March 08, 2009

One way or the other, Terrell Owens will make an impact on the Bills, who signed the combustible wideout to a one-year, $6.5 million deal Saturday.

But will it be the "Sudden Impact" of Clint Eastwood alter-ego Harry Callahan and his explosive Magnum .44, or the "Deep Impact" of the 1998 sci-fi disaster flick in which Morgan Freeman attempts the save the earth from cosmic destruction?

Both outcomes are distinct possibilities -- at least if T.O.'s track record is any indication. In fact, there is no player in NFL annals whose historic on-field production clashes so violently with his destructive off-the-field issues.

T.O.'s arrival in Philadelphia in 2004 coincided with the club's best season since its last NFL championship in 1960. The 2004 Eagles went 13-3 -- setting a franchise record for victories in one season -- locked up a playoff spot in November and might have gone 15-1 had they not packed it in for the final two weeks with the NFC's No. 1 seed already secured.

Owens was a big reason for the success in Philly: he set a franchise record in 2004 with 14 TD catches, breaking the mark of Hall of Famer Tommy McDonald (13) back in that 1960 title season (McDonald matched it in 1961).

Dallas is also familiar with the football firepower T.O. brings to the field. Owens hauled in 13 TD receptions in 2006, his first year with the Cowboys, and then set a team record the following season with 15 TD catches. Those 2007 Cowboys matched a franchise-best with 13 victories -- quite an accomplishment for one of the most storied teams in North American sports. Owens even caught 10 TDs last year -- in a 2008 season seen by everybody as a failure for Owens and the organization.

That's a stunning 38 TD catches in three years with Dallas. To put that number into perspective, consider that Cowboys Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin peaked at 23 TD catches in his best three seasons and never caught more than 10 TDs in a single year.

Owens matched or surpassed the "playmaker" three times in three attempts.

T.O.'s impact with his first club, San Francisco, may not have been sudden, as he played in the shadow of Jerry Rice for his first five years with the team (1996-2000).

But his contributions were awe-inspiring just the same. He stands second in 49ers">49ers franchise history to Rice in every major receiving category, including catches (592), yards (8,572) and TDs (81). And he did it all in just eight seasons in with the organization (Rice played 16 years in San Francisco).

As he shuffles off to Buffalo, Owens is among the all-time leaders in every major receiving category in the history of the NFL:

• second in TDs (139)

• fifth in yards (14,122)

• sixth in receptions (951, tied with Buffalo's Andre Reed)

Yet there is the destructive side of T.O. -- a player who lights up the sky like a comet, only to crash and burn each and every time.

His departure from San Francisco could not have been uglier. Owens had a public dust-up with quarterback Jeff Garcia -- a productive and probably underrated player who ranks 11th in NFL history in passer rating -- and later made comments about Garcia's sexual orientation. Along the way, Owens even ripped then-49ers coach Steve Mariucci in 2001, following a tough loss to Chicago.

The team eventually had to get rid of him: After screwing up his own free-agent paperwork and then refusing a trade with Baltimore, Owens finally ended up with the Eagles in 2004.

(For what it's worth, the once-proud 49ers have not had a winning season since T.O.'s departure.)

The Philly love affair quickly fell apart.

Before the start of his second season in Philadelphia (2005), Owens demanded a new contract and was later asked to leave training camp following an altercation with head coach Andy Reid. Then, in the space of a few short days in November 2005, he got into a fight with teammate Hugh Douglas, ripped the organization for not dutifully noting his 100th career TD reception, and then laid into his own quarterback, Donovan McNabb.

Owens argued that the Eagles would be better offer with Brett Favre at quarterback. For the record, Favre threw 29 INTS in that 2005 season, among the most in the history of the NFL. McNabb, for his part, is the least intercepted passer in the history of the NFL, throwing a pick on just 2.09 percent of attempts. In other words, it's unlikely that there's a career in talent evaluation for Owens after his playing days are over.

The Eagles, after just two short years, were forced to unload Owens in March 2006.

Dallas, an organization that had struggled to regain its footing since its last Super Bowl victory in 1995, saw Owens as the playmaker the team had lacked since the height of the Troy Aikman-Emmitt Smith-Michael Irvin glory days.

It quickly turned into another emotional train wreck, low-lighted by the patented T.O.-QB dust-up when the team turned south.

In one of the most curious stories, Owens was rushed to the hospital early in the 2006 season, his first with Dallas, after allegedly overdosing on pills in a suicide attempt. He returned to play two weeks later, but the drama was just beginning: Owens got into an altercation with Cowboys receiver coach Todd Haley and, later in the season, spit in the face of Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall.

The 2007 season, however, was fairly quiet by T.O. standards, as he hauled in his 15 TDs and helped lead the Cowboys to a 13-3 record.

But Owens laid into quarterback Tony Romo as the 2008 season lumbered to a disappointing 9-7 finish. The receiver was upset that Romo apparently spent more off-the-field time with tight end Jason Witten than he did with Owens.

It was enough for the Cowboys, who dumped Owens last week -- almost three years to the day that the Eagles unloaded him.

Dallas even absorbed a huge $9 million cap hit in the process. In a league in which every salary dollar has an on-field impact, the willingness of the Cowboys to absorb that financial shock pretty much says it all about T.O.'s toxic effect on the team.

So why would Buffalo take a chance on a player with that kind of track record?

Consider it a sign of desperation.

Buffalo has been in an offensive malaise since its last Super Bowl appearance 15 years ago. They've ranked in the top 10 in scoring just twice in that period, and ranked 23rd last year with 21.0 points per game.

The Bills have not won 10 games in a season, or reached the playoffs, since the Doug Flutie Era back in 1999.

And a poor passing attack has been one reason for the low-wattage output. Adjusted for sacks, Buffalo averaged a meager 5.88 yards per pass attempt last season (22nd).

So the Bills are a team in need of a big-time offensive impact. Owens, as his record in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Dallas has shown, can provide that jolt.

Hell, Owens might even break another franchise record, as he did in Philadelphia and Dallas. Consider that no Bills receiver has ever caught more than 11 TDs in a single season.

That's a bad year for Owens. And, even as he turns 36 this season, he's easily capable of surpassing that record. So the 2009 season is likely to be one of offensive promise for the Bills and their tortured faithful.

But it won't last long. And at least the Bills know it: the smartest thing the organization did was ink the receiver to a humble one-year deal.

After that, Owens will have certainly worn out his welcome.

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