Improving locker room chemistry will be the highest priority for the Dallas Cowboys this offseason and that will force serious discussions between Wade Phillips' coaching staff and owner Jerry Jones about whether to release controversial wide receiver Terrell Owens, according to team and league sources.
"I think we all know that chemistry is the problem with this team more than the schemes or anything else," a Cowboys source said. "Are we going to continue to allow talent to outweigh everything else in the decisions we make with players and putting the roster together? We're like the Redskins used to be when they signed every player they wanted. There's more to it than talent. It has to be more about the team.
"The big one [Owens] didn't get discussed yet, but I'm sure it will and real hard."
The Cowboys released twice-suspended cornerback Pacman Jones last week and Tank Johnson is expected to depart through free agency. Both decisions are at least partly related to the renewed emphasis on creating a different atmosphere in the locker room. The Cowboys began their ill-fated 2008 season with three players on the roster who had been suspended by the league or their previous teams -- Jones, Johnson and Owens.
At least two sources believe that vice president Stephen Jones will attempt to convince his father that Owens should be finished with the Cowboys. But Jerry Jones just last year invested a $12 million signing bonus in Owens, which means there would be salary-cap fallout. In fact, Jerry Jones has suggested that there might be enough damage that the team would find it difficult to sign NFL sack leader DeMarcus Ware to a new contract.
"I think some of people want to just cut our losses and get rid of all those guys T.O., Tank, Pacman,'' another Cowboys source said. "But I really think Jerry likes the thrill of trying to make it all work."
The discussions involving Owens have not yet been formally initiated and probably will not occur until the Cowboys are more certain of the composition of their coaching staff.
Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett's candidacy for at least two NFL head-coaching positions could influence the Owens debate. Garrett met with the St. Louis Rams on Wednesday after interviewing last week with the Detroit Lions.
At the moment, Jones has insisted that Phillips will return, but he might have to reconsider if Garrett secures another opportunity. There are people within the Cowboys' organization who do not believe that Garrett would turn down another job unless Jones was willing to promote him to head coach in Dallas and purge Owens from the roster.
Not only does Owens have relationship issues with quarterback Tony Romo and tight end Jason Witten, but the controversial receiver consistently criticized Garrett's play calling and his offensive schemes to the point that sources say the offensive coordinator does not believe they can coexist.
The potential of the Cowboys losing Garrett to another team could accelerate the timetable for a decision about Owens. They had expected not to face a deadline until his $3 million roster bonus is due June 3. But that changes if Garrett finds himself in a position to leave the Cowboys and makes Owens' departure a condition of his remaining.
"I think Jerry would have to think about it, but I believe he'd let Jason leave,'' said one team source, believing Jones would prefer to be relieved of his remaining $6 million obligation to Garrett.
Regardless, Owens could still be jettisoned. His detractors can argue their belief that Owens, 35, is a poor route runner with inconsistent hands and generally a descending player who seldom accepts responsibility for his own shortcomings. There is fear internally that he will become more volatile if his performance continues to deteriorate -- and that he may feel more empowered if he perceives that his presence forced Garrett to depart.
"You have to be worried about his influence over there, and I think we'd get some of those players back over to our side if he was gone,'' another source said. "I think we have to decide how detrimental he is to Witten and Romo.''
While the productivity of Garrett's offense plunged and quarterback Romo appeared to regress in his second full season as the starting quarterback, Jerry Jones apparently still covets his young offensive coordinator. The perception within the Cowboys' coaching and executive offices is that the team's demise was more the result of poor locker room chemistry and a serious leadership void than it was a failure of Garrett's system.
It was Jones who personally returned Garrett to the Cowboys' organization with the expectation that he would eventually become the next head coach of the franchise. When Garrett was offered head-coaching positions with the Ravens and Falcons exactly a year ago, Jones persuaded him to remain with the Cowboys by making him the highest-paid assistant coach in football. Jones was fiercely determined to have Garrett develop Romo and maintain offensive continuity, and even mentioned his view of the team's future with Garrett as head coach in the new $1 billion stadium which the team opens next season.
Ed Werder covers the NFL for ESPN.