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T.O.'s expectations exceed execution

PHILADELPHIA -- As Terrell Owens exited a stadium where once he had the fans eating out of his hand, the Cowboys' controversial receiver was eaten up by the reality that he was on the losing end of the scoreboard and didn't author nearly enough plays to make a difference in a 38-24 Dallas loss.

"The opportunities were there," said Owens, whose return to Lincoln Financial Field had been circled on the calendars of local fans since the regular-season schedule was released in early spring. "I feel like the opportunities we had, we missed them. In this game, every play counts."

But not many plays that involved Owens on Sunday counted on the positive side. Suffice it to say that the execution didn't exactly measure up to the expectation.

Owens had three catches for 45 yards, his best play a 24-yard reception on a fade route in the fourth quarter, a snap on which he ran a terrific route, took the ball over his shoulder and tapped both feet down just inbounds. The Cowboys threw to Owens 11 times, by unofficial count, and two of the passes were intercepted when quarterback Drew Bledsoe left the ball short, and Owens dropped another one on a crossing route in which Bledsoe appeared to short-arm the ball.

If the jacked-up and well-lubricated Philadelphia crowd wasn't quite what Owens anticipated -- there were a lot of signs in parking lots around the stadium, many of them creatively mocking T.O., but few found their way inside -- neither was his performance. Like many great athletes, Owens in the past has demonstrated an uncanny ability to rise to the occasion.

But on Sunday, it seemed the occasion was a big, stifled yawn.

The crowd wasn't particularly harsh to Owens, at least not by Philadelphia standards, and he didn't raise much reaction until he dropped a pass on a crossing route. There were stretches of the game, in fact, in which it almost appeared the Cowboys were doing everything in their power not to get the ball into his hands.

To suggest, however, that Owens was primarily a $10 million decoy would be to slight the play of Philadelphia's secondary and the characteristically clever game plan of Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. On this day, at least, an Eagles back-end unit undermanned by injuries essentially refused to be overmatched by Owens, and Johnson always seemed to have an answer.

"It started up front," said Philadelphia cornerback Lito Sheppard, who pulled in two of his team's three interceptions. "Those guys got all kinds of pressure. It made things a lot easier. Take nothing away from [Owens], because he's a great player. But we were pretty good today, too."

Two of the young receivers counted upon to help compensate for Owens' departure, second-year veteran Reggie Brown and rookie Hank Baskett, made huge plays for the Eagles, the kind that Philadelphia used to expect from the loquacious Owens when he played here. Baskett hauled in an 87-yarder on a play where the Cowboys had the absolute right defense called, but linebacker Greg Ellis whiffed on a clean shot at quarterback Donovan McNabb. That left Baskett hooked up on rookie free safety Pat Watkins. In the fourth quarter, Brown scored on a 40-yard flea-flicker when Watkins and strong safety Roy Williams somehow both misjudged the ball in the end zone.

"Our guys might not make the big money," said tight end L.J. Smith, "but they made the big plays."

And the Cowboys made the big mistakes, both of commission and omission, which several times led to Owens yelling at teammates on the sideline. There wasn't the usual degree of gesticulating from Owens, but he clearly was upset at Bledsoe and the game plan, too, even if he denied that. Just as frustrating was having to run patterns much of the night while being bracketed by at least two defenders.

Johnson played more Cover 2 packages than normal, almost always had at least one safety deep and over the top, and rarely were there opportunities for Owens to work one-on-one. He didn't point fingers in his assessment of the overall offensive performance, and that included taking much blame himself.

"I felt like we should have put some points up on the board and we didn't," Owens said. "It was really as simple as that, OK?"

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.