Among the many talents of arbitrator Richard Bloch is sleight of hand. And so it was on Wednesday, as a legion of NFL pundits suggested Bloch would reduce the suspension of Terrell Owens and order him returned to the active roster immediately, the independent arbitrator ruled against T.O., opting for prestidigitation over presumption.
Just like that, poof, the Philadelphia Eagles' recalcitrant wideout has disappeared for the rest of this season. And there isn't any abracadabra formula or purportedly righteous recourse left for the often misguided crusaders at the NFL Players Association to turn to now for relief.
Sometimes, it seems, not even the mighty collective bargaining agreement is enough to overturn common sense. The NFLPA weaseled Owens out of one tough spot in the spring of '04, as the union was key in having his trade to the Baltimore Ravens voided, and then helped broker the agreement that sent the talented but tainted wide receiver to the Eagles in a three-franchise swap.
After the ruling Wednesday, though, the NFLPA is batting just .500 for Owens. As for Owens, well, he's out of the lineup, and out of luck, at least for a few more months. The ruling is binding and cannot be overturned.
What are the magic words for Richard Bloch, who presided over the case during an interminably long hearing last Friday? Well, in this case, they are, "See ya next spring, T.O." No matter any residual tirade in the wake of Bloch's ruling, the reality is that Owens is basically out of the public consciousness for the remainder of the 2005 season. To paraphrase an old Watergate line, the long national nightmare is finally over.
No slacker himself when it comes to pulling a rabbit out of a hat, agent Drew Rosenhaus will doubtless find a new home for his client next spring, after the Eagles cut him to avoid paying a March 2006 roster bonus of $5 million. For now though, even with his magical touch, there is no way for Rosenhaus to wave a wand and put together the career Bloch temporarily sawed in half with his 38-page ruling upholding the Eagles' rights to suspend Owens for four games and then deactivate him the rest of the season.
And as a consummate deal-maker, Rosenhaus might have to work overtime next spring to line up the kind of contract to which the wide receiver is accustomed. Any deal for Owens is apt to be replete with protections for the team which takes him on. His tempting abilities aside, the number of clubs willing to do so will be diminished, although there will be some serious suitors.
But this season for Owens, essentially, has come to a premature end. And his options for battling on within the purview of the NFL's grievance system appear at a dead-end, as well. If you can't get a little love from Bloch, who has offered some real head-scratchers in past arbitration rulings, you're pretty much out of bullets. Not even the NFLPA's big legal guns, who interpret every comma in the CBA as though it is pro-player, can reload now.
Sure, the union could probably file another grievance if the Eagles don't allow Owens access to the building once his suspension officially ends after this weekend. But it isn't likely that Richard Berthelsen or Jeffrey Kessler, who represented Owens in his case last week, are going to want to go back in front of Bloch again for an encore dose of humiliation.
"[It] was even better than we thought it might be," said one Philadelphia management official, trying hard not to gloat too much, Wednesday afternoon.
Truth be told, here's what the Eagles figured as their best-case scenario, as they assessed Bloch's options: The arbitrator would uphold the four-game suspension but order that the team permit Owens to report back to work after Sunday's game against Green Bay, the final week the franchise was allowed to sanction him under the parameters of the catch-all charge of "conduct detrimental to the team." And then, forced to have Owens back at the facility, lifting weights and on the practice field, the team would have to decide whether to keep him around as an expensive "scout team" player or simply release him.
After Bloch's far-ranging ruling, though, no such dicey decisions are necessary.
Owens will lose $764,705 in base salary. That represents four-seventeenths of his scheduled base salary of $3.25 million for the 2005 season. Philadelphia also will attempt to recover $1.725 million in signing-bonus money paid to Owens last spring as part of his seven-year contract. The team can do so because it wisely wrote into his deal a provision that permits such recovery if Owens was suspended for more than one game. It's believed the team can withhold game checks, of $191,176 each, toward the repayment of the part of the signing bonus it is seeking.
And, for all intents and purposes, Philadelphia can assign Owens' career to deep-freeze for the next several months. Given the animus that exists now, the enmity with which the Eagles' braintrust now views Owens, it's reasonable to assume he won't be released and permitted to continue his career elsewhere this season. Owens is essentially in purgatory, and will be, until some afternoon in late February when his name quietly appears on the NFL waiver wire as having his contract terminated.
Fittingly, after the slam-dunk handed down by Bloch on Wednesday afternoon, Owens can stay in shape playing hoops on the full-length court in his Lithonia, Ga., mansion. The place has a "For Sale" sign in front of it but, from what we're hearing, there hasn't been a lot of action yet. Owens certainly won't be getting much action anytime soon.
The Eagles have made it crystal clear they prefer to lose without Owens -- and notable is that Philadelphia is 0-5 in the regular-season games he has missed because of injury or suspension the past two years and has averaged 55.1 fewer passing yards in those games -- than to perhaps salvage a few victories this year by bringing him back.
Sometimes, it seems, you've got to admit when an experiment fails. Wouldn't Dr. Frankenstein have been a lot better off had he never zapped that lightning bolt into his creation? There are occasions when a move blows up that one is better served to break out a handkerchief, wipe off the mess and move on. On Wednesday, the Eagles brass washed its hands of the Owens fiasco.
And did so with the endorsement of an independent arbitrator.
As for Bloch, he demonstrated again that attempting to read his tea leaves is an exercise in the murkiness of his magic. The popular perception, after last Friday's hearing dragged on for 14 hours, was that such a ponderous proceeding did not bode well for the Eagles organization.
Wednesday afternoon, one Eagles official noted smugly that tea-readers had failed to allow for even the remote possibility that the case against Owens was so considerable -- remember, the team has been amassing a dossier of his disruptiveness since the spring, with every incident fastidiously detailed -- that it took 14 hours simply to get through the massive body of evidence.
Fourteen hours, though, will seem like nothing to Owens, given that he now faces an hourglass through which the sands will filter slowly before he gets back on the field again.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.