In Owens, Eagles hope risk yields reward

Even with baggage, he may get Philly over hump

Pro Football

August 20, 2004|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The Philadelphia Eagles made major concessions in March when they hammered out the deal that united controversial wide receiver Terrell Owens with cornerstone quarterback Donovan McNabb.

First, they had to stretch a salary cap blueprint that essentially avoids big payouts to skill position players.

Then they had to rethink a philosophy that distributes the offensive wealth - i.e. McNabb's short passes - evenly among his receivers.

But after losing three consecutive NFC championship games, the Eagles were more than willing to bite off whatever risk accompanied the arrival of one of the NFL's most flamboyant players.

"It's where we are at the moment, what we need," said Joe Banner, team president. "A unique opportunity was presented for such a great talent.

"There aren't many players of that caliber that are ever available. It's rare, and happens to be at a position that has a chance to push us up to the next level."

After a brutal 14-3 loss to the Carolina Panthers in January's NFC title game, the Eagles finally got the big-play receiver McNabb has lacked.

It took a defiant stand by Owens, a rescinded trade to the Ravens and league intervention while an arbitrator's clock ran down to get it done. On March 16, a three-team trade sent Owens from the San Francisco 49ers to the Eagles, followed by over-the-top expectations.

Now all Owens has to do is produce a Super Bowl for Philadelphia.

To his credit, the four-time Pro Bowler doesn't flinch from the responsibility.

"It's an opportunity of a lifetime," Owens said of his preference to play for the Eagles and not the Ravens. "I think this team ... [has] definitely been on the verge of getting to the big show. Obviously, I felt like I could be a big piece of the pie to get them to that next level. I know what I bring to the table."

Owens, who faces the Ravens and Ray Lewis for the first time as an Eagle in tonight's preseason game, in fact brings a contradiction of terms to the table. While he averaged 92 catches per season his last four years in San Francisco - with 51 touchdowns - the 49ers were only too happy to unload a player who had been a major distraction.

He received more attention for sideline outbursts, a critique of former teammate Jeff Garcia's sexuality and after-the-play antics than for his touchdowns.

But those character flaws didn't bother the Eagles.

"We've always defined character more in terms of off-field problems, work ethic, desire to win, things that even those who would speak the most negative about him would agree that he's top of the line in those areas," Banner said.

"Any extent of research with Terrell tells you [he's] a guy who cares passionately about winning and a guy that will work as hard as he has to."

As soon as the deal was made, the Eagles rewarded Owens, 30, with a seven-year contract worth $48 million. This represented a departure in the team's free agent strategy. With the exception of a $115 million contract awarded to McNabb two years ago, the Eagles have not gone overboard paying for skill-position players. They have been more willing to pay top dollar for blue-collar positions, like the $66 million they're giving defensive end Jevon Kearse.

Owens also figures to force alterations in coach Andy Reid's spread-the-wealth passing game. Last year, the Eagles were the only team in the NFL that had as many as seven players catch at least 23 passes. Since 2001, they are 15-2 when eight or more receivers catch a pass.

This year, though, Owens will be the focus of the passing game.

"Because you have a good playmaker and he's been in the Pro Bowl year after year, you want to give him the ball," said running back Brian Westbrook. "You want to put the ball in his hands as much as possible."

McNabb reached for the bottom line when asked recently what will happen the first time Owens has a nondescript, three-catch, 27-yard game.

"Well, that should be in the first quarter, the first two quarters," McNabb answered. "So I don't expect that to happen and if that happens, then we have to come up as a unit and me as a quarterback, working with the coaches, in trying to work on ways of getting him the ball."

Carrying the weight of a city's Super Bowl dreams on his shoulders, Owens has definite expectations.

"They brought me here to make plays," Owens said. "They know the talent that I have, otherwise they wouldn't have brought me in here. I know I'm repeating myself, but that's part of the reason I'm here, to make plays."

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