Terrell Owens should still be playing in the NFL. Let's set that straight from the get-go. He has the talent, the desire and the potential to help at least one of 32 teams.
That he no longer has a job in the league isn't a surprise. He set himself up for this fate years ago, denied the possibility of it for even longer and now seems unable to grasp that he's done despite his reluctance to retire officially. He's like a jilted boyfriend who just can't accept that the relationship is over.
Yet it's hard to think that anybody is lining up to offer support. Owens always operated as if he never needed anyone else. He's finally paying a hefty price for it.
T.O.'s career could have ended differently. Jerry Rice was able to find employment in his later years -- he finished his career in Seattle at age 42 -- because he knew how to play the game on and off the field. Even when he wasn't able to generate the same productivity that had made him arguably the best player in NFL history, he still had value in the locker room. Younger receivers could see his work ethic, his devotion to his craft and the way professionals conduct themselves even when retirement is near.
Owens, 38, once looked up to Rice when they were teammates in San Francisco and would have been wise to follow Rice's moves. Instead, Owens chose a route that is all too familiar and predictable. He thought he was more special than anybody else. He started believing that as long as his body was chiseled and his résumé Hall-of-Fame caliber, there'd always be at least one willing suitor for his services, giving him a spot the way teams like Buffalo and Cincinnati once did.
Owens should have been paying attention to the way Randy Moss vanished from the NFL in 2010. Though Moss is four years younger than Owens and still capable of doing damage on a football field, he couldn't last in New England or Minnesota. He couldn't get any serious opportunities in Tennessee. Like Owens, he burned too many bridges, played the jerk far too often and eventually discovered that NFL decision-makers have long memories about high-maintenance superstars. The minute Moss washed out of the league, Owens should've been on notice.
At first, Owens had the convenient excuse that offseason surgery to repair a torn ACL had hindered his employment opportunities this past season. Once he was healthy, though, the red flags were impossible to miss. When you hold a public workout for NFL scouts -– as Owens did last fall -- and the only public on hand is the media, it's time to start thinking about life in places like Calgary or Saskatchewan. Owens' decision to take his talents to the Allen Wranglers of the Indoor Football League is even more revealing of his desperation. He's becoming pro football's equivalent of an Atlantic City lounge act.
Owens is supposed to have a 50 percent ownership stake in that franchise and the opportunity to make as much as $500,000. However, it's hard to believe this move is solely about generating income, which he desperately needs. Owens always has been addicted to the spotlight that came with NFL success, the opportunity to captivate people with his skill and bravado. This career choice has just as much to do with staying relevant in some warped way as it does money. His only other recourse at this stage would be dating Kim Kardashian.
It's hard to determine whether Owens really believes the NFL would give him another shot or if he's letting his wounded pride do the talking. The guess here is that it's the latter, just one more example of a fading star in denial. Owens wouldn't be the first big-time athlete to struggle with ending his career. He'll just end up being the first to leave the game, blaming everybody else for what went wrong in his final days.
Owens also may have to come to grips with fact that his post-NFL misery is just beginning. When he becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame, he will face long odds to go in on the first ballot. Hall voters tend to have a hard time embracing players who created as much drama as Owens did, and there's already a healthy backlog of receivers seeking entry. Even though his numbers make him a no-brainer -- Owens ranks second in league history in receiving yards (15,934) and receiving touchdowns (153) -– his personality might trump his production in the early stages of the election process.
As this offseason begins, it's already clear that such a dynamic is affecting Owens' ability to find work in the NFL. If Rice could have 92 receptions at age 40 in Oakland, it's easy to think Owens could do the same thing, especially when teams are throwing more than ever. The problem is that T.O. had ample opportunities to play nice and passed them up time and again. These days, he's learning how cold the world can be when people decide he's finally not worth the trouble any longer.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.