If Owens Behaves, Cowboys Could Go Far

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 16, 2006; 12:39 PM

The Dallas Cowboys have made themselves the NFL's next great lab experiment involving Terrell Owens: Can a team function with the temperamental wide receiver in its locker room? And if so, for how long?

When the Philadelphia Eagles first suspended, then banished Owens last season, citing a long list of misbehavior related to his desire to tear up his contract and negotiate a new, more lucrative one, there was speculation that Owens might not find another team willing to sign him. Such talk was misguided, however. Owens is a superb player, a difference-maker on the field who helped the Eagles reach the Super Bowl in the first of his two seasons with them. It was only a matter of waiting for a team desperate to make a Super Bowl push, with most of the other parts in place, to emerge.

That is the profile of the Denver Broncos, who became an Owens suitor not long after suffering another disappointing playoff loss. And it is the profile of the Cowboys, who have gone two seasons without reaching the postseason after getting to the playoffs in Bill Parcells's first season as their coach.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones structured Owens's contract so that it can be a one-year, two-year or three-year deal, depending on how things work out. He also gave Owens enough money, one would think, to keep him content: Owens receives $10 million in the first year of the deal, and $25 million over three seasons if he stays around that long.

This is set up to work. Parcells is a coach who won't be bullied by Owens, and yet is willing to give some space to a difficult but productive player. There was a one-season honeymoon for Owens in Philadelphia, and there's no reason to think there won't be a peaceful period of at least that long in Dallas. Parcells doesn't need a long-term marriage. He signed a one-year contract extension, running through the 2007 season, with Jones following the now-annual late-season conjecture that he was contemplating retirement. He said recently that he intends to honor that deal, but left himself an opening: He will retire, he said, when he no longer has the energy to meet the demands of the job. Many people around the league remain convinced that Parcells will walk away after next season. With him, there's simply no way to know.

If Owens behaves himself, the Cowboys are a leading Super Bowl contender in the NFC. They have a productive tailback in Julius Jones, and quarterback Drew Bledsoe has plenty of reliable targets in the passing game -- Owens, wideout Terry Glenn and tight end Jason Witten. Parcells would like to use Anthony Fasano, a second-round draft pick out of Notre Dame, in a two-tight-end setup.

It's clear that Bledsoe still can be an effective quarterback when he gets competent blocking in front of him, but he falls apart with the slightest hint of pass-rush pressure. The key to the Cowboys' season will be the play of an offensive line that was a major trouble area last season. Parcells and Jones went into last season without an experienced player at right tackle, and their problems were exacerbated when left tackle Flozell Adams suffered a season-ending knee injury. With rookie Rob Petitti playing right tackle and the overmatched Torrin Tucker playing left tackle, the Cowboys simply could not block opposing defensive ends.

Adams is back, and the Cowboys signed veteran Jason Fabini after he was released by the New York Jets to compete with Petitti for the right tackle job. Parcells and Jones must cross their fingers that Adams stays healthy and either Petitti or Fabini comes through. Tucker no longer is a fall-back option, having been allowed to depart for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a restricted free agent. The Cowboys released distinguished veteran guard Larry Allen after signing Kyle Kosier in free agency, looking for a younger and cheaper alternative after Allen had clashed with Parcells in the past over his conditioning.

A year after getting linebacker Demarcus Ware and defensive end Marcus Spears in the first round of the draft, the Cowboys again used their first-round selection to bolster their defensive front seven, getting Ohio State linebacker Bobby Carpenter with the 18th overall choice. Carpenter's father, Rob, was a gritty fullback who played for Parcells with the New York Giants. Carpenter further strengthens a linebacker corps that already got a new starter when the Cowboys signed Akin Ayodele in free agency.

The one need on defense that the Cowboys might not have properly addressed was at safety, where they looked for a starter to put alongside Roy Williams. The club matched an offer sheet by the New Orleans Saints to restricted free agent Keith Davis, and added veteran Marcus Coleman via unrestricted free agency. But each is a marginal starter at best, and the three best safeties available in the draft -- Michael Huff, Donte Whitner and Jason Allen -- were gone by the time the Cowboys picked. They did use a fifth-round choice on Florida State safety Pat Watkins, but his biggest contributions early in his NFL career likely will be on special teams.

Kicker Mike Vanderjagt signed with the Cowboys as a free agent after losing his job in Indianapolis to the New England Patriots' two-time Super Bowl hero, Adam Vinatieri. Vanderjagt wasn't allowed to handle kickoffs in Indianapolis, and he wasn't known for his field-goal accuracy in the clutch. The Colts' season ended when he sent a would-be tying field goal ridiculously wide in the closing moments of an AFC semifinal against the Pittsburgh Steelers. But the Cowboys didn't have anyone in his class, and Parcells has talked about Vanderjagt's arrival as being a meaningful upgrade. Rookie Skyler Green, a fourth-round draft pick out of LSU, could become a dangerous kick returner, but first he must demonstrate to Parcells that he can contribute in other ways if he's going to make the club.

No team in the NFL will be more intriguing next season than the Cowboys. Owens has made himself into a spectacle, good or bad. Parcells's career is winding down, although anyone who claims to know for certain when he's exiting is probably lying. The season could be spectacular for the Cowboys, or it could be a spectacular failure.

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