In the field of public opinion, Owens is catching only flak

March 12, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

THE CITY OF Baltimore isn't player-hating on Terrell Owens, it just hates the player. Player-hating involves jealousy or envy. With Owens, it's about his desire to play in Philadelphia, his big mouth and his surly attitude.

You can't go anywhere without hearing resentment of Owens, whether it's at the dentist's office, the supermarket or the mall. You mention Owens, the dog growls.

But Owens seems destined to become a Raven, which raises two questions: Is he marketable to the public, and will he fit into the team chemistry?

Baltimore's sports heroes have mirrored the city. We like them blue-collar, hard-nosed, gritty and humble, like Brooks, Boog, Frank and Johnny U.

And now here comes T.O., possibly the NFL's best wide receiver and certainly the biggest head case. He is now hated in Baltimore as much as John Elway, Albert Belle, the 1969 Jets and the Redskins of any era. If he keeps flapping his lips, he'll surpass NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and anyone named Irsay as the most hated.

A Philadelphia-based arbiter is expected to hear Owens' case tomorrow and announce Sunday whether Owens becomes property of the Ravens after last week's trade with the San Francisco 49ers, or whether he becomes a free agent. Owens prefers to play in Philadelphia.

A ruling against the Ravens would open a Pandora's box - just about any trade would become voidable, because almost every contract mechanism might be challenged. Team owners can't allow it to happen, and neither can the NFL Players Association, because it would be in violation of the collective bargaining agreement.

"Would I be shocked if the ruling was against us? No," said former Ravens majority owner Art Modell, now a team consultant. "You can never predict a third party. But the league knows Owens belongs to the Baltimore Ravens, and I think the arbiter will rule this way.

"If he rules against us, then the deadlines [to file for free agency] have no meaning and it sets a bad precedent because everyone will try to find that loophole to void a contract. What bothers me is that this city doesn't have a superiority complex. It's in between New York and Washington. But he picked Philadelphia. I could see the Jets or Giants, but Philadelphia?"

There are similar sentiments around town. Once Owens becomes a Raven, the club will have to wage a great public relations effort. Coach Brian Billick is already working on it.

He said he understands the fans' frustration.

"This is a tough one," Billick said yesterday. "It's asking a lot of our fans to recognize the business aspect of this sport. Our fans, like all fans, don't want to think of this as a business, but a game. They have their own concerns, their own worries. When they watch us practice or play, they don't want to think about that. They want an escape. ...

"When it becomes so much about the money, it diminishes the joy the fans have for the game. But when it is time to tee it up, fans will hopefully focus on just the game."

You can't fault the Ravens for going after Owens. Everybody knew he was a goofball. Look at the flamboyant touchdown celebrations and shouting matches with coaches and teammates. But Owens is the only receiver in free agency or the draft who could have enough immediate impact to put the Ravens into the Super Bowl.

According to Billick, the Ravens knew Owens might file a grievance.

"Some people like what he does, some people don't, but I haven't had anybody who approached me who wasn't excited about what he could bring or do for this team," Billick said. "Our No. 1 need has been documented over and over again.

"We were being very aggressive about taking the next step for this team to win a Super Bowl, by recognizing what we were going to have to deal with in what was arguably the best player in free agency. Rewards are usually proportional to the risk you take. Yeah, this is a risk."

Billick was spinning as fast as a young James Brown.

He pointed out that the Ravens gambled on signing injured players, such as defensive linemen Michael McCrary, Rob Burnett and Tony Siragusa and safety Rod Woodson, who were all members of the Super Bowl team.

He talked about the risk he took inserting young players into the starting lineup, such as quarterback Kyle Boller, guard Edwin Mulitalo, safety Ed Reed and running back Jamal Lewis.

He was on a roll. The Ravens haven't had such a strong PR campaign since Billick's name was plastered all over billboards throughout the city in 1999.

If Owens performs well, he'll win back some fans. But as far as the Ravens winning over Owens, it might be more difficult.

But Billick says Owens will come around, and the Ravens have the structure in place to support him. Team chemistry has been a strength for the franchise since Billick became coach, but only linebacker Ray Lewis or defensive back Corey Fuller might have the guts to put Owens in his place.

Deep down inside, Billick knows no one can handle Owens. He is going to erupt sooner or later. If the Ravens are lucky, they can get one year out of him before he flies south for the remainder of any new contract.

"As a coach, you have to put blinders on and keep your head down," Billick said. "You have to make that separation between the time for play and the time for pay. Hopefully, T.O. can make that distinction. There is a dividing line between, but it keeps getting bigger and bigger. We all eventually have to deal with it - coaches, players, administrators and fans - and move on."

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