Focus remains on T.O. in Philly

PHILADELPHIA – Eagles head coach Andy Reid was putting the finishing touches on the team's final passing camp before breaking for summer vacation, but he had more important public appearance to make – this one at a huge motivational seminar in the Wachovia Center, a few minutes walk from the Eagles' Novacare practice facility in South Philly.

Dressed in a blue business suit, appearing on stage like a Sunday preacher, Reid was hoping for perhaps a brief respite from all things Terrell Owens, the itinerant wide receiver who remains AWOL.

No chance. Within seconds, it began – the chanting he's no doubt heard all the way from the Main Line to Manayunk.

"T.O.! T.O.! T.O.!" Reid was having none of it. Without missing a beat, he doused the crowd with some sanguine coach-speak, revealing just how immovable the Eagles organization has become in the ongoing contract dispute with its petulant superstar.

"The National Football League is one of the last team sports [leagues] that there is," Reid said. The crowd became still. "I heard the T.O. chants. But realistically, you can leave a T.O. and incorporate another player in there ... and still win championships."

It brought the house down. Reid's smile stretched across his large, round face, and the seminar went off without a hitch.

Nevertheless, Reid was the victim of what everybody in this town sees and hears every day: There is no escaping the vitriolic debate about the future of Owens, who refuses to show up until the Eagles renegotiate the seven-year $49 million deal he signed only one year ago.

Like Banquo's ghost, the specter of Owens' presence haunts this team and this city. Indeed, it is a saga that is Shakespearean in scope, a tragedy that could bring down both a proud team and one of the NFL's truly magnificent talents.

Once wildly popular and beloved, Owens is now considered a traitor to the very team that he once praised for rescuing him from the purgatory of staying in San Francisco and the servitude of playing in Baltimore.

As for the Eagles, while few will admit it publicly, reaching the Super Bowl last year for the first time in 24 seasons would not have been possible without Owens. And, despite what Reid says, getting back without him seems to be at the very least an extremely difficult task – just like it was for three straight losses in the NFC championship game.

And in this very mad-about-sports town, people are taking sides – from the gas station attendant to the radio talk show host.

Every day, in drive time on WIP-AM, the city's raucous sports radio station, the divisive Howard Eskin – a personal friend of Reid's – has crucified Owens. When Owens complained that he needed a new deal because he had to "feed his family," Eskin started a food drive for No. 81, so that Owens wouldn't miss a meal.

It was Eskin who first reported that Owens slept in some team meetings and was late for others last season – a report that the Owens camp did not deny publicly, but privately accused the Eagles front office of leaking.

And each Eskin zing has created a reaction from the dwindling number of Owens' supporters in the media, chief among them ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, who is also a regular general columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In a recent column, Smith – who often talks to Owens – intimated that the Eagles simply were not used to players rocking the boat, because the leader in the locker room is the ultimate "company man," Donovan McNabb.

"I definitely need to know the definition of 'company man,'" McNabb replied. "A smart player? A smart athlete? A smart person? Knowing how to handle a situation? Knowing how to handle things in the right manner? That may be something that defines me."

Smith's column inspired a wicked response from another Inquirer columnist, Phil Sheridan, who is routinely lined up with Eagles management.

Even the venerable Philadelphia Daily News baseball sage Bill Conlin felt compelled to weigh into the Eagles' dominance of the sports news cycle – begging Phillies fans at Citizens Bank Park to please stop the Eagles chants between pitches.

Here's the bad news for people looking for a rest from this mess: There is more than a month until the Eagles report to training camp on July 29. And the only thing worth discussing until then is whether Owens will be showing up on time – if at all.

There is no getting away from it. T.O. is everywhere. He's poolside in Vegas, bodyguards keeping the media and autograph seekers on ice. (People page headline: "Pauper T.O. Lives It Up in Vegas.")

He's at a bowling-for-charity event in Atlanta, where his public relations team limited the questions and the access like Owens was British royalty on holiday from the latest tabloid scandal. The Daily News' back page pictured T.O., looking like Pete Weber, with a huge headline: "Sympathy Bowl."

And all the while, the Eagles stand firm. Team owner Jeffrey Lurie tells the Inquirer there will be no renegotiation. The newspaper stripped the interview across the top of page 1A, above news about Iraq and a city corruption trial in federal court.

Reid's latest words about the whole ordeal – that the Eagles can win with or without Owens – was hardly new. Doesn't matter. On the front of the Inquirer's sports page, Reid's comments are above the Phillies game story – even though the baseball team is on a home stand tear better than anything they've accomplished since 1955.

If it's spin or rhetoric, as long as it's T.O., it's news. Even if it's simply not true.

Let's take a look at some of the recent pronouncements from the protagonists and poke a few holes in them – just to keep score and keep the debate honest.

Appearing in studio with Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon on "Pardon the Interruption," Owens' agent, Drew Rosenhaus, said it's "50-50" that his client will show up in time for training camp. He said Owens is not holding out, that he's not in violation of his contract.

Of course, that's wrong. Owens failed to show up for a mandatory minicamp last month – an obvious contract violation. The Eagles have the right to fine him.

Let's look at what Reid said on the day the Eagles broke for summer vacation. "I said this before," Reid said, "Would we like to have T.O.? Sure. Can we plug someone else in there and still win Super Bowls? Yeah, absolutely."

Well, Reid is obviously choosing to forget a whole lot of bad recent history, including two straight losses in the NFC Championship game at home. Two years ago, the Eagles wide receivers, sans T.O., were embarrassed by the Carolina Panthers' secondary.

Last year, the Eagles made it through the playoffs and landed in Jacksonville without Owens. And they lost to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl with T.O. on the field. But that argument is bogus. No one thinks the Eagles are better off lining up with Greg Lewis at wide receiver.

Or rookie Reggie Brown, a second-round pick out of Georgia. As a rookie in Reid's system, Todd Pinkston had 10 catches. Freddie Mitchell had just 21 in his first year. Lewis, as a rookie free agent, caught six.

In his first year in the Reid system, Owens had 1,200 yards receiving in just 14 games – by far the most yards by any receiver in Reid's six years in Philadelphia. He had 14 trips to the end zone – by far the most on the team, more than double the next most productive player (running back Brian Westbrook, with six TDs).

And Reid must have productive wide receivers. The Eagles threw the ball 59 percent of the time on first down, tops in the league. That's 12 percent higher than the league average, by the way.

With Owens running routes, McNabb had his best year ever. In 2004, McNabb averaged 8.3 yards per attempt, the best average by an Eagles quarterback since 1962.

And now for the one guy who has caught more flak than any other in this affair – Owens. Here's his most recent remark:

"I don't have to play for the Eagles," Owens said in Atlanta last week.

Bad move.

People who say all will be forgiven when Owens shows up and catches his first touchdown pass don't know Philly. Just ask Ricky Watters, Mike Schmidt and Charles Barkley. Of all the things Owens has said, that last line will be forever tattooed on the collective psyche of this working class town, where disloyalty is a mortal sin.

Whether he comes back or not, Owens will come to regret his decision to foreswear his allegiance to the Eagles, and Philadelphia.

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