Owens puts Eagles in difficult spot

PHILADELPHIA -- It has been five fun-filled days of sports talk in this town since Terrell Owens dumped his longtime agent and friend, David Joseph, and hired the intrepid Drew Rosenhaus, who showed up at the Eagles Novacare Complex last week as if he were Ashton Kutcher in the hit movie, "Guess Who."

And just like in the film, the first meeting was cordial but awkward, short but according to script.

The Eagles -- it has been written and said over and over again -- as a rule do not renegotiate contracts. Have a nice day, Mr. Rosenhaus.

But in this little drama that will certainly take months to unfold, everybody is missing one big, important point: Throughout his nine-year NFL career, one thing has been clear about the mercurial, flamboyant and quite fabulous football player named Terrell Owens.

T.O. does not make rules. He breaks them.

Consider the following:

When he wanted out of San Francisco, he appealed to the NFL's special master to annul a trade to Baltimore. Voila, T.O. was wearing Eagles green -- just like he said he would.

When Owens showed up in Philadelphia, he didn't follow the unwritten rules of the Andy Reid way. No, Owens flaunted his style and name -- from overshadowing Donovan McNabb in training camp, to mocking Ray Lewis, the Ravens' revered middle linebacker.

Not done, Owens defied Mother Nature -- not to mention his own doctor. One of the planet's renowned surgeons repaired Owens' broken leg and sprained ankle and told No. 81 that it was not a good idea to push it to return for Super Bowl XXXIX.

So what did Owens do? He started the game and was the Eagles' leading receiver. Had the Eagles beaten the New England Patriots in Jacksonville, Owens might have been the MVP.

So, about that contract.

On Wednesday, Rosenhaus met with Eagles president Joe Banner. Owens' current contract, which runs through 2010 and which Owens signed last year, is worth about $6.9 million per year, about the third-highest average salary for a wide receiver (behind Marvin Harrison and Randy Moss). But, after making about $9 million last year, Owens is due about $3.5 million in 2005.

And in 2006, when Owens will be turning 33, he will be due bonuses totaling about $7.5 million. No one believes the Eagles will fork over that money to a player that age.

Why? Well, if the Eagles win the Super Bowl in 2005, Owens' work in Philly will be deemed complete. If they don't, Owens will be considered an expensive experiment that didn't pay off. And the Eagles have a history of avoiding paying big guarantees to players over 30.

Now you see why Owens changed his agent. Rosenhaus, who recently took on high-profile players such as Plaxico Burress and Edgerrin James, considers himself the fixer. League officials who asked not to be named say Rosenhaus is guaranteeing new contracts to his new clients, including Owens. Rosenhaus, in an interview, said that was inaccurate.

After the meeting with Banner, Rosenhaus was unusually untalkative.

"I met with Joe," said Rosenhaus, who has a great working relationship with the Eagles. "It was positive. We'll meet again." That's all Rosenhaus said after the meeting, which apparently lasted less than 10 minutes.

Banner released a short statement: "I had a brief meeting this afternoon with Drew Rosenhaus, who now represents Terrell Owens. We discussed his new representation of Terrell, as he does often with teams of new clients. We are not prepared, at this time, to discuss any other details of the conversation."

Typical Banner. Just ask the agents for Jeremiah Trotter and Duce Staley, or Bobby Taylor or Troy Vincent or Ike Reese. All were extraordinarily productive and wildly popular, but once they reached 30, they had to get their money elsewhere (Trotter may be back in Philly, but Banner never gave in).

So, what makes anyone believe that Banner is going to renegotiate Owens' seven-year contract after just one year? Who thinks Joe Banner is going to break the rules for T.O.?

Well, before you jump to the same conclusion everybody else has, let's consider a few unexamined angles.

First of all, Owens is not Trotter or Staley, Vincent or Taylor.

But, more importantly, the Eagles got T.O. to get to the Super Bowl. And that's exactly what happened. Yes, it's true that he missed the final two regular-season games and the playoffs. But without Owens' prolific contribution to the offense, the Eagles would have never earned home-field advantage again in the playoffs. And without him in Jacksonville, the Super Bowl wouldn't have been close.

His 1,200 receiving yards were by far the most of the Andy Reid era. His 14 touchdowns were by far the most on the team. Next in line? Brian Westbrook with six.

And Owens is vital for what Reid likes to do on offense. The Eagles threw the ball 59 percent of the time on first down, tops in the league -- and 12 percent higher than the league average.

Owens, too, allowed quarterback Donovan McNabb to have his best season. McNabb averaged 8.3 yards per pass attempt in 2004. That's the highest for any Eagles quarterback in 42 years, since Sonny Jurgensen averaged 8.9 yards per pass in 1962, according to Elias Sports Bureau. McNabb's previous career best was 6.7 yards per pass in '03.

This was mostly due to Owens. Todd Pinkston had another unremarkable season marred by some questionable short-armed balls against the Redskins and Cowboys. Freddie Mitchell, talking his way out of town, is a dead man walking in Reid's locker room.

So, the Eagles -- who may take a wide receiver with one of their five picks in the first three rounds of the NFL draft -- need Owens. And they need him to be happy.

But if they pay him they set a precedent that no general manager -- especially Banner -- wants to set. It's a classic case of irresistible force versus immovable object. But there are other forces at work here.

Defensive tackles Corey Simon and Hollis Thomas want new contracts. Offensive tackle Tra Thomas just hired Rosenhaus, too. And Westbrook wants a long-term deal but hasn't gotten it. A deal for Owens could cause some serious enmity.

It's all catching up with the Eagles and Banner: the constant pressure of finding a way to remain salary-cap friendly, with the promise of a Super Bowl championship on the horizon. Well, the pressure has been unrelenting. But the promise has remained unfulfilled.

Memo to Joe Banner: You're not winning those NFL executive of the year awards. Scott Pioli is, in New England, where they manage the cap and manage to actually win the Lombardi Trophy.

Over the past five years, the Eagles have the best record in the NFL, 59-21 (.738 winning percentage for Reid). According to Elias, the last team with a better record in a five-year span while not winning the Super Bowl was the Miami Dolphins (56-16-1, .774, in 1981-85.)

That's an ignominious legacy. It puts McNabb in the Dan Marino category -- best QB on the best team never to win a championship.

The Eagles know history is against them. The last four Super Bowl runners-up didn't even qualify for the playoffs the next season. But a happy T.O. gives them a chance to change the legacy and defy history.

So, how to get this done? How can Owens get his money while the Eagles save face and avoid a locker-room revolt? One suggestion being floated around is that the Eagles would just make some of the 2006 money guaranteed. In other words, no new money, just make sure Owens is going to get the money he was promised when he signed with the team last season.

Go back to Banner's statement. Read it again -- not for what it says, but for what it doesn't say. In all other negotiations, with Trotter, Staley and Hugh Douglas, Banner has left little wiggle room. In the statement about Owens, Banner said: "We are not prepared, at this time, to discuss any other details of the conversation."

The door was left open.

And why wouldn't it be? Last year, the Eagles broke all their own rules by aggressively pursuing Owens. He was a star brought into a system that loathed the individualist. He demanded the ball in an offense that historically had spread it around. And they signed Owens to a big contract -- the first time in the Reid-Banner era that the Eagles gave a player 30 or older that kind of money.

So don't be surprised if the Eagles break another rule and find a way to pay him.

Sal Paolantonio, who wrote about the Eagles for the Philadelphia Inquirer during 1993-94, covers the NFL for ESPN.