Thursday March 5th, 2009

Minutes after that galling 44-6 debacle of a loss at Philadelphia that both ended and summarized Dallas' lost season of 2008, I stood off Jerry Jones' right shoulder in the Cowboys locker room and listened as the man who presided over the train wreck preached the virtues of continuity and staying the course. As if it was the only obvious path to take at that moment of disappointment and defeat.

Jones' soliloquy on the wonders of continuity seemed wildly out of place in that setting, after that particular low moment in Cowboys history, and it's clear today his belief in the status quo only extended so far. Coaching staff continuity? Yes. Roster continuity? No. And not just no in the sense that every NFL team loses players every offseason, but no as in T.O. must go. We now know which camp Jones ultimately joined in that most contentious of all debates that raged in Dallas, which centered on whether the Cowboys would be better off with or without receiver Terrell Owens in 2009.

The news, of course, is only surprising because Jones seemed to be telling us two weeks ago that Owens would already be gone if he were inclined to part ways with his mercurial receiver this offseason. But Jones, who has taken to speaking in riddles of late, has doubled back on his own words before and he'll do so again. In Jerryspeak, there's always verbal wiggle room to be had when events dictate it's necessary.

I don't happen to believe Owens was the root of all the problems that bedeviled the Cowboys last season, a team that seemed destined to underachieve from the moment the HBO cameras started rolling in training camp.

To focus solely on T.O. as the locker-room cancer is to overlook the legitimate questions that surrounded Tony Romo's displays of leadership, maturity and competitive fire. Owens can't be blamed entirely for Wade Phillips' inability to exert any disciplinary control over his team or to set a tough-minded tone for his team to follow through the inevitable adversity that a season brings.

I also find it difficult to pin fault on Owens for offensive coordinator Jason Garrett's lack of adaptability and continued development as a play-caller whose moves didn't fool as many defenses last season. Same for a talent-laden Cowboys defense that far too often played as a unit reading from 11 different pages of the playbook, rather than the same one.

To lay everything at the feet of Owens and maintain that everything has now been fixed is wrong. But at the same time, I do believe most of the problems in Dallas last year had at least some of their origins in the high-maintenance Owens and the locker room chemistry issues that arise wherever he goes. Romo, Garrett and Phillips are all probably better off not having to deal with the Owens factor, and Dallas' locker room just lost a good bit of volatility that can't help but help the cause this season.

I talked to one Dallas source early Thursday morning who spoke with Owens on Wednesday night, after T.O. learned his three-year stay in Dallas was over. It sounds to me as if Owens believed he was safe for another year as of a couple weeks ago, when Jones seemed to assure anyone listening he wasn't cutting his star receiver.

"I think he's more in shock than anything,'' the Cowboys source said. "I'm sure he thought he was safe at this point. But he wasn't sure. I really don't know why it happened now. I really don't. I have no answer to that.''

While the Cowboys just became the third NFL team to reach a tipping point when it comes to Owens and his downside versus his upside debate, I'm confident there will be a fourth team willing to weigh that for itself. I don't know who exactly comes after San Francisco, Philadelphia and Dallas. The Jets, Raiders or Redskins would be my three choices if I had to guess. But I doubt we've seen the last of Owens just yet.

"The guy can still play,'' said the Dallas source. "He still makes a defense account for where he is, and they still have to double him.''

As for Dallas, the hope is the Cowboys just improved via the old addition by subtraction route. But while the chemistry in Dallas will undoubtedly be less turbulent, the question of whether the Cowboys can replace Owens' on-field contributions now shines the spotlight directly on Roy Williams, who just became his team's No. 1 receiver by default.

There are plenty of unknowns when it comes to Williams, but that won't last long, because the Cowboys are about to discover if he's up to the task.

"Time will tell,'' the Cowboys source said. "We're going to find out if he can do it. He was hurt last year when we got him, but now he's going to be healthy and he'll have a chance to do it. When the season's over, we can look at it and then determine if [T.O.] was the reason.

"But I'll tell you one thing right now: He [Williams] isn't going to replace No. 81. He can't run like 81. I hope he does. I hope I'm wrong. But not many can run like 81. Time will tell. We're about to find out what Roy Williams can do.''

And we're about to find out if T.O. was the problem in Dallas, or just a very big part of it. After much debate, the Cowboys decided continuity is overrated in some cases. I can't blame Jones for coming to that conclusion. Sometimes the status quo has to go.

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