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Dropping Only the Act

By Mike Wise
Thursday, September 25, 2008

Given Terrell Owens's past relationships with quarterbacks, could Donovan McNabb or Jeff Garcia have imagined hearing Tony Romo speak so fondly of his favorite wide receiver?

"You get double-covered, I'm going to throw it to the guy who's got man coverage -- he understands that," Romo said of Owens yesterday afternoon. "But he also understands part of the reason the other guy is singled up and we can win is because he's getting doubled.

"He's to that point where he knows it's about winning. All he's trying to do is help this team win. He's done everything else; it's just about winning now."

It took T.O. almost all of his 34 years, but one of American sports' greatest malcontents finally gets it. His desperate need for acceptance and attention -- his "disease of me" -- finally succumbed to his talent, production and veteran judgment.

After passing Cris Carter two Mondays ago and moving up to No. 2 on the all-time touchdown receptions list behind his boyhood idol and former teammate Jerry Rice, all that's left is the ring -- a Super Bowl victory to erase any doubt of a quick enshrinement in Canton.

What a surreal makeover. T.O. isn't stalking McNabb up and down the Eagles' sideline, in between calling his quarterback in Philly a company man. He's not crudely insinuating Garcia, his quarterback in San Francisco, is gay. He's not using news conferences to assure us he wasn't trying to commit suicide while ingesting too many pain pills. Now it's about the numbers.

One-hundred thirty-two touchdowns. Thirteen thousand two hundred sixty-three yards worth of receiving. T.O. is the only NFL player to catch 20 passes in a game. A year ago, he abused Washington's secondary, needing just eight receptions to score four touchdowns, a feat that made Jason Campbell play catch-up in a shootout loss.

Anyone questioning his credentials as one of the all-time greats should look at game film from Super Bowl XXXIX, when T.O. incredibly caught nine passes for 122 yards with two metal screws and a plate drilled into his leg. Owens had fractured his fibula and severely sprained his ankle less than two months earlier and needed the procedure to stabilize the joint.

And yet, "Terrell Owens, First-Ballot Hall of Famer" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue -- especially when Michael Irvin's off-field transgressions were responsible for the Cowboys' all-time leading wide receiver waiting three years to be enshrined.

"Because of his run-ins, he's going to have to wait longer than he should," said Fred Smoot, Washington's veteran cornerback. "Being suspended, kicked out of Philly, calling out some of his teammates, he's just not going to be a guaranteed first-ballot guy like a Darrell Green. But if they do what's right, they're going to let him in."

T.O. is at the top or near a class of great modern-day wideouts that includes Randy Moss, Steve Smith, Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Chad Ocho Cinco. Until Ocho Cinco came along, Owens and Moss, another former ingrate, always seemed to be competing for the NFL's top diva. Once they joined a Super Bowl contender and champion, respectively, they got in line behind teammates they genuinely respected.

If there is a lesson in their tale of career redemption, it has to be that surrounding a tremendous athlete with other great players is an easy way to relieve pressure.

T.O. used to have to be the guy everywhere he played. Rice was growing old by the time he came aboard with the 49ers, and Brian Westbrook was still coming of age in Philadelphia.

Today, Marion Barber, Jason Witten, Romo and that strong cast of young wide receivers make it easy for a veteran to perform and not pout. He's not the Cowboys' only hope, but he's still their best player.

The sea change in perception about his legacy probably says more about us than him, which Romo yesterday hit on the head.

"I think a lot of times in society we judge people by what we may see or hear and whether we like somebody," he said. "If we like somebody and they're not very good, well, we'll still give them a little bit of leeway. If we don't like somebody, they better be darn good because we're waiting for anything to nitpick and take them off their pedestal."

During his low point with the Eagles in 2005, a Post columnist called him an "egocentric, all-about-me, Donovan McNabb-dissing, ESPN-hissy-fitting, no-concept-of-the-real-world clown of a professional athlete." (I apparently liked using dashes and adjectives then.)

It's hard to do a complete mea culpa, because T.O. was downright detrimental to his franchise and his co-workers. But that sorry act did get him to Dallas, where he realized the importance of being a part of something bigger than himself.

And for that he should be saluted, for nothing in this business is as gratifying as seeing a onetime knucklehead understand his place and purpose before it's too late.

McNabb sounded wistful last month, saying if Owens had the same attitude with the Eagles as he does now, the duo could have been similar to Peyton Manning and Harrison.

He's right. But someone had to make an undrafted free agent quarterback and the most profitable franchise in sports matter again. Bottom line, Romo and the Cowboys would be nowhere without the professional rebirth of Terrell Owens.

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