- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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"I'm an inside linebacker. When do you ever see Terrell Owens come across the middle? I may never see Terrell Owens, so I got to prepare myself for these other guys. T.O. is not the team. T.O. came in here last year with San Francisco and got sent home."
-- Edgerton Hartwell, Ravens linebacker
No one inspires passion in an opponent like Terrell Owens.
In fact, the only upset heading into Sunday's anticipated game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens was that it was Ravens linebacker No. 56 -- not No. 52 Ray Lewis -- who was calling out the Eagles wide receiver on ESPN Radio. Hartwell observed that when Owens played against the Ravens for the 49ers last season he caught just three passes for 23 yards. It was the first volley in a week of posturing that stems from those queasy dozen days in March when Owens seemed destined to play for the Ravens.
It began in early February in Honolulu when Lewis and Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb -- two of the finest players in the game -- actively recruited Owens to play for their respective teams. Owens was initially traded to the Ravens, but refused to appear for the physical that would have completed the deal. After the NFL Players Association filed a grievance, the trade was voided and a three-way settlement between the 49ers, Eagles and Ravens was reached before an arbiter heard the case.
Wonder of wonders, the glowering Lewis took it personally when the Ravens wound up with a fifth-round draft choice and the Eagles got Owens. Lewis said Owens went "against his word" and ominously advised him not to come across the middle when he was playing the Ravens.
Owens countered that Lewis was "not the hardest hitter that ever played the game of football" and said he wouldn't shy away from a confrontation.
Lewis' response: "Tell T.O. to keep my name out of his mouth. I don't care nothing about this guy. Why does he need me to make his reputation? Tell him I'm tired of that. I play football. And, sooner or later, no matter how much he talks about what he's not scared to do, he still has to line up and play football."
Which is precisely what Owens has done. Despite three consecutive appearances in the NFC championship game, there was something missing from the Eagles -- specifically, a deep threat. Well, last week against the Browns, Owens caught four passes for 109 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-31 overtime victory. He became the first Eagles player to have four consecutive 100-yard games since Mike Quick in 1983. Owens has 34 catches, 596 yards and eight touchdowns -- tied with Randy Moss for league lead.
The most important numbers in Philadelphia, though, are 6-0 -- the Eagles' best start since 1981. Owens has been an enormous factor; you can see his presence in the effectiveness of wideout Todd Pinkston. With Owens often drawing double coverage, Pinkston caught six passes for 100 yards, making Owens and Pinkston the first pair of Eagles receivers to hit 100 yards since Fred Barnett and Calvin Williams in 1992.
Brad Childress, the Eagles offensive coordinator, is the grateful recipient of Owens' talent. When Childress answered the phone past midnight early Wednesday morning, his enthusiasm was impressive indeed.
"You know, I really couldn't be any happier," he said from his office in the team's facility. "And not just because of his production. This is a guy eight, nine years in the West Coast offense. He doesn't give you 'that's how we did it here.' He wants to be coached. He wants to please you, and you appreciate that."
Will Childress draw up a few routes that take Owens across the middle?
"You're attacking a scheme," Childress said, laughing. "If there's a guy who is a liability, you attack that guy. They play a 3-4 defense, which is a little novel these days. But we've seen it a lot in the preseason. We'll just have to see how the game goes."
But before the game comes the headlines and contention.
The biggest controversy so far is being stirred up by some comments in Owens' recent autobiography concerning Ozzie Newsome. Owens wrote that Newsome told the
wide receiver's agent that, "He was a black man from Alabama just
like T.O." and that "sometimes a black man's gotta be slapped."
"Initially, I was kind of stunned by it," Owens said. "My agent was kind of reluctant to tell me about it at the time. What a lot of people don't know, and I guess I'll let it out now, is that was pretty much one of the main reasons I didn't want to go there.''
Newsome has said that he doesn't want to talk about the situation
"Please, why should I respond to that? I did tell T.O. that he
should check with the veterans we brought in over the years," he
told The Baltimore Sun. "I told him to call
Rod Woodson, Shannon Sharpe, Michael McCrary and Sam Adams, and
they will let him know how we treat veterans here."
Owens garners so much attention that even a busy politician inquired about the receiver. When the President of the United States met Philadelphia tight end Chad Lewis earlier this month, he had one question. No, it didn't involve the war in Iraq, the expanding deficit or the upcoming election.
"He wanted to know about T.O.," Lewis said after meeting George Bush at a campaign stop in Marlton, N.J. "He asked if T.O. was really as controversial as he'd heard. I told him most of it was exaggerated and hyped, and that I figured he could probably relate to that.
"He said he could."
Perhaps the most insightful comments from Owens regarding Lewis came before the season even started.
"I know everyone will say it's going to be me against Ray," Owens told Playboy reporter Dewey Hammond in the Sept. 1 issue. "But Ray doesn't play defensive back; he plays linebacker. Some of my routes take me across the middle or whatever, but guess what -- I'm not the whole Eagles team, and he's not the whole Ravens team.
"We both hold great positions. He's a big piece of the puzzle there. I'm obviously going to be a big piece of the puzzle in Philly. Whatever he needs to do to pump up our game and get us some good ratings when we play, by all means, he should do what he's got to do."
In the end, Owens did what he had to do. He signed a seven-year, $42 million contract. Both Owens and McNabb had a lot to prove this season; Owens is trying to rinse away his reputation as a self-centered whiner and McNabb wants to prove he can throw it deep. So far, the early returns are positive.
McNabb completed 28 of 43 passes against Cleveland for 376 yards and four touchdowns. Ten different Eagles receivers caught passes -- a critical factor since last year's three-headed running back ceases to exist. Duce Staley is carrying the Steelers in Pittsburgh and Correll Buckhalter was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury. The last one standing was Brian Westbrook and he may be out for two games after breaking a rib in the game against the Browns.
No one can argue that Owens would be better off in Baltimore.
The biggest reason is the quarterbacks involved -- a factor in his decision. McNabb is rated third among the league's quarterbacks (behind the Rams' Marc Bulger and Peyton Manning of the Colts) at 105.6. Baltimore's Kyle Boller is ranked 30th with a passer rating of 61.8. In last week's 20-6 victory over Buffalo, the Ravens ran 17 plays in the second half and gained 21 yards -- none of them in the passing game. Making matters more difficult for the Ravens, they'll miss suspended running back Jamal Lewis for a second game.
Lewis has implied that Owens chose Philadelphia because he wouldn't fit in with Baltimore's family atmosphere.
"He knows that's not true," Owens told Playboy. "Both teams are good. They were both choices of mine. Like I said time and again, I went with Philadelphia because one, I'm familiar with the West Coast offense. Two, the coaching staff has been with me for the past two or three years in the Pro Bowl, so they're familiar with me and I'm familiar with them. And three, they have Donovan McNabb at quarterback.
"Lewis can say whatever he wants to say to make a story. That's all it is. I don't really care about having the spotlight, because what I do on the field is spotlight in itself. I'm not trying to position myself for a spotlight with Ray Lewis. If that's what he wants to think, then by all means, go on CNN, go on 60 Minutes."
This confrontation has already happened, in a "Groundhog Day" kind of way. The Eagles, you may remember, beat the Ravens 26-17 back on Aug. 20 in the second preseason game. Owens scored on an 81-yard reception on Philadelphia's first play from scrimmage.
Afterward, he said, "As far as Ray, we're good friends. We talk between plays. I told him I loved him and he told me he loved me back. It's all blown out of proportion by what the media is trying to say."
Baltimore has a history of being jilted in its relationship with the NFL. In 1983, John Elway said he would refuse to play in the city and wound up leading Denver to two Super Bowl victories and being enshrined at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In 1984, the Colts essentially told Baltimore that they refused to play in the place they call Charm City. Two decades later, when Owens spurned the Ravens, it gave Baltimore a dubious trifecta of rejection.
Everywhere he goes, Owens draws attention in almost pathological fashion. There was the spiked star episode in Dallas, of course, and post-touchdown celebrations involving a Sharpie and a cheerleader's pom-poms. Last Sunday, there was an entertaining moment following his 39-yard touchdown when Owens threw the ball at the clever and sophisticated (yet oddly humorous) sign with the slogan "T.O has B.O."
The next big stage for Owens? In two weeks, the Eagles travel to Dallas for a prime-time game on Monday Night Football, where the star awaits at Texas Stadium. Whatever happens, the media will doubtless blow it out of proportion.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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