during Eagles training camp) that he was not saying Garcia was gay and did not know whether Garcia was gay or not. But clarifications and apologies are only accepted if you’re not a villain, no matter how immediate they are.
And since there’s nothing wrong with being gay, how is it an insult to suggest you think he is? In the very same interview, Owens said he personally wouldn’t have a problem with having a gay teammate. So Owens himself doesn’t see it as an insult.
Apart from all that, the most important thing to remember is they were no longer teammates. Owens was as much Garcia’s teammate at that point as you or me, or Conan O’Brien. When Conan O’Brien made jokes about Ricky Martin’s sexuality while he was still in the closet, was that egregious behavior?
The media turned Garcia, who was arrested earlier that off-season for a DUI with a .237 BAC, into the innocent victim. The victim of the evil Terrell Owens.
But hey, let’s pretend for a second that being gay is bad. If we’re going to insist Owens is horrible for saying something bad about someone who isn’t his teammate, what to say about all the players who weren’t his teammate who took shots at him? How about when Rodney Harrison called him a “selfish jerk” in 2005? Oh, wait, that falls under the old formula.
If Owens (allegedly) says something bad about somebody else, Owens is the bad guy.
If somebody else says something bad about Owens, Owens is the bad guy.
In life, people often say bad things about other people, publicly and privately. Who is “classless” and who “deserves props for speaking the truth” is all about the perception of who the “good guy” is and who the “bad guy” is. And since Owens was the guy with the TD celebrations, he was always the bad one.
Players say bad things about other players in the league all the time. The idea of Owens saying something bad about someone else being newsworthy is the result of his villain status.
And this is all beside the point, as Owens was not saying anything bad about Garcia when he answered the question. He was merely acknowledging that he thought the rumors of Garcia being gay made sense.
During the 2004 season, the Eagles raced out to a 13-1 record with Owens in the line up posting yet another Pro Bowl season. And then he broke his leg and his season was considered most likely over. And then he insisted it wasn’t and lived up to his word, returning to play in the Super Bowl and catching 9 passes for 122 yards in a loss to the Patriots.
However, before I get into everything that transpired in 2005, I would like to revisit something important that often gets overlooked. During the Eagles’ only loss of the season with Owens in the lineup, on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers, cameras caught Owens following McNabb around on the sidelines and yelling in his direction. McNabb, with a frustrated look on his face, kept his back turned as Owens continued to follow him. As it turned out, Owens was merely shouting words of encouragement to a dejected McNabb, who was frustrated over the way the game was going.
This did not stop the media from engaging in Terrell Owens Sideline Predicament. Accusations that “the honeymoon is over” abounded. After all, it’s Terrell Owens, and he’s bad. And Terrell Owens is yelling, and if bad is yelling, he must be yelling something bad. And if he’s yelling something bad, it is a bad thing and a problem for a football team.
You see, the media could not wait to pounce on Owens and McNabb. It was the NFL’s high profile couple. They were looking for the first hint of something to misconstrue into conflict. They weren’t interested in reporting the news, they were interested in creating it themselves. And that was exactly what they would end up doing. It just took a bit longer than they hoped.
“False alarm,” they were forced to concede. Eagles coaches and players confirmed Owens was only trying to keep McNabb’s spirits up. The following week on Monday Night Football against the Cowboys, McNabb and Owens hooked up for three touchdowns in a rout. At one point during the game, McNabb and Owens decided to have some fun for the cameras and mimicked the prior week’s “incident,” with Owens keeping his back turned to McNabb and McNabb following him around on the sidelines.
While the media had been forced to put their contrived controversy on hold, they would get another opening after the Super Bowl loss. In an interview in which they reflected on the Super Bowl, Eagles center Hank Fraley and wide receiver Freddie Mitchell mentioned that Donovan McNabb was tired in the huddle late in the game, and at one point looked like he was going to throw up, or perhaps even did throw up on the field. As to be expected from ESPN at this point, this was a major topic of discussion for their numerous talking heads. Did he or didn’t he? What does this mean for the whole of humanity? Who, what, where, when, how, why….did McNabb engage in an involuntary personal protein spill? In the words of George Carlin, anyway.
And then ESPN got the big break they were looking for. Owens agreed to an interview with their own Len Pasquarelli to discuss the Super Bowl and his rehabilitation from his fractured leg. At one point during the interview, Pasquarelli asked Owens about how good his physical conditioning was coming back from the leg break. Owens answered by saying he did everything he needed to do to prepare for that, and then pointing out the irony in McNabb being the one who got tired and not him, stating, “I wasn’t the guy who got tired in the Super Bowl.” It is noted in the transcript that Owens laughed when he said this, but since this interview was only shown in text, it gave ESPN’s news anchors and talking heads an easy opportunity to take the remark out of context and present it as an implied insult aimed at McNabb.
Basically, ESPN pulled a My Cousin Vinny “I shot the clerk” on him. Because it was in print, this gave ESPN the incentive to read Owens’s quote with a snide tone, as opposed to the light-hearted tone in which Owens actually said it. Owens wasn’t criticizing McNabb for allegedly getting tired, he was referring to it being surprising that Owens himself wasn’t the one who got tired after all the time he’d had off.
Anyway, it wasn’t long before it was forgotten that it was Fraley and Mitchell (and later Jon Runyan) who said McNabb got tired/looked like he was going to vomit/vomited in the Super Bowl. It didn’t make any of them bad teammates, because they never celebrated touchdowns by jogging to the center of Texas Stadium and posing on the star. The narrative was revised to claims such as, “Terrell Owens accused Donovan McNabb of getting tired/throwing up in the Super Bowl” and, “Terrell Owens blamed McNabb for the Super Bowl loss.”
As you can see, this wasn’t even remotely the case. Even if Owens had intended his remark to be an insult aimed at McNabb, which there was no evidence at the time that he did (particularly because he has always denied he meant it that way), he was not the one who “threw him under the bus.” That was Fraley, Mitchell, and Runyan. And what you will notice is a constant in Owens’s career is the fact that he was never the one to actually come up with the controversial ideas that later became attributed to him. He was merely the guy who either referenced controversial things that other people said, responded to what an interviewer asked him about something controversial other people said, or responded to a controversial idea an interviewer proposed to him. Owens, himself, is not “outspoken.” He’s a guy who other people’s agendas stuck to. Because he was the guy who once jogged to the star twice after scoring touchdowns.
McNabb, like Garcia, and like most athletes, is not an expert on the way the media works and got caught up in their spin. He heard what was being said about him on TV and especially took offense when he thought Owens had dissed him in the media. After all, he was partly the reason the Eagles signed Owens in the first place. Media rumors regarding the two being bitter toward each other emerged, and it was compounded by the fact that Owens and his new agent, Drew Rosenhaus, had decided to request the Eagles have a sit down to discuss altering his contract.
This did not go over well with the sports media, who pounced on the fact that Owens had only played one year after having just signed a 7 year contract. They wouldn’t acknowledge the fact that this was not a normal, fair contract negotiation that led to Owens agreeing to the deal the prior year. He should have been an unrestricted free agent, and through no fault of his own, he was forced to sacrifice his chance at the last big contract of his career.
Moreover, he had gone above and beyond what anyone could have asked of him during the 2004 season, culminating in his incredible return from what should have been a season ending injury, and demonstrated he was worth more than he was making, considering market value.
Particularly bothersome to Owens was that the money he was scheduled to make in the 2nd year of his contract would not make him one of the 10 highest paid wide receivers in the NFL. Additionally, while Owens was due a large amount of money in his third year (2006), the way the contract was structured had Owens worried the Eagles would cut him before the 2006 season in order to save a large amount of cap space. The Eagles were known for being extremely cap conscious at the time, and with Owens turning 32 at the end of the 2005 season, Owens wanted more guaranteed money and a contract that better represented his level of play and how long established he was as an elite receiver.
But being cap conscious, the Eagles wouldn’t have it. They wouldn’t even entertain the notion of making any changes to his contract whatsoever, even though it would hardly have been the first time a contract was restructured after one year. When teams try to clear cap space, one of the primary ways they will do this is by giving a player a new signing bonus to replace some of his base salary for a given year, thus prorating the money that counts against the cap over the remaining years of the contract, as opposed to it all counting in a given year.
But in this instance, restructuring Owens’s contract would have been of no benefit to the Eagles. He was scheduled to make a low base salary and the money that Owens and Rosenhaus wanted guaranteed was scheduled to come to him in future years. If he was still on the team in 2006, he would start getting the money, anyway, whether they gave it to him as a new bonus or as base salary.
Realizing there was no point in dragging this out any further, Owens opted to attend the Eagles’ training camp. However, he was not in the right mind state to come to camp. When he showed up, he was not in a good mood, harboring obvious resentment toward the organization for completely rejecting his request to renegotiate the terms of his contract. He became reserved and distant from the rest of the team, and one day during a practice, Andy Reid confronted Owens about skipping autograph signing sessions. This led to the exchange of words in which Reid told Owens to shut up and Owens replied by telling him, “my last name isn’t Reid.” This was not an Owens vs. Reid situation: Reid was merely caught in the middle of the bitter dispute between Owens and the front office. What most people either don’t know or don’t mention is that Owens and Reid got along very well and harbor no animosity toward each other. In fact, after Owens was suspended and deactivated from the team, Reid actually called Owens to check up on him. To this day, Owens says Reid was the best coach he has ever had. It was just one argument, but when it comes to Owens, the media refers to one known argument as a “feud.” They even claim he “feuded” with Greg Knapp because of the cameras catching him shouting at him on the sidelines during the Vikings game. Never mind Knapp saying Owens apologized to him the next day.
But Reid was stuck having to play the role of the disciplinarian, forced to respond to Owens being upset over his contract and then the “media fishbowl,” as Richard Bloch later put it in his grievance ruling document, that created controversy and conflict Owens had no intention of creating.
After this dispute, Reid met with Owens in his office and told him to go home for a week and cool off. This is exactly what Owens did. What they didn’t anticipate was the sports media hitting a then-all-time low (emphasis on then) and sending dozens of reporters to stalk him at his home. There were even helicopters flying over his house. It was the 1994 O.J. Simpson chase scene all over again, but this time instead of watching a man trying to flee from the police after being charged with murder, it was about a player being suspended from camp for a week because of an argument with a coach.
At the time the reporters were circling his house as though it was a hostage crisis, Owens was minding his own business, shooting baskets on his driveway. The horror. But in the words of one media member that should tell you everything you need to know, “he says he doesn’t want attention, why is he playing basketball in his driveway?”
At some point, the ridiculousness of the situation hit him and he reacted to it with his “performer” mentality. Out came the exercise equipment from his garage as he worked out in front of reporters to make light of the situation.
As has consistently been the case, the media eliminated the context from the event and portrayed it as Owens “trying” to draw attention to himself, as if he had to try. As if the attention wasn’t already on him without his consent. As if he was the actor instead of the reactor. As if he was the crazy one and the reporters stalking him was just normal etiquette.
You don’t believe me, do you? You don’t believe the media could be this unreasonable. These guys are professionals, right? They don’t create the news, they just report it! I’m just making excuses and “blaming the media,” and not holding Owens accountable for his behav-….
Here’s an excerpt from ESPN.com’s front page article a few months later, after Owens’s deactivation for the remainder of the season:
“Later, two pizzas were delivered to Owens’ home. Someone
answered the door — not Owens — and gave deliveryman James McDevitt
a $5 tip. McDevitt said he left the tip on the door step.”
This is ridiculous.
ESPN didn’t even tell us whether Owens got anchovies or pepperoni on his pizzas. Shoddy reporting work.
Owens returned to the team a week after Drivewaygate, played in the preseason, the regular season started, and the Eagles started 4-3 for their first 7 games. What was happening behind the scenes? Basically, nothing. Owens and McNabb were not openly “feuding” as it is casually and non-specifically remembered by the media today. They just weren’t really talking to each other, still bitter over what they thought the other had said. People often talk about this ridiculous idea of a “divided locker room” but there was nothing to divide them over to begin with. Owens and McNabb being offended by one another was their conflict and their conflict alone. Some players were upset by what they thought Owens had said about McNabb based on media reports, but there was no division on the issue. Nobody was supportive of any negative comments against McNabb. It wasn’t until Owens was kicked off the team that there was an “issue” to take a stance on, and the opinion of the vast majority at that time was they just wished Owens and McNabb could get along, and if they could and Owens was allowed back on the team, they’d be happy. And if Owens and McNabb couldn’t get along and Owens wasn’t allowed back on the team, they just wanted to move on and focus on football.
As far as the Eagles’ 4-3 start, it was a little disappointing for a team of their caliber, but they weren’t out of it yet, and there were two big reasons they weren’t playing to their potential, neither of which have anything to do with Owens, who before being deactivated was on pace for over 1700 yards and double digit touchdowns.
One was the fact that Donovan McNabb suffered a sports hernia injury in their season opener and was not playing as well as he did the year before as a result. After two games following Owens’s deactivation, McNabb shut down his season and had the surgery he needed to repair it.
The second was the post-Super Bowl loss hangover. When a team loses a Super Bowl and all their work goes down the drain, it can have a huge negative effect on a team mentally. They walk away with nothing and then the next year, they have to start all over again.
And to make matters worse for the Eagles, the prior season was their 4th consecutive appearance in the NFC Championship game.
The end of Owens’s Philadelphia career happened in two quick stages. The first stage was an interview he did with Graham Bensinger. In this interview, ESPN focused on two quotes to create controversy.
The first was when Bensinger asked Owens about the Eagles not acknowledging his 100th touchdown reception. Owens, who was still bitter toward the organization for the way they reacted to his desire to renegotiate his contract, responded by saying that his publicist had contacted them to let them know it was coming up and they still made no acknowledgement of it. He then said that while they portray themselves as a first class organization, this decision on their part was an embarrassment and showed a lack of class.
The second reply that got Owens in trouble came when Bensinger asked him about his opinion regarding a statement Michael Irvin made on ESPN about how the Eagles would be undefeated with Brett Favre at quarterback. Owens replied by saying, “I mean, that’s a good assessment. I would agree with that,” and went on to praise Brett Favre as a quarterback, saying that with him they’d “be in a better situation.”
Before I get into the most important missing context for this, note three things with regard to the second response. First, Owens never said anything about McNabb in his response, good or bad. Others interpreted this as a slight to McNabb because with McNabb as the quarterback, they were not undefeated, and Owens said that he thought they’d be in a better situation with Favre.
Second: Remember, McNabb was injured at the time. He was playing with a sports hernia injury that required surgery. While we’re reading between the lines, why not read into that instead? After all, wouldn’t it be insulting to Brett Favre to suggest that he’s not even as good as an injured Donovan McNabb? But they don’t want to read into it that way because that’s not what sells. And Favre was a first ballot Hall of Famer, after all. How insulting is it to say 3-time MVP Favre would be better than an injured version of you, really?
Lastly, this was not Owens’s idea. As mentioned earlier, Owens is not the one who comes up with the controversial ideas. He’s the one who thinks they’re “good assessments” when he’s asked about them, or alludes to them when someone else came up with them and he thinks they are applicable to a given question, or responds to an interviewer’s controversial idea by trying to be politically correct and then has his words twisted to make it look like he was the originator of the idea.
This was Michael Irvin’s idea, as he expressed it on ESPN.
If Michael Irvin had never said this, Owens would have had no assessment to think was a good one. And he certainly wasn’t going to just offer up the idea of Brett Favre having the Eagles in a better situation on his own. A member of the media came up with this controversial idea, and this controversial idea was deliberately fed to a player they use to create controversy.
But here’s the more important thing that people overlooked: The very question before, Owens was asked about the reason for the Eagles’ struggles, and Owens said that injuries, particularly McNabb’s injury, was the main reason. And he said that if McNabb had been healthy, their record would probably be a little bit better.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UrdlnJTkryI (at about 8:00 is the question in which he mentioned McNabb’s injury and having a better record).
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KRfNrPYjXSw (the very next question after he finishes talking about how the offense is predicated on the way McNabb plays is him replying to to the question regarding Irvin’s comment).
So in reality, Owens had no intention of taking a shot at McNabb in his reply. He said the team would be in a better situation if McNabb was healthy, and he said the team would be in a better situation if Favre was the quarterback. And he said this in a clearly innocent tone when you actually watch the video. There’s not even a hint of malice.
But ESPN wasn’t interested in showing the full interview. They were interested in isolating the questions they could make into juicy bits and having their talking heads react to them.
And of course, McNabb watched ESPN, heard the response out of context and the reaction from the “analysts,” and was upset about it.
The second stage of Owens’s Philadelphia playing career coming to an end was the Eagles’ reaction to the interview. At this point, the Eagles were tired of Owens offending people in the organization and the media frenzy that followed him around. They made him a deal: Apologize to the organization publicly, work things out with McNabb privately, and apologize to the team for the way his response in the Bensinger interview was misconstrued, and he could stay on the team.
From Bloch’s grievance ruling document:
But, Reid proposed a way out. First, the Coach said Owens would need to apologize to the organization publicly. Second, he told Owens to “get with the quarterback and work this thing out. Work it out.” Later, testifies the Coach, he learned of more players being upset. He reviewed the transcript, found supportive comments that Owens had made and spoke to him again. He told Owens:
• Hey, man, there were some good things in there. But these things right here are wrong. And this team right now, that locker room isn’t right. It’s just not right. It’s just not right. There’s too much questioning going on. And a lot of it right now is they are questioning you. And let’s just get it straight, or I have to suspend you.
It was at that point, testifies the Coach that he added a third requirement:
• I said you need to stand in front of that team and let them know what you meant, and get this thing settled. I even gave him examples because that’s not an easy thing for him to do. But I thought it was important. I just thought at that time the team needed to hear — again, this is a veteran Player they look up to as a football Player and just say, hey, listen — one of the examples I gave him — this thing didn’t come out right. It didn’t come out the way I wanted it to. I even told him it does not need to be a tear-jerker team. I don’t need that. I just need it set straight. It didn’t come out the way I wanted it to, and it won’t happen again. I’m staying away from the TV’s and all the radio and so on. I’m staying away from it all. It’s not going to happen again.
Owens adhered to the first part of the agreement, but refused to apologize to McNabb or stand up in front of the team. And the reason he refused to apologize about the McNabb part was the fact that he was upset with him behind the scenes for the way McNabb had treated him late in the 2004 season. The two of them weren’t talking and Owens wasn’t about to be the one to apologize after knowing he had never even said anything bad about McNabb in public.
And since Owens had not adhered to all of the Eagles’ terms, they suspended him indefinitely and deactivated him, ending his playing days with the team.
I think it’s clear the Eagles wanted him on the team. Badly. Despite all the public pressure to release him, “incident “and “incident,” they were willing to allow him to not miss a single game for disciplinary reasons if he’d just adhered to their apology stipulations. It was only when he refused that they decided his insubordination had gone too far. And this from a team with a nucleus that had made three consecutive NFC Championship games before he got there. They knew they had been a playoff team without him but they bent over backwards to try to keep him. They thought he was that much of an asset to the team, and part of that was that they knew that in reality, behind the scenes, he was almost always a pleasure to work with (the exception, of course, being when he was upset over his contract and came to camp unhappy). But they couldn’t tolerate the recurring negative media influence, the outside-in effect, that resulted from Owens’s reputation, without Owens doing everything in his power to quell it.
As with everything else, all of this is tied tothe star celebrations in 2000. The “villain” legend had grown since then, with the media’s manufactured controversies being added to the star celebrations as though they were actually legitimate, and not fabricated and contrived as the result of him being the star celebration guy. Among these contrived controversies was the media-initiated conflict with Jeff Garcia in 2003, giving the media a “how is Owens getting along with his quarterback?” narrative to run with for the rest of his career.
The villain arrived in Philadelphia after a free agency debacle and the media eventually managed to contrive conflict with McNabb, as they had set out to do from the very beginning to the high-profile tandem, by taking a joke Owens made about their overreaction to revelations from other teammates about McNabb in the Super Bowl and portraying it as an insult.
When Owens attempted to rectify the bizarre free agency gaffe by a low-rent agent he had outgrown, the Eagles’ organization was caught in a position they had never been in before and chose not to engage in altering an agreement that would otherwise not have been made. The media continued to put stress on everyone involved with an utterly absurd overreaction to the minor incident of a player and a coach getting into an argument, as well as plenty of other national coverage centering around Owens vs. the Eagles, and they sent a baby-faced young reporter to interview Owens in the middle of the season and ask him some controversial questions they could use to stir up more controversy no matter what answer he gave.
None of this happens if it’s Eric Moulds. Not because Owens has a different personality and is every negative adjective under the sun, but because Owens posed on the star after scoring touchdowns and Moulds did not.
The media did not care what Moulds thought about his coach’s conservative play calling, or if he thought his former quarterback might be gay, or what he thinks of an analyst’s pointless comment regarding another quarterback having his team in a better situation. And if they did, they did not care to twist his words to serve their agenda in vilifying him, because he was not a villainous name. They barely even cared enough to interview him at all. They’d chat with him by his locker during the week and they might have gotten some quotes from him after the game. “It is what it is.” “We gotta play better early on.” “They’re a good football team.”
Owens makes all those same responses to the same questions, but then every now and then he’s asked something designed to trap him, tries his best to be polite and politically correct with his response, and because he’s the guy who posed on the star, the media reads whatever they want into his response. Whatever will cause the most controversy and garner the most attention will be the interpretation.
Part 8: 2006
When Owens signed with Dallas, the legend had grown so huge that it was a parody of itself. Merely sitting out practices with a hamstring injury was cause for laughable media stories. “Is he faking it?” “According to our inside sources, Owens is faking the injury and plotting with Russia to undermine Bill Parcells and destroy the Cowboys’ locker room from the inside out.” In all seriousness, the media literally portrayed Owens as though he intentionally tries to “destroy” locker rooms, like that’s his mission in life. Like that’s what he’s in the NFL to do. “He’s testing Parcells’ to see if he can get away with it.” There was even speculation that the Cowboys were going to cut him before he ever played a down for them because he was so obviously faking the hamstring injury and trying to destroy the team.
At one point when enough cameras to wrap around the earth 4 times were on him at all times during the day, he “tried to draw attention to himself” by dressing up in Lance Armstrong gear as he rode his stationary bike for rehabbing his hamstring. That’s how it was portrayed – he did it for attention, not to have some fun with the absurdity of the attention he was receiving for absolutely nothing.
And then Owens finally suited up for the actual games of the most eventful season he had in his entire career.
Owens broke his finger against the Redskins in a week 2 victory and was busy rehabbing it to return against the Titans after the bye week. Bill Parcells noted in a press conference that the pain killers Owens had received had made him sick, so he was given a milder pain medication. Remember this – because a few days later, Owens was taken to a hospital after having a bad reaction to the first medication he had been given.
Or, according to ESPN some time after midnight, he had been rushed to the hospital for a suicide attempt.
How did they know this? Well, they have their spies, after all. It’s Terrell Owens.
And their spies had gotten hold of the initial police report stating it was a suicide attempt. In a barely conscious state, Owens had said, “mmmdfndndndndndnd…yesssssss” when asked if he was “trying to hurt himself.”
The next morning, the doctors and police decided to believe Owens for some reason when he told them that it was not a suicide attempt, and the police changed their ruling of the incident. But what do they know? Not as much as the media and fans.
Don’t you know, it’s every player who has an inconclusive police report leaked within minutes after it was written. Wait until the morning and not hear about it at 1 AM? No way.
Owens returned to the team and returned to doing front page worthy horrible things. He was late a couple times for practice. He fell asleep in the film room. He got into a shouting match with a combative assistant coach named Todd Haley during a practice after arriving late because he was having stomach problems (by the way, the Cowboys disciplined Haley for the incident, not Owens). He was penalized 15 yards for excessive celebration. He yelled on the sidelines during the Eagles game. He said he didn’t remember Parcells’s post-game speech after one game.
He also supposedly spat in DeAngelo Hall’s face, despite not a single camera capturing this. Owens’s explanation that Hall was being a drama queen in trying to make accidental flying drops of saliva when they were in each other’s face talking smack out to be an intentional spitting incident? “He’s lying!”
Oh yeah, and at one point they accused him of throwing Drew Bledsoe under the bus. A reporter asked him during the post-game press conference following the loss to the Eagles, “who’s the guy pulling the trigger on that?” (relating to Owens not getting the ball). Owens replied by stating that he wasn’t going to sit up there and throw someone under the bus so they could create a story, and finished by throwing the reporter’s question back at him. “You watched the game. You tell me, who’s pulling the trigger?”
The next day, the headlines read, “Owens: Who’s Pulling the Trigger?” The interpretation? Owens was implying that Bledsoe was to blame for his lack of production. I guess because one thinks of quarterbacks “pulling the trigger” on passes. You know, the term, “gun slinger?” Very clever, don’t you think? A reporter comes up with the phrase, “pulling the trigger,” asks Owens who is doing it, and when Owens refuses to answer it and just repeats the reporter’s phrase to the reporter rhetorically, the media plays dumb and pretends Owens came up with the phrase himself as an actual statement in some mysterious, unknown context.
According to the media, it was complete chaos. There was no way the Cowboys would pick up Owens’s option for a second season. NO. WAY.
Part 9: 2007
And then the Cowboys picked up Owens’s option for a second season. And the narrative was revised to, “Owens was well-behaved his first season, but he’s always well-behaved his first year. It’s his second year where he always blows up.”
And then that didn’t happen. 13-3, 1355 yards and 15 touchdowns later, the Cowboys would lose to the Giants in the divisional playoffs, Owens would cry when defending Romo in the post-game press conference, and the Cowboys would enter 2008 as an overhyped team with unrealistic expectations.
Part 10: 2008
When the overhyped 2008 Cowboys took the field, complete with such “stars” as Tank Johnson and Pacman Jones in reserve roles, the media hoped for one of two outcomes. Enormous success, such as a run at an undefeated season, or failure. Only those two outcomes would be marketable.
When the Cowboys started 3-0, they were hoping for the former. But then the Cowboys lost to the Redskins and they shifted to the latter.
In the post-game interview, despite the fact that Owens had caught 7 passes for 71 yards and a touchdown, and had been targeted 17 times, which was among the highest number of times he’d ever been targeted in his entire career, a reporter asked Owens if he was satisfied with the number of passes thrown his way.
“I’m a competitor, so I’m gonna have to say no. I want the ball.”
The media’s reaction to this response? Accusing Owens of “complaining” about not getting the ball enough.
Once again, Owens would never in a million years have thought to “complain” about not getting the ball enough in this game. Had he never been specifically asked about getting the ball, he never would have said anything about it. He was trying to answer the trap question the “right” way, because had he said, “yes,” he would have been seen as selfish. After all, he caught 7 passes and was targeted 17 times in a loss. The reaction to Owens answering the opposite would be to accuse him of being selfish. “He’s just happy he got his precious numbers, he doesn’t even care that his team lost the game.”
It’s only natural that the media turns its attention to Owens when looking to promote a story of failure in Dallas.
During a loss to the Cardinals that dropped their record to 4-2, Romo suffered a broken finger. He would miss the next 3 games as a result. Remember this, because it is beautifully incongruous with a story the media will later attempt to promote.
During those next 3 games, the Cowboys’ offense was a disaster, and they went 1-2 (thanks to key plays by the special teams and defense against the Bucs). A 40-year-old Brad Johnson started these 3 games at quarterback, and he was finally relieved by Brooks Bollinger in the 2nd half of the game against the Giants. Owens had 8 catches for 100 yards and 1 touchdown…in 3 games combined.
As this was going on, multiple reporters did their best to get Owens to slip up and say something critical of Johnson. Owens bit his tongue so hard he probably needed stitches after it was finished. At one point when Owens was doing his co-hosting gig on the local “Inside the Huddle” show, Michael Irvin was a guest. During a commercial break, Irvin thought the cameras were off and started talking to Owens about a conversation he’d had with Jerry Jones, stating that Jones was livid with Brad Johnson before Owens muttered to him that they were still being recorded.
After the bye week, Romo returned with a splint on the injured finger. The Cowboys won a tough road game against the Redskins, 14-10, and at the end of the game, Owens can be seen flapping his arms in celebration, despite not having a great game statistically.
At some point later that week, an interview on NFL Network with Deion Sanders aired where Owens addressed general questions about the way the season had gone overall (a then-disappointing 6-4 record) and his frustration with not getting the ball as much as he wanted throughout the season. Rather than blaming Brad Johnson for it, he simply said, “I can only do one thing. I can’t throw it and catch it.” Owens has repeatedly been accused of taking shots whenever he makes this statement by people putting meaning behind these words that he does not intend. When Owens has to explain not getting the ball, the only answer he can logically give is that it’s not being thrown to him, for whatever the reason may be. And that’s all he’s saying, without specifying. But because he’s the villain from the star celebrations, he is pigeonholed into this scenario where everything is about “blame,” and it’s his job to tell you whose “fault” it is, and anything short of finding a way to put the blame on himself is “throwing someone else under the bus.”
In the same interview, Owens also explains that his numbers are not the result of him being “washed up,” as many were insisting (including Dallas writer Jean-Jacques Taylor), but the “system that I’m in.” Naturally, for the few who saw this interview (since it aired on NFL Network, it wasn’t a major story and ESPN didn’t really report it…surprise, surprise), they accused him of “blaming” Jason Garrett, since the “system” relates to the offensive coordinator.
But there was no blame being given in the context of what Owens was discussing. He was discussing his statistics, not the success or failure of the offensive unit. And just as you tend to find that receivers in pass-heavy systems post bigger numbers than receivers in run-heavy systems, all he was doing was alluding to the fact that regardless of a team or unit’s success, a player’s statistics are contingent upon the play calling.
What has also been lost to the passage of time is the fact that not too long after that, Romo also made remarks about the “system,” but he talked about how it is responsible for an offense’s success or failure, and went into more specific detail than Owens did. Garrett’s response was to call Romo into his office, which he informed the media he had done while saying that they had straightened things out.
After the victory over the Redskins, the Cowboys played the 49ers and Seahawks and Owens had big games in each. 7 catches for 213 yards and a touchdown against the 49ers, 6 for 98 yards and a touchdown against the Seahawks. The Cowboys offense looked excellent and they won both games. So much for washed up. Owens had to have been mighty thankful for Tony Romo, right? And that it’s not still Brad Johnson in there?
And then the Cowboys traveled to Pittsburgh to play a tough game against the Steelers. They lost a close one, and after the Cowboys’ last chance on offense to come from behind and win came to an end, Owens was captured on camera shouting at father figure receivers coach Ray Sherman. The fact that he and Sherman were close and Owens was obviously venting to him about something unrelated to him that was bothering him was not something they wanted to mention because it didn’t serve their agenda.
And then later that week, all hell broke loose. What did Owens say?
Ed Werder, whom Owens had been refusing to talk to for many weeks, cited an anonymous source (written as “a source who speaks regularly with Owens’s teammates”) and claimed that Owens was jealous of Romo’s relationship with Jason Witten and thought the two were drawing up plays in “secret meetings.”
A source who speaks regularly with Owens’s teammates? Not a player, not a coach, not a front office executive. Werder would have identified this person as such, or at least “a source from within the organization,” as opposed to writing in such a way as to technically leave open the possibility that Werder was actually citing himself. You see, Werder himself speaks regularly with Owens’s teammates. The conversations are mostly one-sided when he does, but he’s a reporter who asks them questions during media days.
Later in the article, a Cowboys player under the condition of anonymity basically reveals that he’s not an Owens fan. This is OK, because throwing Terrell Owens under the bus means Owens is the bad guy and the player didn’t do anything wrong. If Owens says something bad about somebody else, then Owens is the bad guy and just threw someone under the bus. What a horrible teammate!
Cowboys players came publicly rushing to Owens’s aid, calling whoever the source was a “coward,” but it was no use. Owens denied saying this supposed private opinion the way Werder reported it and just admitted he’d had a private meeting with the offensive coordinator to discuss getting other receivers besides Witten more involved, but it was no use.
Later, reports changed from claiming Owens used his mind control abilities to manipulate Roy Williams and Patrick Crayton to joining him and ramming down Garrett’s door and demanding the football…to Garrett calling separate, individual meetings with all the receivers, and with Romo.
As all these stories were getting altered, the media made this out to be Owens vs. Romo. The same Romo who had saved Owens from an embarrassingly bad year with Brad Johnson. The same Romo he had had a great game with just 2 weeks earlier. All because of one tough loss on the road in cold weather. Suddenly, because of one game, Owens and Romo have “conflict bubbling,” despite Werder acknowledging in his article, “there has so far been no known confrontation between Romo and Owens.”
After not being able to eat for a month from biting his tongue so much with Brad Johnson starting 3 games, he lost it with the quarterback he’d recently caught 12 passes for 311 yards and 2 touchdowns with in 2 victorious games. Not to mention having had an 81 catch for 1355 yard, 15 touchdown season the year before catching passes from him, en route to a 1st team all-pro selection. With all these facts, after one game of Romo throwing to Witten in the wrong situation in the clutch, the media says Owens and Romo are done.
And with this amount of distraction, there was no way the Cowboys could win, right?
But then they did. They beat the Giants and kept their playoff hopes alive.
And then they lost their final two games. Apparently, the distraction only hurt them when things had a chance to settle down, and it caused the Cowboys’ defense to give up back-to-back breakaway touchdown runs in the 4th quarter against the Ravens when they had a chance to get a stop and give the offense a chance to drive down the field and win the game.
The Cowboys finished the season 9-7 and missed the playoffs. This was enough to give the media the “failure” angle.
And after a disappointing season, what was Jerry Jones to do? Well, he was to look at the fact that during a crucial part of the season, the media’s infatuation with Owens led to a bogus inflammatory piece by Ed Werder that left Owens’s teammates trying to figure out who the “rat” for the article was.
He was to look at the fact that Owens’s numbers declined to 69 catches for 1052 yards receiving, along with 10 touchdowns, even though there were extenuating circumstances.
He had to look at the fact that Owens was 35 years old.
And he had to look at the fact that during the 2008 season, he gave up a 1st and 3rd round pick for Roy Williams and signed him to a contract you’d expect for a #1 receiver.
After a month or so of deliberation, he called up Owens and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, and let him know he was cut in a flamboyant Jerry Jones way – drawing it on a table cloth.
I won’t discuss Cincinnati and Buffalo, as those were basically a media afterthought. Why? Smaller market teams. One year contract situations. Losing teams with no realistic chance at making the playoffs after several weeks.
And that’s pretty much the end. Be sure to check out (https://owensdefense.wordpress.com/2015/08/18/what-a-horrible-teammate111/) to see what Owens’s former teammates actually say about him.
Article by Susan Holtzer, 2001: http://www.ecphorizer.com/EPS/site_page.php?page=61&issue=9