- Ed Werder, ESPN NFL Insider
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According to multiple sources within the Dallas Cowboys, there is an emerging internal conflict involving three of the team's highest-profile stars.
As the preseason Super Bowl favorites struggle in the final month of the season to simply make the playoffs, wide receiver Terrell Owens has expressed resentment toward Tony Romo, apparently jealous of the quarterback's relationship with tight end Jason Witten.
Owens thinks Romo and Witten -- close friends and road roommates who came to Dallas in the same offseason -- hold private meetings and create plays without including Owens, according to a source who speaks regularly with Owens' teammates. Owens believes these discussions have worked to his detriment and Romo seeks to deliver the ball to Witten regardless of whether Owens is open.
"I don't know anything about that," Wade Phillips said when asked about a possible rift at his news conference on Thursday.
"We've thrown for a lot of yards with a lot of players. One receiver is pretty close to 1,000 yards. ... There's no favoritism there, we are going to the guy that is going to be open."
In a story that was first reported by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Clarence Hill, Cowboys wide receivers Owens, Roy Williams and Patrick Crayton requested and were granted a meeting with offensive coordinator Jason Garrett to express their concern Romo was relying too heavily on Witten.
Owens declined to discuss the situation on Thursday outside the Cowboys' locker room. As he walked toward the players' lounge at Valley Ranch, ESPN asked Owens if he would answer questions and he said, "Nope.''
But later Thursday, Owens told The Dallas Morning News: "I'm not jealous of Witten. I'm not jealous of nobody. I can take the approach that I got paid, so screw everything, but that's not me.
"I just want to win. I'm not trying to create a war of words with anybody. I thought we had a productive meeting, and I just talked to Jason about Tony reading the whole play because other people are open besides Witten."
Witten appeared Thursday afternoon on ESPNRadio 1050 in New York.
"Tony and I have been friends for a long time, way before either one of us were playing that much," Witten said. "I don't think we're drawing up many plays together to be completely honest, but I don't think Terrell feels that way. I think he knows he's a play-maker, and we try to go to him, and we have other guys we try to get the ball, too."
Linebacker Bradie James acknowledged to ESPN that his status as one of the team captains has caused him to play a peacemaker role between Romo and Owens.
"Whenever the fire gets blazing, I know,'' James said. "Sometimes, I don't want to step on anybody's toes, but we all talk.
"It just is what it is ... It's just two different guys, two different personalities and they know what's at stake. They know that everybody needs them. And there's no dislike. It's just sometimes, not everybody is going to see eye to eye. That's what makes a football team.''
A current Cowboys player compared Owens' behavior to that which led to problems with his former quarterbacks, Jeff Garcia in San Francisco and Donovan McNabb in Philadelphia. Those failed relationships and problems with the head coaches and other teammates led to Owens' exile from those teams and made him available to Dallas owner Jerry Jones in 2006.
"He's insecure about it,'' the player said of Owens. "The thing that bothers me more than anything about this problem is that it's always something with him -- San Fran, Philly and here, always something. And he brings other people into it. You know, he talks to Sam Hurd and Roy Williams, who just got here and doesn't really know these guys. T.O. talks to him and so now he probably thinks Witten politics with Tony for the ball.
"That's so far from the truth. You think Tony is throwing to him because that's his buddy? His best buddy is Bobby Carpenter, and that's not helping him too much. It's crazy to think that, and I hate that he acts that way.''
Witten leads the Cowboys with 64 receptions to 55 for Owens, who has a team-high 848 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. According to one of the sources, Owens cannot fathom how Romo and Garrett justify the tight end having more catches. Owens, after all, ranks among the most accomplished receivers in NFL history.
There has so far been no known confrontation between Romo and Owens, who have combined for 33 touchdowns since 2006, the most of any quarterback-receiver tandem in the NFL during that time. Romo has always been careful to make certain Owens felt appreciated so that he would compete hard and not cause the kind of upheaval he did with his previous teams.
But one teammate suggested Romo is frustrated enough that he might initiate a different approach, although not the confrontational kind that some believe might solve the problem.
"To be completely honest, I just think Tony is over it, not like, 'Screw it.' But I think Tony is over the mind games,'' the player said. "It would help if Tony would stand up to him, but he would never do it. He does a great job of ignoring it and not letting it affect him, and that's why it has worked as good as it has. It's just hard. I think right now everybody is to the point where, 'We're going to need him, so let's not piss him off.'"
But Owens seems to be finding it increasingly difficult to conceal his irritation. Last week in Pittsburgh, on the first possession of the Cowboys' most important game of the season, a team source who reviewed the game tape said Romo threw an interception when Owens mysteriously failed to complete his route. Troy Polamalu intercepted the ball at the place where Romo expected Owens to be. Later in the half, Romo underthrew a pass for Owens that was intercepted by Ike Taylor and Owens gestured openly in Romo's direction as he walked toward the sideline that the ball should have been thrown further upfield.
But what upset Owens' teammates most of all was his response to the interception Romo threw on a pass intended for Witten that Deshea Townsend returned for the game-winning touchdown in a 20-13 defeat. Both the quarterback and tight end publicly accepted blame for the Cowboys' season-high fifth turnover. In contrast, Owens said the offense stunk, that the team can't win with turnovers like those and then suggested his defender was playing off in single coverage and that he was open but Romo decided to throw elsewhere on the fatal play.
On the sideline, Owens was seen yelling at a Cowboys assistant coach. In his news conference after the game, Owens implied that Romo's decision to throw to Witten was the wrong one, saying, "It's his job to go out there and assess what the defense is, and he made that decision.''
That incensed some Cowboys, one of whom said, "If you only knew all that guy does. It's gonna go down with him before it's all over with. He is unbelievable. Tough loss and he does that?''
Until then, Cowboys insiders considered Owens' most damaging behavior the interview he did with former Dallas cornerback Deion Sanders on the NFL Network in which he suggested the offensive system under Garrett was responsible for his worst statistical season since his rookie year with the 49ers. Owens also hinted that Romo and the other Dallas quarterbacks who played when the starter was injured were not making getting him the ball a high enough priority. "I can't throw it and catch it,'' Owens said.
At least one prominent Cowboys player was displeased that the coaching staff responded to the criticism by seemingly placating Owens in that Sunday's game against San Francisco, allowing him enough opportunities that he posted his best statistical line as a Cowboy: seven catches for 213 yards, including a 75-yard TD.
"Well, T.O. got his way,'' the player said. "It never fails how we operate around here. Drives me crazy, but what can you do?''
Phillips justified Owens' argument by agreeing that getting him the ball needed to be the first offensive priority, and then owner Jerry Jones further empowered him by claiming he had no issue with anything Owens said in the interview.
Said another source: "What do you think he said after he complained about not getting the ball and then in the San Francisco game he gets 213? He said, 'Look. It works. The more hell I raise, the more I get what I want.'"
Owens in March signed a four-year contract extension worth $34 million, including a $12.9 million signing bonus to bind him to the Cowboys through the 2011 season.
When asked if Romo and Owens were all right together as the team prepares to play the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants on Sunday, James said, "Yeah. It's gotta be. It better be.''
The latest controversy comes toward the end of a season that began with Owens saying in training camp that he shared a relationship with Romo that he never had with other quarterbacks with whom he played. That, Owens said, was because Romo knew he was the star of the Cowboys and was not threatened by Owens' status as were previous quarterbacks.
"I guess sometimes I've just been in situations where the quarterbacks felt like I was bigger than them,'' Owens said in July. "And, you know, that was never the case. I felt like whatever I did complemented the quarterback, whatever he did, vice versa. It's just been a situation where things happen, where things didn't work out.''
Romo seemed equally at peace with Owens. "The thing about it is there's a genuine caring about each other. I actually want the guy to succeed. He works hard, he works his butt off. And he cares about the guys, so it's easy to root for a guy like that.
"It's important for us to be on the same page. It's important for us to care about the other one, just because our success is directly related. ... The thing you notice mostly about him is that he talks about 'team' a lot. He wants to win. He understands that, at this stage of his career, he's done all the things individually he can do. Now, it's just a matter of winning.''
Whether it is like that anymore -- and whether the Cowboys can achieve their own stated goals with the relationship between Owens and Romo and Witten being what it is now -- remains to be determined.
Since Romo became Dallas' starter, he has completed more passes to Witten than to Owens, 201-186, although Owens has significantly more yards and three times as many touchdowns.
"You really want to address it with him and say, "Are you serious? Let's cut the s---. But we're trying to win our way into the playoffs and, if something like that happened, if you backed him into a corner, he'd be pissed off and try to fight you or something,'' the current Cowboys player said. "So what do you do? Let it go? Then you're just like everybody else. If he's got a problem and he's upset, clear the air. He should know that everything we do on offense goes through him."
Ed Werder covers the NFL for ESPN. ESPN.com's NFL reporter Matt Mosley contributed to this report.
21hDoug Clawson, ESPN Stats & Information