For now at least, the fabulously talented but tragically flawed Terrell Owens is a man without a football team. A man without a pay check as well.
But before anyone leaps to the conclusion that the banished Eagles wide receiver is either a man without a future, or a poisonous pariah who will never again set foot on an NFL field, here's a name for you:
While Johnson's actions during the 2003 season weren't quite as volatile as Owens' outlandish behavior has been in the last eight months, Johnson was sufficiently disruptive with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to merit a team-ordered six-week paid holiday that effectively ended his season with a month-and-a-half of games remaining. The Bucs opted to pay Johnson, but not play him, yet slyly retained his rights rather than grant him freedom.
At the end of that season, Johnson was traded to the Dallas Cowboys -- the deal reunited him with coach Bill Parcells -- in exchange for another veteran wideout, Joey Galloway. This is not to suggest that the Eagles are hanging onto Owens because he represents valuable trade bait, a commodity that might bring something in return in the spring. Truth be told, Owens isn't totally available yet because to just jettison him would be to play right into his hands. And Eagles brass, more spitting mad at Owens' antics last week than at any ploy he has mustered in recent months, isn't about to cave.
No one knows yet how Owens will depart the Eagles, only that he will, but it will be on the terms and a timeline dictated by owner Jeff Lurie, club president Joe Banner and coach Andy Reid. For a guy accustomed to reaching the end zone, Owens' fate is now someone else's to decide, and it will be the Eagles' management trinity that will set the end-game in motion at its whim.
The Eagles, who know that Owens will soon file a grievance against them, are treading carefully, diligently dodging any move that might give an independent arbitrator ammunition. That's why officials spent much of last Friday, after privately determining that they had to excise a cancer from their locker room, counseling with the folks at the NFL Management Council.
When it comes to disciplinary action against Owens, everything has been enacted in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement rights both parties possess. The team has dotted every "I" and crossed every "T" with great care. But when the Eagles permanently cross Owens off their roster is the great unknown at this time. The team can suspend him for four weeks maximum for conduct detrimental to the club, a catch-all disciplinary category, and the clock started ticking over the weekend.
Three more weeks of suspension, each of which will cost Owens $191,176 of his $3.25 million base salary, still leaves five more weeks of the season remaining. And what then? The best guess is that the Eagles, who were very precise Monday in announcing that Owens will not play for them again this season, will essentially say to him what the Bucs said to Johnson in 2003: We'll pay you, if necessary, to keep you away.
Notable in everything announced by the team Monday, after it deliberated over the weekend on how to handle the latest flap with a player who suddenly has gone from an incredible talent to an incorrigible human being, was that there was no mention of the future. Not even a syllable, much less a soliloquy, on what happens after the season ends. But there was little doubt even before Owens' latest stunt that he would not be back in 2006 -- that both sides would continue the marriage of convenience until January or February and then file for divorce -- and there isn't a molecule of a chance that he will ever play for the Eagles again. Yeah, we know, ever is a long, long time.
In the minds of Eagles officials, however, there is no amount of time sufficient enough to absolve Owens of his perceived attack on the team and its franchise player, quarterback Donovan McNabb. Like murder, there is no statute of limitations, the Eagles believe, on the brand of betrayal enacted by Owens, especially in the past week.
But once the umbilical cord is snipped, where will Owens land next? And who is going to pay him a contract that will satisfy him? There will be suitor, for sure, but most will want a lot of financial protection. In fact, ESPN.com has confirmed the Eagles will file to collect on one of their financial protections and will seek repayment of $1.8 million in signing bonus money Owens received in 2004.
The Eagles were savvy enough to include stipulations in his deal that, barring a victory on appeal, will force Owens to ante up a breach of contract penalty.
Certainly his actions have diminished his value, both in terms of the number of teams that might be willing to swallow hard and take him on, and in the size of the numbers that any such franchise might be willing to write into a contract. Make no mistake, though, Owens will be in an NFL uniform in 2006. The Cowboys took on Johnson. Even earlier, Dallas traded two first-round draft picks for Galloway in 2000 after he boycotted Seahawks training camp in a contract dispute, and awarded him a $6 million-a-year deal.
Owens might never see $6 million in a season again but he will see the playing field. Where? Don't bet on the usual suspects; teams that have rolled the dice in the past on players regarded as character risks such as Oakland, Washington, and Tampa Bay. Think more along the lines of Denver, Miami and New Orleans.
Even with his earning potential dented, finances will still play a role in Owens' future; a franchise like the Raiders already has considerable investments in Randy Moss and Jerry Porter. The NFL isn't fantasy football, where teams can just collect all of the NFL's premier players, and without salary cap consequences. A champagne budget at one position often means being able to spend beer money at other spots. And Owens doesn't see himself as a lager guy, but rather one of prime vintage.
Rest assured, being booted off the Main Line won't mean the end of the line for T.O. Talent characteristically trumps temperament in the NFL and, while most franchises will see Owens as poison, others will find a way to rationalize that he can still be an elixir within an ailing passing attack.
After all, Keyshawn Johnson is still in the league, isn't he?
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.