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The secret to T.O.'s big season? Great relationship with WR coach

IRVING, Texas -- Terrell Owens is part jokester, part self-promoter, traits that should be remembered when you hear some of his recent comments.

You know, wacky things like possibly going into the Hall of Fame while still playing and being able to take over games a la Michael Jordan.

Yet when the topic becomes Ray Sherman, T.O. gets serious.

Sherman is in his first year as receivers coach of the Dallas Cowboys, which means he is Owens' immediate boss. But the longtime NFL assistant has become more than that.

To Owens, Sherman is a source of advice and inspiration, a sounding board for problems in football and in life. And, most of all, a friend.

Their relationship is at the core of why Owens has been so happy -- and so productive -- this season.

"It's just respect, him allowing me to be who I am, and I respect who he is," Owens said. "I want to be the best in whatever I can to help this team win. That's all I ever wanted. I feel like I'm in a situation that's showing that."

Shocked? Don't be. Owens has bonded with position coaches before, happily sharing their names: David Culley, George Stewart, Larry Kirksey. It's just that T.O. being T.O., he gets far more headlines when he gets crosswise with coaches, a list that includes Greg Knapp, Brad Childress and Todd Haley, who was Dallas' receivers coach last year.

According to Owens, Haley decided the wideout was trouble before they ever met and treated him as such, never listening to Owens' midweek suggestions about the game plan or in-game ideas about adjustments. Whether that was truly the case doesn't matter. Owens thought so, and the bad vibes manifested.

There were fines for being late to work, disclosure of a medical condition that causes him to fall asleep in meetings, and angry talk of a "snitch" in the organization. Owens also had a league-leading drop total that at times overshadowed his league-leading TD total. Last season also featured his accidental overdose.

Haley left to become the offensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals in late January. A few weeks later, Wade Phillips replaced Bill Parcells as head coach of the Cowboys, then hired Sherman.

This is Sherman's ninth NFL team and his 20th straight season, so he's worked with a lot of receivers, including Jerry Rice, Cris Carter and Randy Moss. Along the way, Sherman has learned never to judge a player by his public perception.

"I don't know what was said to a young man for him to act a certain way. I only know how I treat them and work with them, so that's what I go on," Sherman said.

Sherman and Haley are as opposite as Phillips and Parcells, which means he's a kinder, gentler type. He speaks to Owens instead of yelling at him, the cussing left out. The angry, in-your-face style might work with some players, but Owens isn't among them.

"I'm very fortunate for Ray," Owens said. "He's done a great job here, not only with me but the other guys, as well. We joke around and have a lot of fun, but it's business and he treats us like men."

Every Thursday, Sherman and the receivers have a "Keep it real" session in which they talk anything but football. Sherman also recently had all the receivers to his house for dinner with his wife and two children.

Despite his soft side, Sherman can be tough and demanding. However, because Owens trusts him, he embraces being coached. A sideline microphone recently picked up Owens telling Sherman to keep pushing him hard.

"I stay on him," Sherman said. "I'm not going to let him slide and let him get away with things. He knows that. If he does something wrong, then I'll go tell him. He's very receptive to criticism and he always is doing what we ask him to do."

The best example came against Washington.

Owens was coming off two big games and the Redskins were determined to keep him from making it three straight. He still scored a first-half touchdown, then caught another in the third quarter. Sherman could tell by the look in Owens' eyes that he wanted the ball, but the coach told him to calm down, be patient and remain focused.

Sure enough, Owens' next two catches went for touchdowns. Long ones, too.

"After the game, he texted me," Sherman said. "He said, `Thank you for keeping me focused on what I need to do."'

Owens already has tied last year's TD total with 13, along with 64 catches and 1,093 yards. He's moved into the career top 10 in all three categories, and leads the conference in yards and TDs. His drops are way down, too.

"I'm always looking for a coach to point out my weaknesses to make me better," Owens said. "I want them to coach me to be the best. I don't feel that I am the best, but I have the talent and the potential to do so."

His next performance comes Thursday night against the Packers in a meeting of the NFC's top two teams, each 10-1 and seeking home-field advantage in the playoffs.

While the Packers aren't looking forward to seeing Owens, many of them will be happy to see Sherman, their receivers coach from 2000-04.

"Great guy, very bright, very knowledgeable," Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre said. "He's bounced around a lot of teams, but everywhere he goes he has success. Guys just kind of cling to him. He has that personality about him. You want to be in his meetings, you want to succeed for him."

T.O. is doing exactly that.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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