49ers feud not likely finished

Updated: October 10, 2003, 2:05 PM ET
By Ray Ratto | Special to ESPN.com

It all started, oddly enough, on the occasion of Jerry Rice's last home game as a 49er. The prototypical wide receiver of his era was to be feted for his many services to the company, given that he had made it clear he wasn't going to work for the company any more.

So what happened? Rice caught seven balls for 76 yards. An OK day, but nothing spectacular, fitting if not the man, then the team and the circumstances. The 49ers finished 6-10, the Chicago Bears 5-11.

No, the big deal was Terrell Owens, the longtime heir apparent, who caught 20 balls for 283 yards. The numbers were ridiculous -- Florida State vs. Elon ridiculous -- and it either sparked a thought in Owens' head or reinforced it.

Terrell Owens
SA half-hearted hug in the end zone isn't going to erase the riff between Terrell Owens, right, and Jeff Garcia, center.
That thought? Gimme the ball.

This is not an original thought, mind you. Rice had it plenty of times. Rice still has it.

Owens, though, had taken every failure to get him the ball as a personal affront, and an opportunity to share his extreme dissatisfaction with his employers, fellow workers, and those who chronicle his every fit.

He has been particularly agitated this year, actually stumping at one point that Jeff Garcia be replaced as San Francisco quarterback by Tim Rattay. Garcia, who has heard Owens' rants before, hadn't heard that one yet, and his exasperation spilled over.

Thus, when Garcia hit Owens with the game's first touchdown in the 49ers' desultory victory over Detroit on Sunday and the two embraced in the end zone like old codgers at a Civil War reunion, people saw peace in our time.

It wasn't. There are always more games, and always more passes, and the imperfect fit that is Garcia/Owens remains.

Owens wants to be Randy Moss. Garcia's arm isn't sufficiently inspiring to allow Owens to be Randy Moss. There's no changing this dynamic.

Nor is there any changing the fact that their views of the game are radically different and irreconcilable.

Garcia sees his job as involving the entire offense in the workings for the greater good of the company. Owens, as a premier receiver, sees his job as getting every ball he possibly can for the greater good of the company.

See the problem? They both think they're right. They both are, to an extent. They just don't see that the other guy might be right, too, or at the very least don't see how the other guy can be THAT right.

And it goes back to that December day in 2000.

On that day, Owens was told by the number of times he was accessed on Jerry Rice's farewell day that he was The Man, that all the perks accorded Rice over 15 years and change automatically reverted to him.

Many did. He caught 93 balls in 2001, 16 of them for touchdowns, and had another 100 and 13 scores last year. He became The Man because, well, it wasn't going to be J.J. Stokes.

Plus, it's hard to explain to a man who has known that kind of statistical validation that he isn't always The Man. Being The Man isn't something that gets turned on and off. It's in the nature of being The Man.

So when he fumes and fusses and screams and cusses he is, in his mind, just voting his stock. And Garcia, who as quarterback functions as the on-field CEO, resents all these weekly hostile takeover attempts.

Therein lies the basic issue. It's not that they don't socialize, or that they work for completely different ends. It's just that Owens thinks he is the best way to achieve those ends, and Garcia is sick, and might we add tired, of Owens telling the nation that he is the best way of achieving those ends.

So they are not destined to be close, or even particularly correct, no matter how many times they hug each other in the end zone. Garcia has failed Owens too many times in Owens' world view, and Owens has failed his teammates too many times in Garcia's world view.

It is Rice-Rumsfeld, only on a slightly less geopolitical level.

And it's going to stay that way, because wide receivers and quarterbacks operate like popes, and the notion of multiple popes rarely works well.

Owens becomes a free agent this coming offseason, and one suspects that he and his agent will work tirelessly to find a place that will service his need to match that special afternoon in 2000 when everything he ever thought about his skills was affirmed in the one place where personality quirks don't count.

And Garcia? He'll probably enjoy the peace and quiet, except in those moments when the offense is stalled and nothing is needed quite so much as a loud, objectionable diva whose ability to eat matches his appetite.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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