Playing injured, Owens still a handful
Terrell Owens defied odds and turned in a magnificent performance in his first game following ankle surgery.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Medical science might need to do a case study on Terrell Owens. He might have made the greatest recovery from an injury in 39 years of the Super Bowl.
Just seven weeks ago, Owens broke his leg and tore a critical ligament in his right ankle. He needed surgery and his surgeon wouldn't clear him to play against the Patriots. The medical world thought he was crazy. Owens fooled them all by playing 62 of 72 offensive snaps and catching nine passes for 122 yards.
It might have been the most courageous performance in Super Bowl history. To no one's surprise, T.O. was the first off the field and the first to the podium in the postgame interview room. Even though the Eagles were the losers, 24-21, in Super Bowl XXXIX, Owens was a big winner.
He did what was considered impossible.
At times, Owens looked tired but that was only expected. He hadn't run until the past two weeks. During the first five weeks of recovery, Owens could only run in a pool. He worked hard and had to make tough decisions because he risked doing further damage to the ankle.
After the game, he admitted he took a pain-killing injection. He tried to wrap the ankle with tape, but it hurt and made him uncomfortable on his Achilles. Instead, he used a light wrap around the ankle that looked like a glove with the fingers cut out.
Owens felt no pain. Patriots cornerbacks did. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel came out with an aggressive game plan that was different than the normal Patriots plan. Cornerbacks Randall Gay and Asante Samuel played man-to-man defense about 95 percent of the snaps.
That meant either Gay, an undrafted rookie, or Samuel, a second-year cornerback, would be man-to-man against T.O. Quarterback Donovan McNabb wasted no time by throwing his first completion to Owens for seven yards. Throughout the crowd, you could hear the mutterings, "He's back."
"What that man did was incredible," Samuel said. "To come back the way he did from a broken ankle and play at the level he played. Well, what can you say? Some may [have] thought Owens was selfish, but he didn't want to miss the stage of the Super Bowl for himself and his teammates. Sure, he wasn't the same Owens. He didn't have great explosiveness in his run. There were times that he appeared to be limping."
But McNabb kept sending Owens downfield and kept hitting him with passes. He was making a statement.
"Before we came down here, I knew I was going to play all along," Owens said. "The media made it a situation to where they thought I was grandstanding. But like I told a lot of people. If [that was] Brett Favre, they would have called him a warrior. For me, they said I was selfish. If I'm selfish, I'm selfish because I want to help my team win."
Say what you want about Owens, but the guy risks everything for his teammates and himself. What he did was unbelievable. Things got even more remarkable when the Eagles sent Owens across the middle of the field on a third-and-seven with a crossing pattern. Wide receiver Freddie Mitchell countered with a pick play that knocked Gay off his feet.
With no flag and open space, Owens ran 30 yards to the Patriots' 17-yard line. Suddenly the receiver who was running on one leg was breaking runs after the catch. Incredible.
"I don't know what he was before the injury, but I'll tell you, it was like he didn't lose a step at all," Gay said. "I couldn't be at the level he was playing."
Gay covered Owens in the first half in man coverage. Owens caught three passes for 46 yards. In the second half, Samuel covered him a lot. There was some gamesmanship going on. The Patriots tried to make it look as though they were sliding a safety to Owens' side, but in reality, they weren't. They were giving him single coverage although Gay and Samuel had a cushion of more than five yards just so Owens wouldn't get past them for a long play.
"Basically, we were trying to mix it up and make it look like we were double covering him, but we were in the same coverages -- man-to-man -- every play," Gay said. "But we didn't want them to see that we were pressing every play so they would start throwing fades. The easiest way to get beat is to get beat deep. We gave him a little cushion so we wouldn't get beat deep."
|“||What that man did was incredible. To come back the way he did from a broken ankle and play at the level he played. Well, what can you say?”|
|—Pats CB Asante Samuel on Terrell Owens|
In the final drive of the first half, Owens appeared to be tiring. He had been on the field for 31 of 36 plays. The Eagles tried to give him a little more rest at the start of the second half by pulling him off the field on a couple of third downs, but the strategy changed when the Eagles fell behind.
"I played as many plays as I could," Owens said. "I played as many plays as the coach called. He allowed me to get on the field and he called my number. When he calls [your] plays, you have to be on the field. I played, no matter what. You don't get tired on this stage."
The most incredible play involving Owens occurred in the fourth quarter. McNabb hit Owens for an 8-yard pass, and Owens spun as Gay slipped. Owens ended up going a total of 36 yards.
"That's what I've been doing all year. I made plays," Owens said.
Owens' presence allowed McNabb to work the West Coast offense, which features receivers who make runs after the catch. Still, it's amazing that Owens could do these runs less than seven weeks after an operation.
"That's the nature of this offense," Owens said. "We run the West Coast offense, and basically when I'm involved in that, we run a lot of crossing patterns. Freddie Mitchell gave me a good pick. It's something we've been practicing all year."
When the Eagles fell behind, 24-14, Owens started to show leadership. He went over to McNabb and shouted at him to relax. McNabb followed with a touchdown drive to cut the deficit to three.
"In a situation like that, there is no reason to panic," Owens said. "When you start to panic, you're not in rhythm. Our offense is based on timing. I just wanted to be in the light because if I can do that, that's a positive for Donovan. He was out there trying to make things happen."
Owens made the impossible possible. Grant Hill, who had Owens' surgeon for an ankle problem, said he couldn't do it. Jake Reed, a former Vikings receiver who had a similar operation, said Owens needed a couple of weeks more to heal.
"It shouldn't be a surprise by anything that I did on the field," Owens said.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.