As the trade deadline loomed only a few hours away Tuesday afternoon, a high-ranking AFC executive was rattling off some tidbits about potential movement around the league when the conversation turned to the value of Buffalo Bills wideout Terrell Owens(notes). Still hyped by the media as a commodity at this week’s deadline, Owens had been relegated to footnote status long ago by this particular talent evaluator
“He’s hit the wall,” the AFC executive said. “I think he has. I think it’s done or close to it. He’ll have a couple of games here and there where he shows up, but big picture, long term, I think it’s done.”
That was an opinion echoed by multiple front-office executives contacted by Yahoo! Sports this week. Posed with two questions (does Owens have any significant trade value, and where is his career going) the answers were resounding: He now commands little on the market, and beyond a “name” that sells tickets, his impact going forward is expected to be marginal at best. Like Marvin Harrison(notes) last season, the soon-to-be 36-year-old Owens is viewed by personnel men as the NFL’s dying supernova of 2009 – a star on the verge of a fascinating final collapse that many NFL front offices want to avoid.
Their opinions aren’t solely driven by numbers, although that would be understandable. Through six games, Owens is off to arguably his worst start since his rookie season: 15 catches for 215 yards and one touchdown, and a yards-after-catch average (3.3) that is the lowest of his career. Part of the ineffectiveness can be blamed on the offensive pieces surrounding Owens, but personnel men familiar with his film say that’s hardly the only issue.
“I hear that he’s one of the greatest of all time, but I don’t buy it – never did,” said one general manager. “He drops balls. He’s not a natural catcher. He’s not a great route runner, blah, blah, blah. He’s big and strong and good with the run after the catch, if he catches it. I can give you 100 negatives. It’s just not worth it.
“Someone else [on another team] will say the opposite. [They’ll say] ‘We’ll get him to catch better. We’ll get him to do what we want.’ [They’ll say] ‘He’s a threat just being on the field. He’ll open up other players.’ Well, when you’re talking about that, you’re talking about using a guy knowing he’s a failure and who might shock you with a touchdown or two. But basically you’re sacrificing him to free up our other good players. That’s what I’ve been hearing for two years, and that’s the death march right there.”
In fairness, whatever Owens has lost off his game has been made exponentially worse by some of Buffalo’s other decisions. When the franchise traded anchor offensive tackle Jason Peters(notes) to the Philadelphia Eagles in April, it essentially began a complete gutting of the offensive line. Thanks to the makeover and injuries, Buffalo actually started three rookies against the New York Jets last week: right tackle Jamon Meredith(notes) and guards Eric Wood(notes) and Andy Levitre(notes).
The inexperience of those players, along with concerns about health at the quarterback position, has created some significant changes in scheme. There isn’t the protection for deeper drops and more developed routes downfield – the kinds of routes that would best suit Owens. There are also more maximum protection situations, resulting in fewer receivers released in routes and more opportunities for defenses to double Owens.
“Their offensive line is really struggling,” former Bills coach and general manger Marv Levy said. “It’s young, it’s inexperienced and now add to that that they’re beaten up and battered. They’re seeing a tremendous amount of double coverage on their receivers. Then they get behind and have to throw the ball. As a result [of the double teams] they have to throw a lot of dump off passes, so the offense field gets shorter. So there aren’t many going to him. That’s really what it amounts to. You can force it to him, but that’s when you get interceptions.”
But even blaming the offense doesn’t tell the full story. One Jets player said that when New York was prepping for Owens, the strategy for dealing with him was fairly basic. He wasn’t reacting well to physical contact at the line of scrimmage, and didn’t warrant double coverage. While superb cornerback Darrelle Revis(notes) was expected to be singled up with Owens most of the day, the Jets delivered simple instructions to whoever found himself across from the receiver: get your hands into his chest at the line of scrimmage and don’t worry about surrendering short area passes. The result was Owens getting targeted eight times, catching three balls for only 13 yards.
“I don’t think we doubled him once,” the Jets player said. “Buffalo will make you hit a wall [in your career]. People thought Randy Moss(notes) hit a wall, too, didn’t they? How motivated is [Owens] to play in Buffalo? How excited is he about the offense? They just canned the no-huddle [stuff] because it wasn’t working. They’re not finding creative ways to get him the football, either.”
Asked if he thought Owens could still be a great player in the league, the Jets player replied, “I don’t know. But definitely not on that offense.”
Clearly, the move to the Bills was a major career miscalculation. And one that Owens likely realized early on, when strife began to develop during the preseason between former offensive coordinator Turk Schonert and head coach Dick Jauron. But even now, it’s not known if Owens actually had other legitimate suitors for his talents. While agent Drew Rosenhaus said there were “several” teams interested in his client after his release by the Dallas Cowboys in March, not one other team has surfaced as having expressed serious interest.
All of that raises the question of where Owens will go from here. One year ago, many speculated that Harrison would certainly find another NFL team if he was cut by the Indianapolis Colts in the offseason. However, his declining skills and off-field baggage made him practically radioactive. It stands to reason that the same could be in store for Owens when he becomes a free agent after this season. Unless another franchise is willing to take Buffalo’s stance that Owens is good for ticket sales, the rest of his attributes will be hotly debated – especially if he is viewed as a marginal No. 2 or even a No. 3 receiver.
“He has slowed down far too much and he is a lightning rod for noise that teams don’t need,” said the aforementioned AFC executive. “This guy used to create a large part of his problems [with the media], but now [reporters] are trying to help him create problems. Part of what he said is true – the assertion that he’s just trying to be left alone but people won’t leave him alone. But that’s his cross to bear because of how he acted when he was younger.
“It’s kind of like what was following Randy Moss years ago. Randy changed. But he finally got to a place where it’s closed down enough [in New England] where [reporters] tried following him like a hound but they couldn’t.”
Clearly, Owens is a player with a gauntlet of concerns that make him a shaky commodity. And that’s not even factoring in the bridges he has burned throughout his years in the league. That reality was punctuated when media reports linked the Baltimore Ravens to a potential pursuit of Owens at the trade deadline. One player who had a front row seat for the messy situation involving Owens in 2004 was incredulous when informed by Y! Sports of the Ravens/Owens trade speculation.
The player said Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome was “furious” when Owens forced his way to the Eagles after Baltimore had acquired him via trade. After using a union grievance to win a trade to Philadelphia, Owens subsequently flamed Newsome in his autobiography “Catch This!”, which came out shortly after he shunned the Ravens. In the book, Owens alleged that Newsome had remarked to Owens’ agent that “sometimes a black man’s gotta be slapped.” Owens later told Baltimore reporters that statement was one of the reasons he didn’t want to play for the Ravens. Newsome has consistently refused to comment on the book.
“Do you think Ozzie would trade for him after that?” the player said. “Not after he [expletive] on Ozzie like that. Everybody in the organization knew it. He’ll never have a job [in Baltimore]. He [expletive] on everybody. Whatever [Ravens coach and former Eagles assistant Jim Harbaugh] says about thinking Owens is a great player, Ozzie isn’t going for that. Ozzie is calling the shots. T.O. called Ozzie out. He talked [expletive] about Ozzie. And Ozzie isn’t going to trade for a player who called him out.”
In fairness, Owens has been largely silent so far in Buffalo. Aside from some subtle digs at the play-calling, he has avoided the blowups that have marked his previous stops.
And yet, the typical drama that has followed Owens doesn’t seem to be the primary concern anymore. Instead, he may be finally becoming more a victim of what he does on the field than off. Ask evaluators about his value now, and they’ll tell you it’s not an issue of the walls he builds inside the locker room, but rather the walls he runs into once he leaves it.