Saturday, March 18, 2006

Keyshawn and T.O: Two of a Kind

**To steal a trick from Deadspin, check out our March Madness thread for today here**

On the same day in April of 1996, Keyshawn Johnson and Terrell Owens were drafted into the National Football League. It would have been difficult for them to arrive under more different circumstances. Johnson was the first overall draft pick, a highly touted, accomplished Wide Receiver who had starred at USC, one of the most prominent football programs in the country. Owens was drafted 88 selections later, a third round choice of the San Francisco 49ers. He excelled at Tennessee-Chattanooga, a small 1-AA school, but was unheralded, and was drafted more for his size and potential than because of his accomplishments.

Over the past decade, some interesting symmetry has emerged between the careers of Johnson and Owens. This past Tuesday, another one occurred. On the same day, almost six weeks to the ten year anniversary of their draft day, Keyshawn Johnson and Terrell Owens were released by their clubs. Two players who had at one point been considered the prototype, if not the very best at their position, were cut loose for nothing. In examining the paths of their respective careers, I hoped to learn something about them, and perhaps find evidence that they had learned from their antics, and that the league had learned from them as well.

In an even bigger twist, Terrell Owens appears poised to replace Keyshawn in Dallas. This is the latest intersection of their careers. Already, some interesting parallels emerged between their careers. Let's examine:

The Persona
Keyshawn was a success right from the start, and in his 3rd and 4th years in the league was a Pro Bowl selection with the Jets. From the start, he also established himself as a celebrity, as much for his off-the-field antics as for his on-the-field accomplishments. After his rookie season, he published a book titled Just Give Me The Damn Ball!. He was at the forefront of the new wave of NFL Wide Receivers, all of whom seemed to owe more to the likes of Michael Irvin than to the likes of Jerry Rice. Not only did he have the prototypical size that teams were looking for, but he was also a character both on and off the field. The title of his book says it all, he wanted the ball, he wanted to be the star. Beyond that, it was as if he felt entitled to be the star. Getting Keyshawn the damn ball seemed of greater importance to him than did the Jets getting the damn win.

Terrell Owens did not start out his career as 'T.O.' When they selected him with the 89th pick in the 1996 draft, I doubt that the 49ers brass expected him to develop into one of the elite Receivers in the game. In his rookie year, he saw action in 10 games, and averaged a respectable 3.5 receptions per game. Starting in his second year, he began to blossom into a threat; playing opposite of Jerry Rice, he caught at least 60 balls in his second through fourth seasons. He really came into the public eye in a classic 1998 Wild Card game against the Green Bay Packers, when he caught the winning touchdown between two Pack defenders as time expired.

As the 49ers entered a new era, with Owens and Jeff Garcia, not Rice and Steve Young, as the stars, he truly emerged as an elite receiver, garnering over 90 receptions each season between 2000-2002. As Owens's production on the field increased, so did his profile off of it. He became notorious for his touchdown celebrations, and drew a fine for incidents such as pulling a sharpie out of his sock and autographing the ball after one particular score. His me first attitude became a distraction too, as he would argue with coaches and Quarterbacks when the ball wasn't thrown his way.

His numbers dipped in 2003, and following that season it became clear that his days as a Niner were numbered. Owens wanted out, and the Niners were in the midst of a salary cap-induced purging of their roster, meaning it was unlikely they could afford him anyways.

The Trade
After a successful start to his career in New York, things began to go sour. Prior to the 2000 season, Keyshawn was traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as the Jets rebuild their squad and headed in a different direction. In Tampa Bay, Keyshawn continued to excel, posting over 100 receptions (but only 1 touchdown) in 2001 and helping his team win the Super Bowl following the 2002 season.

Owens expected to be a free agent in the Winter of 2004, but due to a mixup on the part of his agent, his papers were not filed, and he remained the property of the 49ers. After he voided a trade to Baltimore, a trade to make Owens a Philadelphia Eagle was worked out. He quickly signed a contract extension with the Eagles, making him one of the highest paid receivers in the league.

In his first season, he exploded for 15 touchdown catches, and made a miraculous recovery from a broken leg in December to make a return in the Super Bowl. Owens had a great game, though his Eagles fell short.

The Explosion
In the 2003 regular season, Keyshawn began to clash regularly with Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden. Tampa was struggling, and Keyshawn became a major distraction for the team. By the end of November, 10 months after he helped his team to a championship, Keyshawn was deactivated for the final four games of the regular season, effectively ending his tenure in Tampa Bay.

Similar to Johnson, Owens' relationship with his team quickly went south after the Super Bowl appearance. Following the Super Bowl, T.O. demanded a renegotiated contract, with a higher salary than what he had agreed to just 12 months before. The Eagles refused to entertain his demands, instead insisting that he abide by the contract he had signed. T.O. disagreed, and was suspended in August for causing problems in camp. Things went downhill when he returned; he called out Donovan McNabb for not playing hard enough in the Super Bowl, and continued to be a divisive figure in the locker room. Seven games into the regular season, the Eagles had had enough. They deactivated T.O. for the rest of the season, clearing the way for him to be traded or released.

The Fallout
After being deactivated, it was clear that Keyshawn would shortly be traded or released. In March of 2004, he was traded to Dallas for Joey Galloway, a former Top 10 draft pick who had underachieved as a Cowboy. Keyshawn would be reunited with his first Head Coach, Bill Parcells.

Keyshawn performed admirably in Dallas, posting 70 receptions in 2004 and 71 receptions in 2005 (along with 6 touchdowns each year). It was clear, though, that he was no longer one of the elite Receivers in the NFL. Always lacking top speed, he was outperformed by a number of younger contemporaries; they may have lacked his size, but they had speed and skill to make up for it.

That Keyshawn's star had faded was cemented this week, when he was released not for salary cap purposes, but to clear room for another addition to the roster.

Owens was released this week as well, a day before he was owed a $5 million roster bonus. He didn't even make it through the second year of his seven-year contract. In his first year, Owens successfully filled the role of Go-To Receiver that the Eagles had lacked for so long - many felt that the lack of this player held them back from previous Super Bowl appearances. Nevertheless, the headaches that he caused made the Eagles believe that they were better to be rid of him than deal with another five years of distractions.

The Future
I'd like to think that there's some redeeming value in the story, both for the players in questions, but for the league as well. I would hope to see evidence that the players had learned from their punishments, and that teams had learned to be cautious with me first players.

Both Keyshawn and T.O. are phenomenal competitors. They want to win, and they want to be the best. The best example would be Owens' comeback for the Super Bowl last year. Always a fanatic about working out, Owens rehabbed like crazy to come back from a broken leg in only 6 weeks. He gutted through a Super Bowl when he should have arguably been on the bench healing. I have no doubt that his comeback was motivated by the desire to win a championship. However, when the championship didn't pan out, things quickly went south with Owens and the Eagles. While he's definitely a prima donna, perhaps it's his competitiveness that causes as much of his troubles as it is his ego. He doesn't take losing well.

I would hope that the cases of both players being deactivated, and shipped out of town would show that the team concept still rules, that in the NFL, no player is bigger than his team. I hoped for proof that the New England Patriots mentality had taken root league-wide.

I don't see proof of that.

The Philadelphia Eagles understood the risks that came with adding Terrell Owens to their roster. They took a gamble, hoping that the desire to win a championship would help T.O. to buy into the team concept and not become a distraction. It came within 3 points of working. When the Eagles realized it would not work, they cut their losses.

The Dallas Cowboys knew the risks with Keyshawn. They got two productive years out of him, then dumped at the first chance to sign an even greater liability. Further, they appear poised to pay this liability record money, assuming they don't push him out of town before his three-year contract is up. Maybe they think that Bill Parcells can keep him in line, but more likely they think that the potential rewards of having T.O. on the roster outweigh the significant risks.

Keyshawn had a relatively trouble-free stay in Dallas. Who knows where he will end up, but I wonder how many teams will think twice about their team chemistry before they pick him up. Despite being the better team player over the past two years, the line has yet to form for the less-talented Johnson.

What we've learned is that no matter how many problems a player causes off the field, there's likely to be another suitor who will come calling as long as that player has NFL talent. As long as NFL teams are willing to ignore the sideshows that players like T.O. and Keyshawn bring with them, I don't see why the players in question would change their act.

Perhaps this is a problem of the teams tolerating a me first attitude in their locker room. While the T.O.'s and Keyshawn's of the world end up with the criticism, it's the teams who keep giving them chances and letting them get away with it that deserve to be the object of our finger pointing. Until the league as a collective wises up, there's no reason to expect the players to do the same.

After all, T.O. and Keyshawn are only products of the culture that the NFL has created.


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