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Risk outweighs reward when it comes to signing Owens

  • By Vic Carucci NFL.com
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Terrell Owens can't get a job in the NFL doing what he does best, which is catching passes.

The main reason for his inability to find work is that he doesn't catch them as well or as often as he did at the height of his career.

But there are other factors.

The biggest is that Owens wants to be paid in the neighborhood of what he received for spending the 2009 season with the Buffalo Bills: $6.5 million. Some speculation has his asking price at about $5 million.

Dean Duprey / Associated Press
Terrell Owens has seen a major drop-off in statistical production over the past three seasons.
Diminishing returns
Year
Catches
Yards
TDs
2009
55
829
5
2008
69
1,052
10
2007
81
1,355
15

Given that Owens is seven months from his 37th birthday, he is dreaming if he thinks he can command that sort of money. A more realistic number is between $1.5 and $2 million, and that would likely not be guaranteed the way last year's one-year agreement was.

Granted, Owens is one of the top wide receivers in NFL history and one of the league's best-conditioned players at any position. Physically, he could pass for someone 10 years younger.

However, Owens' age can and will be used against him, even for a contract that would pay significantly less than what he made in 2009. Professional athletes, even ones who take superb care of their bodies, depreciate. There comes a point when NFL decision-makers look at how old a player is in conjunction with the position he plays, and then consult statistical analysis that illustrates the projected rate of decline. Although few positions allow for much leeway in this regard, wide receivers are right near the top of the list of players who don't age gracefully. They get old and they get cut.

The Bills used the signing of Owens as a marketing campaign that wouldn't have existed without his presence. His instant infusion of celebrity on a roster devoid of marquee talent caused an immediate spike in the sales of tickets, sponsorships and merchandise. The return well exceeded the value of his contract.

But after missing the playoffs for a 10th consecutive season, the Bills knew that Owens would be no factor this time around, and allowed him to become a free agent.

No other team sees Owens as having the same magnetic effect on ticket buyers or sponsors.

Yes, he did lead the Bills in receptions last year with 55 for 829 yards. If you apply those numbers to most receivers, they would qualify as respectable. For Owens, they reflect a continued downward spiral from the lofty performance standard he established early in his career. It was his lowest reception total since 2005, when he appeared in only seven games for the Philadelphia Eagles, and his least productive full season since his rookie year with the San Francisco 49ers in 1996.

The Bills offense was a mess, especially at quarterback, and there is no denying that contributed to the struggles of Owens, Lee Evans and other receivers. Still, there were many times when Owens had problems getting open and making catches that he once made with ease. General managers and coaches have watched the videotape, and don't see the dominant force that he was in his early days.

The other big concern with Owens is whether he can stay healthy. A player in his late 30s is more susceptible to injuries. Owens dealt with a nagging toe problem last season. It's reasonable to wonder if he can make it through all or most of a 16-game schedule, especially as defenses continue to do what they always have done against him: Knock him around as much as possible.

Owens' pickiness when it comes to a potential future employer doesn't end with money. Word around the NFL is that he only wants to play for a team with an established quarterback ... or at least one who is more established than the three from whom he caught passes last year -- Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brian Brohm.

"It isn't just the money," one NFL coach said. "He wants to be with a team with a good quarterback. At this stage, he doesn't want to go through what he went through last year. And who could blame him?"

The trouble is, the list of possible landing spots for Owens seems to get shorter by the month.

At one point, it appeared he might join the Cincinnati Bengals, who have a pretty good quarterback named Carson Palmer. Their top receiver, Chad Ochocinco, campaigned heavily for the Bengals to bring Owens aboard. Owens even visited Cincinnati, generating strong speculation that he would leave with a contract. Instead, the Bengals signed Antonio Bryant, who was visiting them at the same time.

That seemingly set the tone for what so far has been the offseason of Owens' discontent.

The Baltimore Ravens, who had tried hard to acquire Owens from the 49ers before he ended up in Philadelphia, also figured to have interest. Then, they acquired Anquan Boldin from the Arizona Cardinals to beef up the receiving corps for rising young quarterback Joe Flacco.

The Washington Redskins seemed like a possibility when their new signal-caller, Donovan McNabb, said that he and Owens had settled the differences of their much-publicized clashes in Philly and that he would welcome him in D.C. But the Redskins' new coach, Mike Shanahan, and new GM, Bruce Allen, said no.

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How about the Seattle Seahawks, whose new coach (Pete Carroll) and GM (John Schneider) are looking to maximize what they get from veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and newly acquired Charlie Whitehurst? Nope. The Chicago Bears, who are desperate to improve Jay Cutler's performance? Sorry. What about the Oakland Raiders, who have shaken things up in their passing game in a big way? Again, plenty of talk but no action.

Owens' history of being a divisive force did not rear its ugly head in Buffalo. He was on his best behavior all season. Did he make suggestions about strategy and play-calling to former offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt and the quarterbacks? Absolutely. Did he hesitate to let the quarterbacks know when he thought he was open and the ball didn't come his way? Not at all.

By all accounts, however, Owens said and did all of the right things in the locker room and in public. That was downright amazing, given the Bills' struggles and the lame-duck status of coach Dick Jauron, who was fired during the season.

Owens not only did a good job of steering clear of confrontation, he also displayed good teamwork by constantly trying to help younger receivers such as the man taking his place, James Hardy.

Still, Owens will never be able to shake the reputation he built for the trouble he caused in San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Dallas. A number of teams maintain the opinion they held in the wake of his release from the Cowboys after the 2008 season -- that he simply isn't worth the trouble, even for a fraction of his '09 salary. The situation would be different if Owens were younger and still performing at a consistently high level. Many coaches and GMs are enticed by such risk-reward opportunities.

Now, for various reasons, all anyone can see in Owens is risk.

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