The most disconcerting aspect of Terrell Owens's latest jihad against the Philadelphia Eagles is that no one on the roster stepped up and socked the guy in the jaw. What that portends for the Eagles, who are staring up from the bottom of the NFC East, isn't good.
Last year Philly made a deal with the devil when they signed Owens as a free agent, and he supplied what was missing from a team that had fallen just short of the Super Bowl three seasons in a row. But this year they are paying the price. The ruinous distractions created by Owens have been the biggest factor in the Eagles' slide to 4-4, the first time they've been at or below .500 at midseason since 1999, Andy Reid's first year as coach.
Though the TO front had been mostly quiet since September, tensions had been building behind the scenes, and the lid blew last week. Owens injured his right ankle in an Oct. 30 loss to Denver and told the team he might miss the Redskins game. On Nov. 2, according to an Eagles source, Owens and retired defensive end Hugh Douglas, now the team's community ambassador, got into a dispute concerning comments made on a Philly radio show that questioned the extent of Owens's injury. The two scuffled, and, according to one player who was present, Owens then issued a challenge while staring a hole through McNabb: "Anybody else want a piece of me?" There were no takers--no one willing to get in Owens's grill and demand that he stop sabotaging the team.
The next day Owens told ESPN.com that the Philadelphia organization was classless for not publicly recognizing his 100th career touchdown reception, which had come on Oct. 23 against San Diego. He also said he agreed with Michael Irvin's on-air assessment that the Eagles would probably be undefeated this year if they had Brett Favre at quarterback. Reid ordered Owens to apologize to the team and the organization and to McNabb personally for his comments, but Owens merely read a terse statement to the press, expressing regrets to "the organization and my teammates"for his comments regarding the touchdown record. By midday Saturday, Owens still hadn't apologized to McNabb, so Reid suspended him indefinitely.
The Eagles were a happy bunch when Reid drew the line. On the eve of their divisional showdown with the Redskins, they wanted to believe all was well, and they were relieved that Owens had failed to bait other players into a brawl. "I think it's important that there's at least one sane person in the locker room," said McNabb as he relaxed in the team's hotel in College Park, Md., last Saturday night. "What do we get out of it if I come to blows with him? Nothing. The only thing that would have come out of me punching him or choking him is more craziness."
Owens was nowhere in sight after Philadelphia's 17-10 loss to the Redskins the next night, but his presence loomed in the disheartened Eagles locker room. Two out of every three questions from the Philly media throng were related to TO, and it's clear the saga will cloud the remainder of the Eagles' season. On Monday, Reid suspended Owens for three more games and said he'd be deactivated for the remainder of the season.
After the Redskins loss, Eagles players talked bravely of making a playoff run, and they might have enough talent on board to pull it off. "This reminds me of two years ago when we started 0-2 and there was all the Rush Limbaugh stuff with Donovan," wideout Greg Lewis said after the game. "We rebounded to win the division. We've got the same team leaders now, so it's definitely not over for us."
It may not be over, but there are major differences between 2003 and this year.
The leaders. Troy Vincent, Corey Simon and Chad Lewis were a significant locker-room presence in '03. They're all gone.
The division. The Eagles have won the NFC East four years in a row, but now they're 4--4 and two games out of first. In 2003 Dallas, New York and Washington were a combined 19-29, and the Eagles went 5-1 against them. This year those three are a combined 16-8.
The schedule. The Eagles went 7-1 down the stretch in 2003 to win home field through the playoffs. Even with five of the last eight games at home this year, it will be hard to dominate a schedule that has only two losing teams on it.
The running game is Philly's glaring deficiency. Washington, beat up on its defensive front and allowing 4.5 yards per carry going into the game, held the Eagles to 45 yards on 23 carries. With a pitiful 58.6 rushing yards per game, the Eagles are last in the league.
The very strong temptation is to order the funeral flowers for the Eagles, but they show enough flashes of life--like McNabb's 56-yard first-quarter touchdown strike to Owens's replacement, rookie Reggie Brown--to persuade you that it's a little early to shovel the dirt on them. "Last year we won 13," McNabb said last Saturday night. "I think we've got 11 wins in us."
That would mean a 7-1 finish, which is hard to imagine without Owens. When he spoke to his silent team after the game on Sunday night, Reid said, "We just made it harder on ourselves, but there's plenty of season left." For the Eagles' sake the second half better not be much like the first.
AL TIELEMANS (MCNABB); RUSTY KENNEDY/AP
A day after Owens (inset) was suspended, McNabb and the Eagles fell flat against the division-rival Redskins.