Like most players around the NFL, versatile Miami Dolphins defensive lineman Rich Owens has many aching body parts going into the final week of the regular season.
But Owens wanted to correct his official status as "probable" on the team's injury list. Make that definite, he said today, as in nothing could keep him out of Sunday's game against the Washington Redskins, the team that drafted him in the fifth round from Lehigh in 1995, promoted him as "Richie Redskin," then let him go as a free agent four years later.
When the TV lights were on today in the Miami locker room, Owens grinned broadly and insisted that he was trying to approach his first game against his former teammates as just another Sunday afternoon at the stadium. But later, as questions persisted about his departure from Washington in the offseason, it became obvious that he'd love to impress his former teammates and show his former coaches they made a dreadful decision in letting him leave.
"I've flushed out all the angst, really I have," Owens said. "Why should it be about revenge? They didn't run me out of town or anything like that. So it's nothing personal, there's no hard feelings. That's just the nature of the business."
Owens became a starter in 1996 at defensive end, playing next to defensive tackle Sean Gilbert. That season, he led the team with 11 1/2 sacks, and the skinny kid from academically oriented Lehigh became one of the team's more popular players.
But the next year, with Gilbert sitting out the entire season in a contract dispute, Owens's production slumped. He had only three sacks, and all he ever heard was that Gilbert's presence the previous year was the only reason he was able to get to the quarterback.
"It did bother me. It bothered the heck out of me," Owens said. "Someone works hard to achieve something, and having a big defensive tackle getting double-teamed was a factor in letting me go one-on-one against an offensive tackle. But at the same time, I'm still beating that tackle one-on-one and getting to the quarterback. I must have been doing something right."
Last year, it all went wrong. Owens suffered a season-ending knee injury in a preseason game against Tennessee. He was on the team, but not a part of the team. He chose to have his therapy sessions at 7 a.m. in the training room, with hardly anyone around. When he finished later in the morning, his teammates were still in meetings as he slipped out the door.
In a sense though, Owens now says the injury clearly had an impact on his attitude toward the game, and made him far more mature.
"It made me realize that it was also important to have fun, and I wasn't having any fun there," Owens said.
Still, Owens said he gave the Redskins every opportunity to sign him. He said he met with Coach Norv Turner and then-general manager Charley Casserly to assess their interest, and came away thinking they had little to none.
"I kept telling myself I wasn't going to let it get personal," he said. "I felt honestly they were kind of neutral about it. I didn't feel they were big-time enthusiastic about it. I had missed the year with a knee injury, and I'm sure that was part of it."
Owens also told the Redskins he planned to visit the teams that showed any interest. After coming to Miami, talking to the defensive coaches and watching tape, there was no question that he wanted to relocate, a decision made even easier when he was offered a two-year, $2.75 million contract with a $675,000 signing bonus.
"I felt like these guys down here were more about having players getting up the field and disrupting plays, using your speed and your athletic ability," Owens said. "It was something I didn't feel like I could do in D.C. I don't want to belittle anyone up there, but they used a different system. I also felt I needed a change."
Owens made his decision to leave before Daniel M. Snyder had been approved as the Redskins' new owner. After reading about Snyder's hands-on management style, Owens said he has no regrets about not being in Washington, even if the Redskins are in the playoffs, while the Dolphins still need help on Sunday to get in.
"No disrespect to Mr. Snyder, but I can't play like that, with someone up in my ear telling me I have to do this and do that," he said. "Just line me up, tell me what to do and I'll do it. I heard about that meeting he had with Coach Turner [after a loss to Dallas]. I was shocked to hear that. Mr. Snyder wants to win, and it's his team; he can do whatever he wants."
Owens now plays for an extremely demanding head coach in Jimmy Johnson, but he's blossomed in the South Florida sun. He initially was used as a part-time lineman until starting defensive end Kenny Mixon was hurt in a motorcycle accident in early October. Owens has started ever since, and leads the team with 8 1/2 sacks, playing all four defensive line positions and never leaving the field.
"I thought he'd be a good player and help out our pass rush," Johnson said. "I didn't anticipate he'd be as good as he is. One factor is that he's so intelligent. We use him at all four positions, and he's probably our best inside pass rusher."
Now, after two somewhat depressing seasons in Washington, the smile is back on Owens's still boyish face, made even moreso by the braces he's wearing these days.
"Sometimes it's not always about wins and losses," he said. "It's about having fun and doing what I'm good at doing. I'd rather be playing good football and doing what's best for me. I'm not trying to put it all on [the Redskins]. As a player, you have to play in a system. My attitude probably didn't help. I had to get my own mind right. Certainly, it's done a lot for me to get out of D.C."