Monday March 9th, 2009

A quiet weekend in the league, with one exception -- plus good and very bad news from Iraq, and a fairly emotional King family move. Those are the headlines I've got for you, with an apology for running late today on the column.

***

"How about T.O.?''

Bills chief operating office Russ Brandon woke up sometime after midnight Friday morning and noticed there was a text message on his cell phone. So he reached over and looked. It was from Trent Edwards, the quarterback of the Bills. "How about T.O.?'' That's all it said.

Brandon shot back with this: "?''

"T.O. was released. Go get him,'' Edwards texted back.

Brandon still seemed surprised when I spoke to him late Sunday. "I went back to sleep,'' he said, "but I was stunned by it. The next morning, [coach] Dick Jauron and I talked, and he said, 'I think it's something we certainly should take a look at.' I put a call into [owner] Ralph Wilson, and he said, 'Absolutely look into it.'''

And that was it. The only team to seriously kick the tires on Owens got its man a day later for three major reasons:

1. The Bills think Jauron is the perfect coach -- calm but commanding -- to handle Mount Terrell.

2. The organization is sick of perpetually being one weapon away from catching New England (and Miami and the Jets, as it turns out), and it's willing to take the risk of having Owens ruin the locker room so it can have a chance to win the division.

3. The Bills did the one-year deal for a fairly strategic reason, in my opinion. Owens is good when he's trying to make a good first impression. Check out his first years in his three prior stops -- with the San Francisco season being his first without Jerry Rice on the team, when the focus of the offense was clearly on him:

I have to say that, even though I view Owens as the most divisive force in the NFL today, and even though he drops far more balls than a top player should (12 per year, on average, over the past three years), I understand why the Bills did what they did. It's been 10 years since their last playoff appearance. They're the Washington Generals to the Patriots. And Owens will be on his best behavior in 2009, determined to prove wrong all of us who make a living out of criticizing him (oh, it's sooooo hard to do that), and determined to get one more big-money deal out of the Bills or some other team.

"From our standpoint,'' Brandon said, "everything we do is a risk. I was criticized for the Marcus Stroud trade last year, but it turned out to be a pretty good deal for us. Some people have been asleep for the past 10 years. We haven't made the playoffs. We owe it to our fans, and I owe it to the owner, to try to improve our team to finally get back into the playoffs. We needed another playmaker on offense, and we think this opportunity gives us the chance to be more explosive than we are right now. You roll the dice in this business sometimes. We think it's an acceptable risk.''

We'll see. Owens and Lee Evans (last three seasons: 200 catches, 16.0 yards-per-catch) could be a formidable duo, but Edwards is going to find out early that he'll need to throw the ball to Owens more than Evans. Everyone will say Edwards just needs to hit the open guy, but I don't buy it; it hasn't been that way for Owens since 2000, when Rice was on the other side of the field, and it's not going to happen even though Evans is a borderline star receiver. Can Edwards cope with Owens' demands? Jeff Garcia, Donovan McNabb and Tony Romo could -- for a while -- but eventually it overwhelmed the quarterback, the play-callers and the locker rooms.

One year is smart. More than that, history tells us, is stupid.

***

Larry Fitzgerald's grandfather earned a Purple Heart. His aunt and uncle have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively. So it's no surprise, at least to him, that the 2009 USO journey to Iraq was the fourth trip he's made to see the troops since becoming an NFL player.

In every stop on the four-player tour (Jared Allen, Will Witherspoon, Danny Clark went with Fitzgerald) of U.S. military bases in Iraq, the playoff hero told the crowd some version of this: "Thank you. If it wasn't for you doing what you do, I wouldn't be able to do what I do. I just want you to know how much I appreciate all the sacrifices you're making -- and I'm not alone.''

Speaking from Al Asad, Iraq, Sunday night, Fitzgerald sounded grateful to have the platform to be able to tell the service men and women thanks. Having been on the USO trip to Afghanistan last year with three players, I can tell you it's a draining experience for the players, being "on'' for 14 or 16 hours in a day with no clocks.

"The great thing about all these guys,'' said NFL liaison David Krichavsky, traveling with the group, "is that they all have family in the military, and they're all thrilled to be able to tell them some stories and just be with them. None of them has complained once about the hours. They love it. They are absolutely superstars, perfect for this trip. And after almost every meet-and-greet on the bases, we're looking around, saying, 'Where's Larry?' And he'll be over the side, or outside, with one or two or three people asking them, 'What are you going through?' or 'How are you holding up?' He's an incredibly generous, heartfelt person.''

I asked Fitzgerald whether, five weeks later, the Super Bowl loss still stung. It seemed an odd time to ask the question, with him being on the other side of the world and doing some real good, but I asked anyway.

"Most definitely,'' he said. "I still haven't watched the game. It hurts. I can shut it off, but it hurts when I think about it, and obviously, everyone here is asking about it. We were 1:56 away from being world champions. I can't lie to you; it stings. I just wish we were the team with the ball with two minutes to go with a chance to drive down the field and win.''

It was a strange game for Fitzgerald, obviously. No catches in the first half. Six for 115 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

"I can tell you this,'' he said, chuckling over the phone. "I'll never go the whole first half without a catch again in a Super Bowl. The whole experience was a great one. In fact, the playoffs were a great experience for our team, and it's only going to help us grow. Personally, I know I'm not the player I need to be, or the player I want to be. I remember learning about how hard Jerry Rice worked every offseason, even when people recognized him as the best in the game, because he knew he needed to get better every year. That's the way I want to work.''

We knew this already, but in my limited exposure to Fitzgerald, I've found him to have an insatiable desire to be great. He's going to be fun to watch over the next few years. Imagine this: He's 25. He has 426 catches. He doesn't turn 26 'til a week before the 2009 season. It sounds heretical, but with that kind of attitude, he's got a chance, if he stays healthy and in the right offense, to make a run at Rice's record of 1,549 catches.

Kerry Collins will pass Joe Montana on the all-time passing yards list this year if he throws for 3,159 yards. Does anyone else find that amazing?

"This might not be the most ideal place for a lot of people. But I'm my own guy. I beat to my own drum, go with my own thinking, my own intuitions.'' -- Bills wide receiver Terrell Owens, on the popularity of Buffalo as a landing spot for NFL players -- and on what makes him him tick.

Those last two sentences just made Dick Jauron shudder.

"I am going to be the same person that I was for the last three years with the Cowboys. I demand a lot from myself and from the guys around me. I'm sure those guys ... that I was with for the last three years all know that whatever is being said out there, it's not accurate.'' -- Owens.

That first sentence just made Dick Jauron shudder. Why is everyone always wrong about Terrell Owens except Terrell Owens?

• "We have no plans to trade for a receiver. No. No trade for a receiver.'' -- Dallas owner Jerry Jones, last Oct. 6, asked if he was in the market to acquire a receiver, specifically Detroit's Roy Williams.

• "He will create a dimension that just adds to everything. As you know, Roy Williams can go out there and make spectacular catches, and he can sky up and has great hands.'' -- Dallas owner Jerry Jones, Oct. 14, announcing the trade for Detroit's Roy Williams.

• "If I gave you the answer you want to hear, then you would have had it. The fact that you don't have it ought to tell you something. It really should.'' -- Jones, Feb. 18, implying that what he thought reporters wanted to hear -- that he was going to cut Terrell Owens -- was not going to happen, and Owens would return to the Cowboys for the 2009 season.

• "We have made a decision to move forward without [Owens]. We will move on now with a new team -- a new attitude -- and into a new stadium.'' -- Jones, March 4, in a team statement announcing he was cutting Owens.

I wish I could pay more attention to the World Baseball Classic. I went to the U.S.-Mexico game in Phoenix three years ago and it was fun, and the games last weekend sounded fantastic. "If this is like the playoffs, I have to be in the playoffs,'' America's Adam Dunn said after the U.S. hung on Saturday to beat Canada in Toronto, 6-5. "This is the best experience I've ever had in baseball.'' And this is a guy who hits 40 home runs every year.

But I make this WBC factoid my Factoid of the Week: The Dominican Republic team, favored by many to win the tournament, and so powerful that one of the best players in the world, Jose Reyes, was not able to crack the starting lineup (Hanley Ramirez of the Marlins was the starting Dominican shortstop), lost to the Netherlands 3-2 in the opening game Saturday.

The Netherlands' No. 3 hitter, Randall Simon, played for the Independent Newark Bears last year; the cleanup hitter, Greg Halman, played for High Desert (Class A) and West Tennessee (Double-A) in the Seattle farm system last year. The pitcher, who threw two and two-third innings of scoreless relief for the Dutch, Rob Cordemans, makes $40,000 a year pitching in the Dutch professional league. The Netherlands got all of three infield hits and scored on a wild pitch, an infield single and a throwing error.

If these teams played 20 times, the Dominicans would win 19. Saturday just happened to be that one time.

Stories like these are why we love sports.

The Kings are relocating to Boston. We've sold our home in Montclair, N.J., and moved to the South End. It's still a little stunning, even to us, because we've loved our lives in Montclair more than anyone could love living anywhere. But my wife and I have always wanted to live in a city, and we were so fond of living in north Jersey that if we didn't move soon, we'd never move. We'd be too ensconced, too comfortable.

This gives us a chance to live in a city we like a lot, though we could have lived in New York just as easily if we'd have found the same kind of place we found seven blocks from Copley Square. Being a 26-minute walk from Fenway didn't hurt in the deliberations. So wish us luck. After we get over the initial shock, it ought to be a fun adventure.

The 10 things I'll miss about New Jersey, where our family has called home since 1985:

1. Montclair. Great town, better people. I lived in my Connecticut hometown, Enfield, for 18 years before leaving for college, and we lived in Jersey for 24 years, the last 18 in Montclair. We must have liked it. We must have loved it. A perfect town (well, no town is perfect, but this one's close) to raise kids and shovel snow and walk the dog.

2. The house we raised our kids in. A perfect place, close enough to New York and far enough away when you needed peace. My tip for those who follow me in moving after one generation in the same house: Do not sit down and ponder the third-grade diorama you find in the attic. It'll paralyze you. Trust me. And do not get sentimental over the photos, unless you've got 16 days to do nothing but prune.

3. Field hockey and softball. Most of the greatest sporting memories of my life happened on fields in Essex County. My kids were tested, and it was good for them.

4. Coaching, particularly the 10-and-under softball team, the Montclair Bears, my wife and I coached for the last seven years with our friends Jack Bowers and Karin Nelson. Indelible.

5. Sitting on the back deck on an early summer night, around June 20th, having the fifth beer, and enjoying the trees and the talk.

6. The Upper Montclair Starbucks. It's sure to close without me propping it up.

7. The two best restaurants in town, Osteria Giotto and Table 8. Brandon Jacobs swears by the lasagna in Giotto; he's absolutely right. Must be the nutmeg, or whatever makes it taste so different. I'll take the skirt steak at Table 8.

8. Star Tavern pizza. Saw Anthony Fasano there a couple years ago, just off a plane from Dallas, and he said he had to get the Star Tavern pizza before he did anything else. I'll be back, many times, for the thin crust manna from heaven.

9. Our friends. God blessed us in many ways in Montclair, but the people made it the best home we've ever had.

10. Everything.

I will not miss moving. The pain. The humanity. The sore back.

One interesting note was the house sale we had over the weekend. Our apartment in Boston can't fit most of the big furniture we had, so we're selling and starting over with lots of stuff up there. Anyway, we had half the Western world in the house Friday and Saturday. A fascinating experience, much more good than bad, and only one truly rude person trying to buy a bedroom set for 15 cents.

I'm exaggerating there, but not by much. My favorite guy was the older fellow who walked around the first floor of the house, looking everywhere, including in the corner where we kept our driveway de-icing pellets. "How much?'' he said. You're kidding -- a half-used container of rock salt? "A dollar,'' I said. He fished out a buck, handed it over and stealthily moved away with the treasure under his arm.

1. I think one of the reactions I get from people two, three, four times a month, every month, is about Mike McGuire, the Army First Sergeant heading a platoon dismantling improvised explosive devices in Iraq. That's why this news, from his last e-mail, sent just after I posted last week's column, is going to hit you hard.

"Peter: We lost another good man on 26, Feb. 2009, Corporal Brian Connelly from Long Beach, N.J. His vehicle was struck by an EFP [an explosively formed penetrator, designed to cut through armor-plated vehicles], killing him instantly. Again, getting so close to the end and tragedy. He is survived by his wife of four months. He just got married while on leave and changed his name from Blonske to Connelly to honor his mom, who was always there for him. The memorial ceremony here in Taji is tomorrow.

"The hardest thing was zipping him up and saying goodbye, then we put him on a flight back to the States for his family. The soldiers here are doing as well as can be expected. Three others were injured in the blast -- Staff Sergeant Miller, Specialist Iverson and Specialist Davis all were not injured too badly and actually went out on mission in less than eight hours.

"The streets of Sadr City are so freakin' dangerous. Every minute of being out there is constant holding breath and scanning. Hard to believe that any day could be our last. Proof with Corporal Connelly. I am holding up well, staying busy. One day all this madness will hit me, I am sure. I don't know how I will react but it is building up. Hard to be tough and the First Sergeant when really all I want to do is see my family and grieve our fallen men. I guess when I return home and sitting alone in the dark on my porch I will remember them all and make peace with all this.''

The amazing thing with Mike is that in the business he's in, he's got to move on, or he's going to endanger himself and his men. So even in devastating e-mails like this one, he finds time to move on, and indulge in what everyone over there cares so much about --football, and his beloved Rams and beloved hero, Kurt Warner.

"Anyway ... Redskins signed Albert Haynesworth. Good pickup. Is he worth all that money? I have seen nothing huge come on the Ram front yet. Have not heard if Kurt is going to play more. Well, take care, and just wanted to give you an update. Koulchar, the one who lost his legs, is going to be in Germany when we return in a few months. He wants to be there when we return. Pretty cool. Take care. Enjoy some down time. Mike.''

I'm sure I echo everyone reading when I send along our sympathy and wishes to stay safe for Mike's men. There's not much else to say.

2. I think the Cowboys had a good week, pressing the ejector button on Owens and signing versatile defensive lineman Igor Olshanky, who is a better buy at $4.5 million a year than Chris Canty at $7 million.

3. I think if you're still looking at conspiracy theories about why the Patriots would trade Matt Cassel and Mike Vrabel for just a second-round draft choice, and you can't accept the three big reasons I gave you last week (the Patriots needed a major injection of cap room to start free-agency because they were only $1.7 million under the cap with much business to transact, the Broncos were slow off the draw while the Chiefs had a solid offer on the table as free-agency dawned, and Cassel was going to cost whatever team he signed with $12- to $14-million a year on a long-term) digest this nugget: Mike Vrabel had a $1 million roster bonus in his contract on March 1. That's 48 hours after the start of free-agency. The Patriots did not want to pay that bonus, obviously. So a trade had to get done by Saturday night, Feb. 28, and one got done Saturday afternoon, and it was the Chiefs that ended up paying the million to Vrabel.

4. I think Sage Rosenfels beats out Tarvaris Jackson in Minnesota. That's no surprise, really, but the Vikings realized they had to have a better alternative than Gus Frerotte starting every Sunday to contend for a Super Bowl. Rosenfels has the occasional brain freeze, but he's a strong-armed, semi-mobile guy who will be a kindred spirit for Brad Childress.

5. I think the Redskins didn't get enough criticism the other day for whacking Jason Taylor. Ridiculous -- unless they were sure he couldn't perform at a high level because of his recent injury history. If you pay second- and sixth-round picks for a guy one year removed from being defensive player of the year, you define short-sighted. That is no way to build a team.

6. I think I cannot figure out for the life of me why Byron Leftwich is not getting more action in free-agency. Any action. Absurd. Did you watch the second half of the Monday night at Washington, when Leftwich relieved Ben Roethlisberger and played superbly?

7. I think if I were Chris Simms, I'd have stayed in Nashville. Kerry Collins has a year, maybe two, left. And I don't see Vince Young playing there long-term. I just don't.

8. I think LaDainian Tomlinson to the Saints makes all the sense in the world. Pierre Thomas takes 10 utilitarian carries a game, Reggie Bush gets 15 touches, and Tomlinson fulfills the Fred Taylor role -- the veteran who one game might carry it 23 times and the next might touch it six times. That'd keep him fresh and productive.

9. I think Tomlinson staying in San Diego makes no sense. He'll never be a 300-carry guy again, and A.J. Smith cannot pay for production of two and three years ago.

10. I think I'll many more some non-football thoughts next week, but I'll leave you with this one: Moving, at 51, has a certain energizing quality to it, and I'm excited.

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