The Philadelphia Eagles lapped the field in the NFC last season, so much so that they didn't even need wide receiver Terrell Owens to romp through the playoffs and finally reach a Super Bowl after losing three straight conference title games.
They have taken a couple steps backward this offseason, losing a handful of contributing players and suffering through the turbulence that not only seems to inevitably follow a Super Bowl season, but which also trails Owens wherever he goes. They still have the core of last season's team intact, though, and they remain the heavy favorite in the NFC East and one of the leading Super Bowl contenders in a still-less-than-imposing conference entering next season.
The Carolina Panthers last season became the fourth straight Super Bowl loser to follow up with a losing season, joining the 2001 New York Giants, the 2002 St. Louis Rams and the 2003 Oakland Raiders. Their NFC rivals can only hope that the Eagles' offseason of discontent has made them a candidate to join that list. Owens has made the biggest waves, changing agents -- from David Joseph to Drew Rosenhaus -- and seeking to have the Eagles rework the seven-year, nearly $49 million contract that he signed with the club last year.
The Eagles benefited from Owens's good side last season, when he was one of the league's most valuable players. He helped to make Donovan McNabb a better quarterback, and he and defensive end Jevon Kearse turned out to be exactly what they were supposed to be when the Eagles opened their checkbook and acquired them last offseason -- the final pieces to a Super Bowl puzzle. Owens did his best to fit in. The controversies that he generated were not locker-room distractions, and he returned from the severe ankle injury that he suffered late in the regular season -- against his surgeon's recommendation -- to play spectacularly well in the Eagles' Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots.
Now, however, the Eagles are suffering with the bad side of Owens, who wants to renegotiate his contract one year into a seven-year deal. The problem is, Owens is bending the facts in creating his argument for why his contract should be renegotiated. He and Rosenhaus have maintained publicly that Owens had no leverage in his dealings with the Eagles last year and he was forced to sign the contract that he signed because he and Joseph couldn't do better under the circumstances. In truth, Owens had plenty of leverage, and agreed to his contract with the Eagles against the advice of NFL Players Association officials.
Owens's move to the Eagles came as part of last year's settlement of a dispute over his free-agent status. Joseph and Owens missed a deadline to file the paperwork voiding the final season of Owens's contract with the San Francisco 49ers and the league ruled that he remained under contract to the 49ers, who traded him to the Baltimore Ravens. But the players' union brought a case before NFL special master Stephen B. Burbank, who appeared prepared to void the trade and declare Owens a free agent when the parties hurriedly agreed to the settlement that placed Owens with the team of his choosing, the Eagles. NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw said at the time that he agreed to the settlement only after being told by Owens that was what he wanted, and a source close to the proceedings said in recent weeks that Owens ignored the union's advice to reject the contract language in his deal with the Eagles.
The Eagles apparently have no intention of renegotiating Owens's contract, which is to pay him a salary of $3.25 million next season. So, ultimately, Owens could face a choice to play next season for $3.25 million, or sit home and earn nothing for not playing. It seems likely that he would choose to play for $3.25 million, given those alternatives. Rosenhaus is a tough negotiator who does everything within his power to get as much money for his clients as he possibly can. But he is not a renegade who seeks to overturn a system that has been very good to him and his clients. Owens could hold out into training camp -- he showed in the Super Bowl, after all, that he doesn't exactly need much preparation to be a standout player -- but it seems likely that he will be in the Eagles' lineup when the season begins.
Much will be made about whether he has undermined the Eagles' team unity. But there is a saying in NFL locker rooms that there's a time for pay and a time for play. Players generally know how to separate one from the other, and the maneuverings of contract negotiations usually are forgotten by the time games start. That probably will be the case here. Coach Andy Reid and the Eagles' other decision-makers knew what they were getting when they obtained Owens (or at least they should have known), no matter what promises he made to them before he arrived. This is simply part of the deal. The Eagles should live with it, and wait for Owens to show up.
The Eagles also have had lesser contract disputes with tailback Brian Westbrook and defensive tackle Corey Simon. But Westbrook reported to the Eagles' voluntary passing camp today and signed a one-year contract with the club apparently worth $1.43 million, the tender offer that the team made to him in restricted free agency earlier in the offseason. Simon was given the Eagles' franchise-player tag in February. The Eagles explored the possibility of trading Simon to the Ravens but a deal never materialized. Like Westbrook, he has little choice but to sign the contract tender offer on the table -- in his case, $5.134 million -- and show up and play next season, then hope to be an unrestricted free agent next spring. The Eagles can only use the franchise-player tag on one player, after all.
The Eagles used a third-round pick in the NFL draft in late April on Louisiana Tech running back Ryan Moats, and reportedly have explored the possibility of trading for Buffalo Bills tailback Travis Henry. The club re-signed free-agent tailback Correll Buckhalter, who suffered a season-ending knee injury during the preseason last year. So Westbrook will have help, but he remains a key to the Philadelphia offense.
The team drafted well, getting USC defensive tackle Mike Patterson in the first round and Georgia wide receiver Reggie Brown in the second round. Brown could be an immediate contributor, joining Owens, Todd Pinkston and Greg Lewis in the receiving mix. Reid released wideout Freddie Mitchell after he talked his way out of a job during the Super Bowl buildup. L.J. Smith takes over at tight end for Chad Lewis, who remains unsigned as a free agent. The Eagles lost starting guard Jermane Mayberry, who signed with the New Orleans Saints, in free agency. But they get back Shawn Andrews, last year's first-round draft choice who was a tackle in college at Arkansas but began his rookie season as a starter at guard before suffering a season-ending broken leg in an opening win over the Giants.
Linebacker Ike Reese and defensive end Derrick Burgess exited as free agents, and the Eagles released linebacker Nate Wayne. But they re-signed Pro Bowl middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter after he flirted with signing with the Kansas City Chiefs as a free agent, and they re-signed Keith Adams, who became a starter at outside linebacker during the postseason. End N.D. Kalu returns from the knee injury that cost him last season. Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson signed a four-year contract extension that should enable him to end his coaching career in Philadelphia.
The Owens soap opera undoubtedly will continue into training camp and likely will be discussed well into the season. And then when that drama ends, there undoubtedly will be a new one involving Owens. There always is, isn't there? The Eagles have no right to complain about that. It's not like it's anything new with him. And while the Eagles probably aren't quite the team that they were last season, they're still plenty good. Other NFC clubs seemingly are catching up, but they had a long way to go.
Around the League
Free-agent linebacker Peter Boulware is scheduled to visit the Cleveland Browns today and Thursday. The Browns are regarded as the front-runner to sign him, in part because General Manager Phil Savage was in Baltimore's front office when the Ravens drafted Boulware. If Boulware doesn't reach a contract agreement with the Browns during his visit, he would visit Seattle next. . . .
The Seahawks could end up releasing troubled wide receiver Koren Robinson. The Tacoma News Tribune reported today that Robinson entered a not-guilty plea in Kirkland Municipal Court on Tuesday after being arrested on May 6 in Medina, Wash., and charged with reckless driving and driving under the influence.
Robinson served a four-game suspension last season for a violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy, and was benched by Coach Mike Holmgren on two separate occasions for violating team rules. Holmgren has defended the former first-round draft choice, and said this offseason that he reinstated Robinson for the Seahawks' playoff loss to the St. Louis Rams only after the wide receiver agreed to seek treatment for his personal problems.
Robinson reportedly spent time in an alcohol treatment program this offseason, and his mother and young son were scheduled to move to the Seattle area this month to live with him. He recently acknowledged publicly that he probably was down to his final chance with the Seahawks. The team signed two veteran wide receivers, Joe Jurevicius and Jerome Pathon, as free agents this offseason.
In four seasons with Seattle, Robinson -- the ninth player selected in the 2001 NFL draft -- has 213 catches for 3,167 yards and 12 touchdowns. His best season came in 2002, when he had 78 receptions for 1,240 yards and five touchdowns. But he had only 31 catches in his 10 games last season. . . .
Free-agent cornerback R.W. McQuarters is scheduled to visit the Detroit Lions today. He visited the Miami Dolphins on Tuesday after visiting the Giants and Washington Redskins last week. . . . Free-agent wideout Az-Zahir Hakim visited the New Orleans Saints on Tuesday. . . . Minnesota center Matt Birk likely will miss at least the early stages of training camp after undergoing surgery Tuesday to have a torn labrum in his hip repaired. Birk previously underwent three surgeries for sports hernias. . . .
The Green Bay Packers will retire the jersey number -- 92 -- of late defensive end Reggie White during a ceremony at halftime of their Sept. 18 home opener against the Browns, the team announced Tuesday. . . . Packers Coach Mike Sherman excused quarterback Brett Favre from the club's voluntary minicamp that opens today. Favre also was excused from the team's post-draft minicamp . . . . The Pittsburgh Steelers already have signed three of the players they drafted in April. League-wide, only three other players selected in this draft have been signed to contracts. . . .
Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon is to meet with Raiders owner Al Davis in the coming days and likely will announce his retirement thereafter. Gannon, the 2002 NFL most valuable player, suffered a broken vertebra in his neck during a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last September. . . .
The Saints announced plans to release linebacker Orlando Ruff, a move that will clear $1.1 million in salary-cap space . . . .
San Francisco 49ers public relations director Kirk Reynolds is leaving the organization amid a controversy created by a training video he showed to the team's players last year. The video, designed to be part of diversity training for the players, contained ethnic jokes and sexually explicit material. The details of the video were reported today by the San Francisco Chronicle after the newspaper obtained a copy of the tape. Reynolds told the paper that he is pursuing another business opportunity but is not being forced to leave the club. . . .
Indianapolis Colts Coach Tony Dungy told reporters Tuesday that the club plans to discipline safety Mike Doss, who was arrested by police in Akron, Ohio, last weekend for allegedly firing a handgun into the air near a crowded nightclub. He faces gun-related charges and could be disciplined by the league if he is convicted.