Looking out for No. 1
Terrell Owens has enough left to help a Bears team lacking elite wide receiver
The Lions suddenly aren't so formidable and the Bears get them soon for a rematch at Soldier Field. The NFC West is too feeble to yield a wild-card team, and the NFC East has four pretty evenly matched teams that after beating up on one another will leave just one playoff team standing. And the Bears already have a leg up on Tampa Bay and Atlanta, having beaten both. With the first half of the NFL season just about done, the Bears are in as good a position as anybody in the NFC, except the undefeated Green Bay Packers.
The Bears, thanks to Jay Cutler's good sense, have figured out how to help the offensive line keep him upright and in the process score right around 30 points every single week, which is absolutely necessary in today's NFL. In Matt Forte, they've got, as Brian Urlacher said, perhaps the best all-around offensive player in the league so far. Forte's the team's best runner, best receiver, its biggest every-down threat since Neal Anderson. With Cutler and Forte playing the way they have, the Bears appear to be on to something promising. If they could just add a player who could help Cutler and take some of the load off Forte, a veteran who demands defensive attention, a guy who in the second half of the season could score, say, five or six touchdowns, a guy who could run the tough routes and assume the role of a No. 1 receiver, which the Bears still don't have.
Yes, I'm talking about Terrell Owens. Get him. Sign him, or at the very least investigate it thoroughly. T.O.'s better walking in off the street than Roy Williams. And to sign T.O. costs nothing, no draft picks, not a lot of money. Imagine how much more space Forte and particularly Devin Hester would have to operate with T.O. on the field. Imagine how much more effective those screen passes to Forte and Hester would be with T.O. clearing out space in the middle. When we last saw T.O., last season before his knee injury, he was catching 72 passes for nine touchdowns and just fewer than 1,000 yards. That was essentially T.O.'s worst full season. Hell, the Bears go decades without that kind of production from a receiver.
In fact, you know the last time the Bears had a receiver come close to exceeding T.O.'s production in all three categories? Marcus Robinson in 1999 beat him in two and tied him in touchdowns.
Look, we all know the risk involved. T.O.'s history is that sooner rather than later he's going to sabotage his quarterback. Did it to Donovan McNabb, to Jeff Garcia, to Tony Romo. I'm sure I've forgotten a couple of QBs he left as road kill. T.O.'s going to demand the ball and pout when he doesn't get his way. Lovie Smith and Mike Martz and half the guys in the locker room are going to want him out. I'm not suggesting it will be easy, but trying to win rarely is.
There are two conditions that have to exist before a club can take the risk and sign T.O. for the rest of this season.
1. You have to have a solidly entrenched and mentally tough veteran quarterback, a guy who can give nasty right back to T.O. when he starts up.
2. You have to have need.
I've tried to do some things differently the last two years. When I was in Buffalo you didn't hear a peep. When I was in Cincinnati you didn't hear much.” --Terrell Owens, to the L.A. Times
The Bears have both. If Cutler can tell his offensive coordinator where to stick it (which might be the No. 1 development of this season) then he can tell T.O. where to get off as well. You think Jim McMahon didn't have it out with guys during the '85 season, including his head coach? Cutler, at the very least, would have some lieutenants in that locker room in Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Julius Peppers, guys who would have no fear of grabbing T.O. by the collar and slamming him into a locker if necessary.
On the upside, don't tell me Cutler wouldn't drop to his knees to thank the heavens for having a target/threat like T.O. to deploy. Forte and T.O. and Hester? Think of a team's second-best corner trying to cover Hester. It's like adding an ace who moves your 15-win guy down a spot in the rotation. Even though T.O. is about to turn 38 years old, even though his route running ain't what it used to be, even though he's not going to be as explosive as he was two years ago, he's still an upgrade on what the Bears have. There should be tangible benefit. Another plus? T.O. doesn't start his antics right away. There's always a honeymoon period. (Remember the tearful "That's my quarterback!") Since he wouldn't be coming aboard until the midway point of the season, there would be much, much less time (and inclination) for drama. We're talking nine games plus the playoffs.
Look, I've been more critical of T.O. than most. He's a sure Hall of Fame talent who has undermined teams. This isn't arguable. There are teams that absolutely do not have the need for T.O. or the veteran quarterback to pull it off. But T.O. isn't oblivious. He knows this is his last chance. He desperately wants to win before his career is done. Not that many teams are going to be interested though I pay zero attention to the absence of actual football scouts at T.O.'s workout Tuesday. Teams know how to find him away from the cameras and the circus of a public workout.
What I do take seriously is T.O. saying to The Los Angeles Times of his poisonous history: "I've tried to do some things differently the last two years. When I was in Buffalo you didn't hear a peep. When I was in Cincinnati you didn't hear much."
Look, if the Bears were in the catbird seat, as the Packers are, there would be no need to consider signing Owens. If Jerry Angelo had signed an actual No. 1 NFL receiver before the season, we wouldn't be having this discussion. Also, as former Bears receiver Tom Waddle pointed out Wednesday on ESPN 1000, Mike Martz isn't a change-on-the-fly kind of coach and T.O. probably isn't the right fit for his system. No doubt Waddle makes an important point; we're not talking about the two most flexible human beings in the world. Now here comes the " but."
Are the Bears more interested in winning or justifying how they do what they do? This Bears team, while on to something and appearing to be on the uptick this season, needs a little something extra, a little kick, an exception.
And suppose T.O. isn't in football shape (as Jerry Rice suggested might be the case), suppose the knee injury has robbed him of his explosiveness, suppose he and Cutler have no chemistry or he's such poison in the locker room the veterans want him out?
The answer is simple: Cut him. Show him the door. You're not giving up anything to get him and he's going to make very little, relatively speaking. If T.O. can help you, he's a find, and if he can't, throw him out.
The Packers stand above everybody else in the NFC, but as we're reminded in the NFL every season, nobody's perfect. Green Bay hasn't been challenged yet. It looks a little too easy, so far, to me, like those seasons the Colts would zoom through the first 12 games or so and not win it all. Somebody in the NFC will be up to the task. You'd like to think the Bears would want to be that team, that they would do whatever necessary to help Cutler be the great quarterback he can be if surrounded by the right players and maximize the team's chances of winning while they have the best linebacker of his generation, Urlacher, still playing at this level.
And if Terrell Owens can help in that direction, if he could come in and be an asset and not a liability, you swallow your pride, throw him the damn ball and see what happens.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN. Wilbon joined ESPN.com after three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.