There's no 'I' in an NFL team

While Terrell Owens' latest outburst could lead him out of S.F, the next one could cost him big money.

Updated: October 3, 2003, 3:24 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Terrell Owens' latest outbreak made it easier for the 49ers to say goodbye to him at the end of the season when his contract void. His next one will cost him millions in signing bonus money from his next team, and, yes, there will be a next team.

Unless Owens is stupid -- and I know he's not -- expect him to contain his emotions for the final 12 games of the season. Owens is a handful for a coach, and his latest episode crossed the line. You don't throw a tantrum on an assistant coach as professional as Greg Knapp. You don't get in front of the cameras and mention the words "no heart" when you talk about your teammates. You don't blast offensive line blocking, particularly when three starters have high ankle sprains and inexperienced blockers are filling in. And you don't mention how well backup Tim Rattay moves the ball when your starting quarterback, Jeff Garcia, is having a slow start.

Owens plays on emotions. He works hard at his craft as far as conditioning. He's one of the best offensive threats in football and he doesn't turn 30 until December. Thirty might be an age of disaster for a lot of starting running backs, but many receivers only get better in their thirties. Jerry Rice had 82- and 93-catch seasons after he left the 49ers when he was 38. If that's a dropoff from a 100-catch Rice, well, most teams would take that.

But as much as it will hurt the 49ers to let him go, they can't keep him. Perception is everything, and Owens's numerous outbursts leave him too much of an individual in the locker room. He and Garcia don't talk much any more. While this is Owens' team to lead, young players are following a supposed leader who's calling out his own troops in public. The 49ers ownership isn't going to commit $18 million of signing bonus money to build the team around a player who screams at coaches and verbally calls out teammates.

It's been a fascinating year for discipline in the NFL. Brian Billick risked losing a winnable road game in San Diego by suspending franchise cornerback Chris McAlister for blowing a curfew and being late for a road meeting or two. The Ravens won, and Billick made an important point. Dan Reeves tried to stop the mental erosion of the Falcons by suspending cornerback Tyrone Williams for Sunday's game against the Vikings for his verbal tirade at an assistant coach. Mike Holmgren benched Koren Robinson, who wants a 100-catch season, for the start of an easy win over Arizona and kept him along the sidelines for the entire game when it turned out to be a blowout.

Football is a team game, and while it may be impossible to control 22 individuals who start, head coaches must have discipline. Dennis Erickson, for example, had no choice but to call Owens into his office and warn him about punishment the next time he blows up. Because of the severity of Owens' outburst, Erickson will be left with no choice but to suspend him the next time.

It's ironic that Mt. Owens blew up around the same time the Chargers were struggling with their $47 million wide receiver David Boston. Boston is an individualist. He's a 245-pound wide receiver with 4.3 speed and five-percent body fat. But he's not very social among his teammates. He wants to go to work, lift weights, run his routes and not be bothered. Boston has no interesting in being a leader. His goal is to be a weapon who can manhandle cornerbacks with his strength and his speed.

But this isn't baseball where you pick up the bat, make your swings and go back to the dugout. Some interaction is needed. Maybe it doesn't have to be social. But the quarterback and the receiver have to get a long.

As much as the Chargers need Boston, it wouldn't be surprising to see them try to get rid of him at the end of the year. The one-game suspension two weeks ago wasn't just for his locker room feuds with strength coach Dave Reddings. It's being late for meetings. It's not hitting all the rehab sessions. It's not training the way the team wants him to train. Boston brings in his own personal trainer. His heel injury lingered through the preseason and put the team in a tough position.

Boston weighed into the 250s, so the team suggested he drop his weight to around 235 to elevate some of the pounding on that heel. Boston disagreed. After he sat out the second week of the season on his own mandate, the team came back and threatened to fine him if he didn't get his weight to 235. Boston blew up.

Still, great players are hard to find. A coach may have the most impossible job juggling prima donnas with the working class within the locker room. Double-standards may not be right, but some adjustments have to be made. Anquan Boldin may have more than filled in for the receiving numbers lost by David Boston's departure, but the Cardinals are still 1-3 and headed toward a double-digit loss season.

Look at the dropoff with the New York Jets without Laveranues Coles. Coles is a difference maker in games. Curtis Conway, his replacement with the Jets, has been benched after four games. The Redskins are 3-1, the Jets 0-4. Imagine the offensive dropoff in San Francisco without Owens.

It's one thing for a wide receiver to catch seven passes for 90 yards. So often, though, it's how and when those receivers make those catches. The receivers like Coles, Boston and Owens draw double coverage, and the good ones can occasionally beat double coverage. Plus, the great ones make catches in the fourth quarter and in the red zone.

Owens must contain his emotions over the final 12 weeks. True, he hates to lose, and he needs to use his emotions to try to turn the 49ers season around. But last Sunday's blowup sealed his fate in San Francisco. In reality, Owens is playing for a contract, a contract that will be given to him by another team. How he handles what is obviously a selfish act will dictate the amount of signing bonus he will receive.

That's where perception steps in. Some teams will look at Owens' outburst from last weekend as being motivated by selfishness rather than anger at losing. Whether right or wrong, there is a perception that Owens' tirades were motivated largely by Randy Moss' big game. If that's a misinterpretation, too bad.

When you respond the way Owens did last weekend, different teams will interpret it in different ways.

Couple that with the Boston disaster in San Diego, and Owens knows he's fighting some hard negotiation days ahead. Still, a team or two will take a chance, but it has to be the right team.

The biggest fault in the Chargers signing of Boston was they weren't one player away from being a playoff team. Owens has to go to a team where he is the missing piece. Heading into this season, the Falcons would have appeared to be a likely team, but their bad start leaves you wondering. The Jets could use him next year as the replacement for Coles, but they will be in transition after the season.

Perhaps the best fit might be Philadelphia. They need a Pro Bowl No. 1 receiver to help Donovan McNabb. They've been to two championships without a star receiver, and McNabb has carried the offense on his broad shoulders for years. Maybe Owens could get them over the top.

There are too many skeletons in the 49ers locker room for Owens to stay. Owens' blowups cost him that San Francisco base. The next one will cost him more than any fine given by Erickson. It will make future employers tighter with the dollars.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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