Saturday, March 07, 2009

T.O. to Get Permanent TO?

They don't look very much alike, but currently unemployed wide receiver Terrell Owens has always reminded me of Don Zimmer. That thought probably needs a bit of explanation.

Zimmer probably knew as much about the tactics and in-game decision-making of baseball as any man who ever lived. Joe Torre had damn well better have Zim standing on the podium next to him at Cooperstown when he accepts his Hall of Fame plaque for managing the Yankees. Without Zimmer's input as bench coach (there should be a better title for that, maybe "thinking coordinator") the Yanks would have won considerably fewer games on Torre's watch.

Zimmer, however, was a notably unsuccessful major league manager, and it wasn't because he didn't have talented teams to direct. The flaw of this intelligent and decent man was deeply personal. Zimmer couldn't relate in human terms to pitchers. This was understandable. Pitchers came very close to killing Zimmer. He suffered beanings in the 1950s that morphed him from the hottest prospect in the game to a utility guy, the kind who has to study the game seeking means of compensating for a .250 batting average.

Alas, the care and feeding of pitchers is far and away the most important chore on a manager's t0-do list. Zimmer is best known for his poisonous relationship with Bill Lee back in the Red Sox day. Well, Bill's a friend, but I can see why any manager might find him a handful. It spoke volumes more that Zimmer couldn't get along with Ferguson Jenkins. A manager who can't deal with a Hall of Famer has a serious issue that more than partially disqualifies him for the job.

Look past the ESPN blather, and Owens' NFL career is almost exactly parallel to Zimmer's managerial one. Owens WAS (not is, not at 35), one of the best players in his game. He could dominate from a position at which it is extremely hard to dominate. But he can't keep a steady job, and it stems from a deep personal/professional neurosis.

In the fall of 2004 at the National League Championship Series, my distinguished former professional colleague Bob Ford of the Philadelphia Inquirer said of Owens. "He's the best player the Eagles have had in the 20 years I've covered them, and the biggest asshole." Quite a few assholes have been astonishing successes in sports, just as in any line of work. What handicapped Owens is what KIND of an asshole he is.

Just as Zimmer couldn't relate to pitchers, Owens, at a profound subconscious level, cannot abide quarterbacks. At each of his three NFL ports of call, he wound up as a bitter enemy and public and in-house critic of the man who threw him the ball-Jeff Garcia with the 49ers, Donovan McNabb with the Eagles, and finally, Tony Romo with the Cowboys.

Receivers all chafe if their quarterback isn't very good. That wasn't Owens' beef. None of those three guys is a Hall of Famer. All had floaws. But all were/are well above average, leading teams that won far more often than they lost, making Pro Bowls and playoff appearances along the way.

On the surface, Owens' complaint with his QBs is that they don't throw him the ball enough. That doesn't explain the depth of his antipathy to them. ALL receivers believe they don't get thrown the ball often enough. ALL of them believe they are headed for a touchdown on the next play, if only they get a chance to get their mitts on the ball. There has never been a huddle in history where a receiver told the QB, "they're double-covering me, better throw to Fred today."

Wide receivers do not as a rule take that complaint to Owens' psycho level of discontent. They recognize it is professional suicide. Teams won't abide in-house feuds about the quarterback. Quarterbacks don't care for it, either. To complain about being frozen out of the offense is to risk it becoming a reality. Without the quarterback, a receiver is a man being paid a lot of money to run wind sprints.

That reality is what drives Owens crazy. His ego cannot handle the fact that a wideout, no matter how gifted, is in a dependent position to the man who throws him passes. His coping mechanism is to wind up resenting, then loathing, any quarterback on whom he depends.

Forced to choose between a quarterback and a wideout, teams always choose the QB. Doesn't matter if the wideout is a star and the QB a schlub. Wideouts of Owens' ability aren't easy to replace, exactly, but they're much easier to replace than quarterbacks. Cheaper, too.

Mark Maske of the Washington Post, an excellent reporter, was on ESPN last night floating the idea that the Colts might pick up Owens, because surely no receiver could fail to collaborate effectively with Peyton Manning. This is incorrect. It is my theory that Owens would hate a truly gifted quarterback even more, because such a player would be an even more painful reminder of his dependency on the guy. And the notion of Mr. Fusspot Manning tolerating Owens' hi-jinks is laughable.

Owens is 35 and on the downslide at a rapid pace. An NFL team would be deranged to hire him for the 2009 season. Of course, one will. I have a short message for the lucky quarterback of the team which promises TO yet another new beginning.

Serenity now, dude. Serenity now.


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