Somewhere along the line, Terrell Owens' words and other activity unrelated to football became more important than everything he did on the field.
The funny part is that, since entering the NFL in 1996, he has done plenty on the field.
Owens' career numbers scream consistency and abundant production -- the kind of stuff found on the résumés of some of the best current and former wide receivers in the league.
If only they could be heard over the din of his T.O. persona, which repeatedly puts him at odds with those around him and at the center of controversy.
Few, if any, conversations about Owens deal with what he does as a receiver. In fact, the shadow that his off-the-field antics casts over his many impressive accomplishments as a player is so vast, it's almost as if football is his part-time occupation.
Take the past week, for example. Owens has made a fair amount of news, yet none of it pertains to his ability to run routes and catch passes.
Just last Tuesday, he was being ridiculed by a teammate on national television. In the world of T.O., of course, the other person involved in the flap had nothing to do with his day job. Apparently, supermodel Joanna Krupa, paired with Owens during the debut of ABC's "The Superstars," wasn't at all thrilled with his effort during the competition. She was especially frustrated by the fact that his feet became entangled in nets on an obstacle course and could be heard saying, within earshot of Owens, "I don't want a teammate like that! Calls himself an athlete? What does he get a million dollars for?"
Actually, Owens is going to get $6.5 million to play for the Buffalo Bills. But other than the video and photographic evidence of his participation in offseason workouts, you wouldn't know it.
When Owens' name gets brought up in public, it's because:
» Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson is talking about seeking suggestions from fans for end-zone celebrations that would outdo those of Owens and another polarizing figure, Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco. "If it's better than T.O. or Ochocinco, I'll pay the fine," Johnson, who as a rookie last season was fined $15,000 for playing bongo drums after a long scoring run against Kansas City, told the Nashville City Paper.
» Dallas Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones is acknowledging that at least part of the reason the Cowboys released Owens in March was to give quarterback Tony Romo more room to lead the team. "It's hard to take over leadership when you've got a strong personality like Terrell," Jones told Yahoo! Sports. "If you look back at our old teams (from the 1990s), a lot of people would say maybe Michael (Irvin) was the leader. Then you might say, 'He was a receiver. What about Troy (Aikman)? He was the quarterback. Wasn't he the leader?' And the answer is, yeah, Troy was a leader. But if Michael wasn't supportive of him, Troy would've had problems."
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» Owens is complaining, via Twitter, about his struggles to find a house to rent in the Buffalo area. In one post, he said he was denied the chance to view a home because owners didn't want his drama in their neighborhood. Afterward, Owens posted on Twitter that he had found a home, but in a later post said the deal was off because the realtor shared the news with a Buffalo television station and, therefore, violated his request for confidentiality.
I've used this space multiple times to criticize Owens for being a disruptive force everywhere he has been in the NFL. I've not grown any fonder of the divisiveness he displayed in San Francisco, Philadelphia or Dallas. I've also questioned the Bills' wisdom in mixing his strong personality with that of mild-mannered coach Dick Jauron and quarterback Trent Edwards.
But I do think it's a shame that Owens' statistics will probably never be appreciated for having the kind of quality that should stand the test of time. He has had nine seasons with 1,000 yards in receptions. He has had eight seasons with double-digit touchdown catches and seven seasons with 13 or more. The only receiver with more that that is the one universally regarded as the best to ever play the game, Jerry Rice.
Owens ranks second all-time in receiving touchdowns (131) and is in the top 10 all-time in receptions (951, tying him with former Bills great Andre Reed) and receiving yards (14,122). He has been selected to six Pro Bowls and his legacy includes returning only six weeks after ankle surgery to give a gutty and impressive showing in Super Bowl XXXIX.
There's a reasonable chance that, although his skills seem to be on the decline, he could thrive in Buffalo and make his career statistics even stronger. The Bills have hitched their marketing wagon to him. Their coaches are taking a similar approach with an offense designed to move at a faster pace and give Edwards greater leeway to attack through the air as he sees fit.
Yet, there are countless people who won't change their perspective on Owens. They will only see him as the reason that makers of headache-relief medication stay in business.
Typical of the reaction I heard soon after he signed with the Bills was this, from a former NFL general manager who requested anonymity: "Is (team owner) Ralph (Wilson) nuts?" And this, from a current NFL general manager who also requested anonymity: "It's a disgrace that he'll be wearing a Bills uniform when he surpasses Andre Reed."
To them, the lasting images of Owens aren't of him making spectacular and important catches. They're of him, as a 49er, taunting the Cowboys by standing on the star in the middle of Texas Stadium. They're of him, as an Eagle, doing situps in his driveway while surrounded by cameras. They're of him dumping a box of popcorn through his facemask as part of a touchdown celebration with the Cowboys. They're of him berating teammates and coaches on the sidelines.
They remember the holdouts. They remember the drama.
"A lot of our players thought the world of Terrell -- they still do," Stephen Jones told Yahoo! Sports. "They loved the way he prepared and how hard he played, and everybody respected his skills and what he'd done in the league. And with him (in Dallas), I think he was always going to carry that kind of weight."
The problem was that it made him too big for Romo.
Too bad that has more to do about his personality than about his numbers.