Monday, June 29, 2009

How Good Are The Cowboys Without TO?


It has been both a strange and predictable Dallas Cowboys offseason, predictable in that the mass of talks around the greater-Dallas area from hopeless football addicts like myself have surrounded Terrell Owens; utterly strange because (a) the Dallas Cowboys have gone through OTAs and minicamp in relative silence and (b) Terrell Owens is no longer a Dallas Cowboy.

Most of the T.O. talk is silly he-said-she-said speculation and scrutiny over whether the departed receiver likes Tony Romo and Jerry Jones. This is worthless drivel that would be better suited for MTV’s The Hills rather than SportsCenter, but alas, here it is, on my television each night at 6 and 10.

There is still one relevant question in Dallas that obliges the writer to utter the name of the receiver though: How will Dallas fare without the attention-grubbing difference maker lining up in the offense?

This, unlike whether or not T.O. vaguely dislikes his former teammates -- teammates that he won’t be lining up against in 2009 -- is a valid question.

Some say Dallas will be better off without him, because he is an ineluctable distraction. Some say Dallas’s offense will be stricken in his absence, left without a proven number one in the receiving corps. Some (ahem, Jerry Jones, ahem) don’t say anything at all, letting their actions speak for them.

Owens himself laughs at the idea that Dallas will be better off without him, his remarks evoking images of angry girl-rockers in the early-90s (see: Alanis Morrisette’s “You Oughta Know”).

"Three teams have said that," Owens said. "You can see what I did with the teams, and you can see what the teams have done without me."

Owens has a point. On the surface this is a terrible case of specious, reductive reasoning. Yes, the previous teams that jilted Owens suffered a significant drop-off immediately after, a sort of T.O. hangover.

The 49ers went 7-9 the year T.O. bid them adieu; the Eagles were 6-10 the year during which he was sent packing.

But as Tim MacMahon (of DMN Cowboys blog fame) points out, Terrell Owens departure was only one ingredient in the bad-season-stew that was fed to these teams the years directly following his exit.

The 49ers lost Owens the same year they lost Jeff Garcia, leaving Tim Rattay as the starter. Donovan McNabb was shelved for the year after only two Owens-less games in 2005.

Owens is quick to point out the ‘Niners 7-9 record in 2004, after he left the team. But then, why did they go 7-9 in 2003, with Terrell Owens in the lineup? They probably didn’t get him the ball enough.

Ah, but what of the 2005 Philadelphia Eagles, fresh off a trip to the Super Bowl?

Owens was with the team through Week 4, as the team posted a 3-1 record. When he left, Philadelphia seemed to sink with the rapidity of the Titanic, but how much those two are really connected, it’s hard to say.

The Philadelphia Eagles were fundamentally flawed that season in ways (some controllable, some not) that go far beyond one player.

The team failed to replace defensive linemen Corey Simon and Derrick Burgess, both of whom played key roles in the Eagles’ Super Bowl run in 2004. Contract disputes with Owens, and Brian Westbrook plagued the opening of the year, and the team suffered a litany of injuries so widespread and devastating that a 6-10 record doesn’t seem all that bad. Westbrook, McNabb, Tra Thomas, Jerome McDougal, Todd Pinkston, Hank Fraley, Lito Sheppard, Correll Buckhalter… the list of Eagles who struggled with injury borders on unbelievable.

But what’s vaguely funny about Owens’ remarks is that they seem to miss a crucial point, within the context of professional sports: He has never won a Super Bowl. Let me rephrase: no team that has ever had Owens on the roster has won a Super Bowl.

In the NFL and certainly in Dallas, you don’t play for a regular season record, or high volumes of Pro Bowlers or reality television opportunities. You play to win the Super Bowl. This seems abundantly clear to everyone but Owens.

So will the Cowboys be better or worse without No. 81?

There’s no way to tell, at this point. But a shift in offensive philosophy, the liberation of Tony Romo and, to a degree Wade Phillips, will certainly help. Whether or not this will manifest itself in the team’s record, or playoff wins, we’ll find out in a few months.

To be sure, those rash TO supporters who predict doom and gloom for Dallas in 2009 seem to forget that Dallas wasn’t all that awesome in 2008. Surprising, considering that they had the best player in the history of the NFL lining up at receiver.

So perhaps we can shelf the question of the ultimate effect of an Owens-less Cowboys team for a while.

Instead, perhaps, we should look back and ask ourselves, just how good were the Cowboys with Terrell Owens?