by Don Banks
The great debate in Dallas in these earliest days of the NFL offseason surrounds Terrell Owens' fate, and to some degree, I'm learning that reality depends on who you talk to.
One side holds that owner Jerry Jones now knows what he must do, and for the good of the team's badly damaged locker-room chemistry, he will bite the bullet and acknowledge T.O. and his high-maintenance ways are the epicenter of the problem, making him an ex-Cowboy before a $3.1 million roster bonus is due in early June.
Call it the less-is-more approach to fixing what obviously ails the outfit formerly known as America's Team.
"You can't discredit the guy's numbers,'' one Cowboys source told me this week. "He makes plays. But the game is about much more than just numbers, and the game is much more than just one person. The headaches you have to put up with catering to someone aren't worth it.''
The other viewpoint is little more shaded in gray. It contends that Owens has become nothing more than the handiest, catch-all scapegoat for the Cowboys' chemistry troubles, with his long track record of issues now being fully projected onto his present in order to make the case his release would be just the cathartic purging needed in Dallas.
But to focus solely on T.O., the supposed locker-room cancer, is to completely overlook the other issues that doomed the Cowboys' 2008 season to mediocrity. Like the legitimate questions surrounding the starting quarterback's displays of leadership, maturity and, at times, competitive fire. Like the head coach's glaring struggle to establish the right disciplinary tone with his team. Like the offensive coordinator's lack of adaptability and development in the face of challenges last season, and the defense's inability to mesh its considerable talents into anything more than just 11 individuals fighting for 11 Pro Bowl berths.
"T.O.'s getting blamed for everything that happened here this season,'' another Cowboys source said. "But he's not the problem. They want to talk about how Terrell is so disruptive in the locker room, and that's a lie. The guy didn't do anything this year to warrant the type of stuff you're hearing now. There's a faction that wants to get him out of here, and if they want to let the guy go, they should let him go.
"But if you want to be quick to run him out of here, who are you going to get in here to replace him with? Even with our No. 1 quarterback missing three games, he scored 10 touchdowns and had 1,000 yards receiving. So who's your No. 1 receiver if he's gone? You let him go, and say you're 9-7 again next year. Then who are you going to blame? Who are you going to blame then?''
Roy Williams' presence as a potential No. 1 receiver in Dallas aside, I happen to believe there's more than a little truth to the idea the Cowboys' problems are multi-faceted. To put the blame for '08 squarely on Owens' shoulders and leave it there is probably the kind of over-simplification that we are guilty of far too often in cases such as this.
But I also think Owens, ever oversensitive and insecure as he is, contributed his share to the dysfunction in Dallas late last season. When he needed to button his mouth and play, he couldn't manage it. Then he felt the need to defend himself publicly to criticism, which, fairly or unfairly, only serves as a reminder of his track record on the distraction front. The bottom line is that the T.O. experiment deep in the heart of Texas is three years old now, and it hasn't paid off with even so much as a playoff victory, let alone a Super Bowl ring. If it hasn't worked yet, what's the likelihood of reaping results from pouring a fourth year into it?
If T.O.'s history in the NFL has taught us anything, it's that with him there is a law of diminishing returns. It was so in San Francisco. It was so in Philadelphia. And it appears headed that way in Dallas, as well. But I also think anyone linking Owens' self-destructive ways in his final days as both a 49er and an Eagle with last season in Dallas isn't making anything resembling a fair comparison. It may be time for T.O. to go once more, but the level of distraction he has created hasn't rendered it a no-brainer of a decision for the Cowboys. There are pluses and minuses to be weighed this time, as opposed to the last days in San Francisco and Philadelphia, when he just needed to disappear.
From all indications, the faction that has decided the Cowboys would be better off without Owens includes Stephen Jones, the owner's son and the team's COO and director of player personnel, and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. And that's a pretty strong lobby. I have no doubt quarterback Tony Romo and tight end Jason Witten, were they given votes, would also be among the crowd ready and willing to bid T.O. adios.
As for Wade Phillips, I believe he could live with either result, although one Cowboys source told me the head coach still supports Owens and hasn't joined the T.O.-must-go chorus at Valley Ranch. In the locker room, Owens seems to have widespread support among the younger players, but not as robust backing from some of the team's veterans, who seem weary of the melodrama that almost constantly surrounds him.
"Jerry's capable of putting up with him another year, but it's a case of what's said next?'' a Cowboys source said. "What's coming next? When you win, and he gets his numbers, things are fine [with Owens]. But if not .... with him, it's just dealing with headaches every day. I'd say it's all up to Jerry Jones, whether he's back or not. But it's tedious, having him there. It's tedious. And it takes a toll. He's right about some things, in that you want to get him the ball. But you can't be worried about it all the time. You can't throw it to him just to throw it to him. It took a toll on Tony [Romo], but he'll never admit it.''
The flashpoint for Owens last season, of course, was when the story of his internally expressed "jealousy'' of Witten's relationship with Romo came to light in early December. But a Cowboys source I talked to scoffs at the way the issue was framed in the media, saying it was just the now familiar NFL storyline of a star receiver lobbying for more passes his way when a team starts to lose.
"If you're not getting the ball and you're losing, and you're a No. 1 receiver in this league, you're frustrated and want to get more involved,'' the source said. "That's the reality of things these days. When we were 13-3 [in '07], and T.O. was our leading receiver, everything was great. Then we go 9-7 and don't make the playoffs, and Jason Witten is our leading receiver and T.O.'s the problem? He's the cancer? C'mon now.
"You've got a guy who's a future Hall of Famer. What does he have to be jealous of Witten about? He's not jealous of Witten. He wants the ball spread around to everyone. He didn't run to the media and criticize the offense late in the year like Romo did, when he said we got 'exposed' at Philadelphia. But that's being swept under the rug and nobody's making a big issue about that. T.O. and [two other receivers] went to Garrett and said what they had to say. Look at the whole picture. Don't try and blame just one guy.''
Jerry Jones, of course, has the only opinion that really matters on whether Owens stays or goes. My sense is things have reached a tipping point in regard to Owens in Dallas, and the odds are better than 50-50 Jones will say enough is enough and end T.O.'s Cowboys career. Maybe it's not a matter of if, but of when? Even one of the Cowboys sources I talked to this week said the more media speculation he hears about Owens being banished, the more he's starting to believe there's too much smoke not to be some fire.
"I think T.O. wants to be here, but if they don't want him, I'm sure he'll say, 'Let me go,' '' said one Cowboys source. "I know he's going to be playing well somewhere else next year, because he can still play. I wouldn't get rid of him. Because he's not the problem.''
But that's not the consensus viewpoint when it comes to Owens' time in Dallas. And more important, it appears it won't be the prevailing one.
"I just don't think a player can call out coaches and other players, and with [Owens] that's happened in San Francisco, and Philadelphia and it's happened here,'' said another Cowboys source. "He's a great player. But there's more to it than that.''
In Owens' well-chronicled NFL saga, isn't that always the most fitting summation?