Top receivers unable to grasp what they want

March 23, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

TO ATTEMPT to understand two of the NFL's top wide receivers, it's best to parse their language. Amazing talent and amazing mouths go hand in hand when it comes to Terrell Owens and Keyshawn Johnson.

What's also amazing is the deceptive crossing patterns both receivers run when discussing what it is, exactly, that they want out of their NFL careers. They want to win. They want to play with people who understand and respect them. They want freedom. They want to be paid. They just want to be part of the team. They want the ball. They want out. They want in. They'll probably want out again.

Is this the image of today's NFL superstar receiver?

Said Owens in the midst of his pitch to the Eagles: "Regardless of what you've heard, I've never been a selfish guy. I can catch two or three balls and block downfield to spring a guy and I'll feel like I scored a touchdown just like I caught one. It doesn't really matter. My thing is, I just want to win."

So what if Owens could have won in Baltimore? How about this for a compelling athletic challenge: being the go-to guy in an offense so desperate for a game-breaker, Ozzie Newsome and Brian Billick were willing to take on the challenge of managing T.O. Instead, Billick says the Ravens were "jobbed" by the NFL, which decided to broker a remedy rather than drag this outburst along.

Owens wanted Donovan McNabb, but how long until Owens has to eat his words, like when McNabb fails to hit Owens and instead runs out of trouble? A player proven to disrespect his coaches and teammates doesn't suddenly change just because the uniform is green and silver instead of red and gold.

He calls it competitive, his desire to win. What is it, really? Perhaps Owens should have consulted Johnson before conducting the temper tantrum that brought the NFL to its quivering knees.

Owens got his wish - Philadelphia freedom. But who's to say love and happiness will come to the Mouth That Roared, even if the Eagles finally get to the Super Bowl? Johnson won a ring in Tampa Bay, only to discover winning wasn't enough to keep him happy, hence the six-game suspension last season en route to last week's trade to Dallas.

"I'm probably more excited than I was when I won the Super Bowl. It's good to be headed somewhere I'll be working with people who know what I'm about," Johnson said Friday, after Joey Galloway agreed to a deal with Tampa Bay, finalizing the receivers' swap.

Is it time to re-examine the phrase "game-breaker"?

Sure seems that way, now that Owens, Johnson, Galloway and David Boston - four of the most physically gifted receivers in the NFL - have been shown the door. As the great Bill Murray once said in his famous lounge singer prattle: We love you, you knucklehead. Now, get out of here.

There's nothing remarkable about NFL players changing teams. How many Super Bowl teams has Ricky Proehl played on, anyway? But these are franchise players. These are once-in-a-generation talents, first-round draft picks whose signings are accompanied by multimillion-dollar bonuses and a ton of hype - until their speed, size, height and strength become secondary to psyche.

Then they sulk or complain or feel underutilized, considering their considerable talents. Then the salary cap comes down like a guillotine and there they go: A generation of talent is dispensable to the teams that worked so hard to get them.

Or paid so much to lure them.

A year ago, the Chargers guaranteed Boston almost $12 million if he played one year for the franchise that once gave Ryan Leaf $11 million as the No. 2 pick in the draft. Now, Boston is with the Dolphins, after the Chargers decided he "wasn't a good fit" and told the 25-year-old player to find a deal with a new team.

For all the lip service paid to the NFL for being the cutting edge of fan friendliness, about its rise as the new national pastime, how can it not be detrimental to the product when so many of the league's top skill stars earn reputations as selfish, self-serving mercenaries who reduce relationships to rubble in order to gain leverage?

Boston leaves San Diego with coach Marty Schottenheimer calling him "basically a good kid," but in order to justify their business needs, the Chargers were eager to cast Boston as aloof, with "questionable practice habits."

Likewise, Galloway has never found a way for his "game-breaking" speed to supersede his reputation as a prima donna. How much distance is there between what he thought he'd be and what he has become? More miles than what runs between Columbus, Ohio, and Seattle, Dallas and now Tampa Bay.

In 1999, Galloway held out in a contract dispute with the Seahawks, from whom the Ohio State speedster demanded to be paid the highest among NFL receivers. The Seahawks refused, prompting Galloway to stay out until November, when he joined the team only so he wouldn't lose a year of eligibility toward free agency.

While Seahawks coach and former GM Mike Holmgren later said he regretted the way he handled the dispute, there's little doubt Galloway's situation did nothing except extend the Seahawks' inability to turn things around. Instead of a game-breaker, he was a franchise-staller. For a franchise eager to ride the next Steve Largent back to the playoffs, Galloway imploded. There was no "team" in Galloway.

Finally, wearing the franchise tag, Galloway went to Dallas in exchange for two first-round picks.

Now, in another twist of fate, Galloway's underwhelming career is linked to Johnson. The former Jet's chaotic path now takes him to Dallas, where he'll probably get what he wants for a while: Bill Parcells, a system tailored to his under-coverage catching acumen, playoffs.

They come, they catch, they argue, fuss and fight. Then they go.

What will posterity say about the four princes of relocation? Pains in the posterior. But we'd take one, and take our chances.

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