This was after the 2nd game of the 2001 season, which was Bayless’s first as a Bay Area writer.
SAN FRANCISCO _ Finally the upset was within his grasp. He’s by far the most physically blessed 49er and could have challenged Marshall Faulk as the best on the 3Com Park sod Sunday. So what if he had dropped three passes? Now he would take over.
Now his teammates looked to Terrell Owens to make a play and a statement. Here came the third-and-seven pass, a little low but extremely catchable. The Rams led 22-16, but not for long.
Owens would snatch this nose-down Jeff Garcia pass. He would do for Garcia what Jerry Rice often did for an early-1990s Steve Young. He would make Garcia’s passing stats look much better than they deserved. Rice is gone and Owens was about to be, maybe for six points. Now, says No. 81, he is The Man.
His 49ers were about to become the talk of the NFC because so many players had done so much growing up. Second-year cornerbacks Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster had grown like weeds against the NFL’s fastest, scariest receivers. Running backs Kevan Barlow and Terry Jackson had made coming-of-age plays. On the run, Garcia had resembled Young at his most elusive.
Only one 49er failed to mature Sunday: Terrell Eldorado Owens.
He butter-fingered that pass and a postgame opportunity to face his failure like the man he wants to be. Barry Bonds almost always spends more time answering media questions after bad games. For the 35 minutes I was in the locker room, Owens sat sideways in front of his locker, chin on chest, ignoring teammates and reporters, staring at nothing. He refused to be interviewed.
T.O. looked something like a child forced to take a timeout.
Worse, Garcia suggested Owens wasn’t punishing himself over the four drops that contributed directly and intangibly to the 30-26 loss. No, Owens was pouting because Garcia hadn’t thrown more in his direction.
As Garcia gently put it: “He puts so much pressure on himself to be the go-to guy. He feels a bit of helplessness. He feels the opportunities didn’t come his way.”
This is inexcusable.
Owens can be so much better than this _ in the clutch and in the post-loss glare. He obviously can’t match Rice in nobility and savvy. Nobody can. Owens can’t be the deep terror Randy Moss is. But Owens can be the NFL’s most intimidating all-around receiver and this team’s leader.
If he ever grows up.
Understand, this is coming from an Owens fan. I loved the statement he made last September at Texas Stadium, running to the midfield star after his first touchdown catch and striking a pose that said, “What Cowboys’ mystique?” But Owens ruined the effect by immaturely trying it again.
He continues to say he’s hurt that management didn’t support him after that 41-24 victory. He has a point. He was fined by a coach, Steve Mariucci, whose values are rooted in Lombardi-era sportsmanship. Cultures clash.
But he cannot let his lingering bitterness distract him. For that matter, he cannot use Sunday’s emotional pregame tribute as an excuse. A tear ran down Owens‘ face as he helped hold up a giant American flag. But then it was time to gather himself like the great player he can be and lock in on football. Rice certainly would have.
But the Rams weren’t the Chicago Bears and this wasn’t Jerry Rice Day. Last December the Monsters of the Wrong Way vowed not to let Rice embarrass them. They double-covered him and allowed a virtually uncovered Owens to catch an NFL-record 20 passes. The Rams vowed not to let Owens embarrass them. Aeneas Williams, one of the league’s stronger and smarter cornerbacks, often was able to overplay Owens because he had safety backup.
The Man quickly grew frustrated.
Garcia appeared a little too jumpy and out of sync, and at least one pass to Owens became even more difficult to handle because it was tipped. But Pro Bowl receivers and team leaders set the tone by catching them anyway. Instead of feeding off Owens, J.J. Stokes dropped two and rookie Eric Johnson dropped another and failed to hang onto Garcia’s best throw, in the end zone.
After Owens dropped that third-and-seven pass, you could almost see his teammates deflate. Az-Zahir Hakim returned the punt 32 yards and Isaac Bruce caught a pass and cruised by four or five defenders 39 yards for a touchdown. Rams, 30-16.
After Garcia passed up Owens on one last game-turning third down _ “I just didn’t have a lane,” Garcia said _ the 49ers settled for a field goal and a moral victory. Faulk took over the way Owens should have.