Three years ago, a San Francisco 49ers executive losing patience with Terrell Owens said to me: "But what can you expect? He's as dumb as a chair."
I haven't run across a more brilliant self-promoter and blame-deflector in sports or politics. Sometimes, maybe, Owens falls into his PR strategies by accident or raw, uncalculated instinct. Maybe he's "dumb smart." But as a campaigner, "Call me TERR-uhl" Owens makes Bush and Kerry look like practice-squadders.
Just wait until the Philadelphia Eagles lose some games -- and they will, starting Sunday in Pittsburgh. Just wait until they get a stomachful of the real T.O. This me-first frontrunner is far more concerned with being a celebrity than being a member of a winning team. When he starts dropping passes -- and he will as the pressure and losses mount -- he'll point fingers more quickly than a magician distracts his audience. In San Francisco, it was coach Steve Mariucci's fault, then general manager Terry Donahue's fault, then the media's fault, and then finally -- and mostly -- quarterback Jeff Garcia's fault.
It was never, ever the fault of the 49ers' most talented player, "Terrible" Owens. Here is the first player I've ever encountered who simultaneously suffers from a superiority and an inferiority complex.
So arrogant and aloof from teammates. So easily intimidated by big hitters and crucial moments.
Speaking of chairs, my standard question now before I tell an editor or producer what this guy has said or done is: "Are you sitting down?"
Owens was at his most confoundingly brilliant this Wednesday when he managed to turn himself into the victim after jilting, then mocking, a man who tried to be Owens' friend -- Baltimore's Ray Lewis, a team-first warrior.
Please have a seat and think through this: Starting at last January's Pro Bowl, Lewis reached out to free-agent Owens and tried to convince him he was the one player -- a big-time receiver -- the Ravens needed to win a Super Bowl. Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome, a Hall of Fame pass-catching tight end, was soon recruiting Owens even harder than Lewis was.
But Owens' agent, David Joseph, missed the deadline to file for free agency. By the letter of NFL law, then, Owens remained the property of the 49ers. But Owens made such a stink that -- according to 49ers sources -- the league feared Owens would turn a minor issue into a racial flash point. That's one reason the 49ers didn't place their franchise-player tag on Owens, as they'd tried briefly to do three years earlier. When he compared the franchise tag to slavery and threatened a season-long protest back then, they gave Owens a new deal.
League and team officials fear Owens' ability to shock and manipulate the media. When he speaks, editors and producers listen because the audience can't get enough of a guy who lives to shock the world.
When Owens fell back into their lap because of the missed free-agency deadline earlier this year, the 49ers attempted to trade him to the highest bidder. That turned out to be Baltimore, which offered a second-round pick. The Ravens neglected to pursue another receiver because they'd banked on acquiring and signing Owens. Bad idea.
Somewhere in this process, Newsome, who is black, tried to sell Owens on Baltimore by suggesting he would thrive under the strong leadership of Lewis and other black Ravens' stars. In Owens' new book, "Catch This!," he says Newsome told Owens' agent that "every black man needs to be slapped around once in a while." Ravens sources say Newsome did make a statement along those lines; and if he did, he was out of line.
Yet without the racial stereotype, Newsome's point was a good one: In the Ravens' locker room, Owens would have been taught some lessons about what it takes to win. Surely, that was one reason Owens decided he'd prefer to play in Philadelphia. Well, that and the presence of Ravens quarterback Kyle "I Should Have Been A" Bowler. Sorry, Boller.
Owens began using the biggest media platforms in sports to spread his outrage about what an injustice it would be to force him to Baltimore. Right on schedule, the NFL crumbled and quietly forced a compromise. Owens got his way. The Ravens got screwed.
So what happened shortly before the Ravens played last Sunday in Philadelphia? Out comes Owens' book, vilifying Newsome. Talk about using every trick in the book. Suddenly, Newsome is the reason Owens pulled the rug out from under the Ravens.
A Ravens insider says several black players were furious Owens dishonored Newsome, a highly respected black executive, by disclosing a private conversation in his book. Yet in the days leading up to the game, no Ravens player publicly called Owens out. Even Lewis refused to engage in a war of words.
Perhaps that's because the Ravens were heading to Philly with one fist tied behind their backs. Make that three: On offense, they were missing Pro Bowl stars Jamal Lewis, Jonathan Ogden and Todd Heap. So when Owens slipped a tackle and broke loose for the 11-yard touchdown that gave Philadelphia a 15-3 lead midway through the fourth quarter, he knew the game was over.
He also knew he wouldn't have to face Lewis' team again this season, unless it's in the Super Bowl.
So Owens rubbed it in by mocking Lewis' trademark pre-game dance.
Afterward, Lewis called Owens a coward. Yes, but he's a crafty coward.
Maybe I'm wrong, but I sense that a majority of media members and fans got a kick out of Owens' "RayLew" impersonation. Yet there was Owens at his weekly media session, wearing his "TerrellOwens.com" cap and twisting the story into "Owens Condemned for Dance." Huh?
Owens began: "You have a guy like Ray Lewis, who, I mean, I thought pretty much was my friend."
His friend, after he stiffed the Ravens and humiliated Newsome?
Owens continued about Lewis: "I mean, this is a guy, you know, double-murder case, he could have been in jail. Seems like the league embraces a guy like that. But I'm going out scoring touchdowns, having fun, but I'm the bad guy ... I'm the worst guy that ever put on a uniform in the NFL. At times, it baffles me. I've never been in any off-the-field problems."
Talk about baffling. Owens shows up Lewis on the field, then brings up the murder rap Lewis pleaded out of before the 2000 season? Of Owens' many creative touchdown celebrations, this is the first that directly targeted a rival player. So now it's that player's fault? Or the NFL's fault for not continuing to remind fans that Lewis was at the scene of a double murder?
By all accounts, Lewis has been a model citizen ever since.
For the record, as a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, I was Owens' lone Bay Area media supporter in 2001 and 2002. I defended him because he practiced hard, stayed in bodybuilder shape and, indeed, avoided the police blotter. I gave him the benefit of the doubt for having posed on the Texas Stadium star after he scored a touchdown. That, I incorrectly reasoned, was Owens making a bold statement for his rebuilding team: We're back, Cowboys, and we're not afraid of you or your sacred stadium.
No, that was T.O. introducing T.O. to the world. That's why he posed on the star a second time that day, inciting a midfield fight.
Still, I backed Owens until he pulled that Sharpie from his sock and signed the football he had just caught for a touchdown on "Monday Night Football" at Seattle in October 2002. The attention that detonated sent Owens over the edge, from football player to celebrity. His teammates came to despise him because he set himself apart from, and above, the team. They soon quit running to congratulate him after he scored, because he ignored them while he did his latest routine for the cameras.
Worse, T.O. turned into "Terrible" Owens last year, dropping pass after game-wrecking pass, especially on the road. Maybe Owens quit on the team because he had so little respect for Garcia's velocity and accuracy. More likely, he crumbled under the pressure to land a big free-agent contract.
At least Dennis Rodman always backed up his outrageousness on the court.
Owens can be intimidated easily by roughhouse nose-to-nose coverage, by head-hunting linebackers and by defenders who trash-talk him. He's at his highlight-show finest when he breaks loose for an early touchdown and his teams is leading.
But he'll quit at the drop of a pass.
Yet after signing with the Eagles, Owens went on a media campaign to blame Garcia for everything that went wrong last season in San Francisco. Owens even questioned Garcia's sexuality. "If it smells like a rat ... " said Owens.
Precisely my sentiments about Owens.
Obviously, he and Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb have been great for each other. So far. They appear to be great friends who have boosted each other's confidence and performance. So far. These two should be the NFL's midseason co-MVPs.
Now I feel sheepish about defending Owens to a furious 49ers executive after a 2001 loss in Chicago. The 49ers blew a third-quarter lead that day and were forced into overtime. On the first play, Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher drew a bead on Owens as he ran a slant. Owens alligator-armed a perfect pass from Garcia, tipping it to Bears safety Mike Brown, who ran it in for a touchdown. Game over.
The following day, Owens blamed the loss on Mariucci for taking his foot off the fourth-quarter accelerator against his good friend, Bears coach Dick Jauron. My initial reaction was: "You know, he could have a point." Was I ever gullible.
Just wait, Philly.
Skip Bayless recently joined ESPN after a career as a sports columnist that includes stops in Miami, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and San Jose. He can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show. His column will appear weekly on Page 2.