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Monday, March 9, 2009
T.O., Bills marriage makes sense

By Jeffri Chadiha
ESPN.com

The only surprising thing about the Buffalo Bills' decision to sign wide receiver Terrell Owens was how quickly the deal happened. It seemed likely that the Bills would take a little more time to think about whether Owens would fit in with their young team after Dallas released him last week.

It also seemed plausible that Owens might take a little more time to determine his options once he was an unrestricted free agent. But before anybody could stop talking about all the carnage he had left behind in Texas, Owens had a one-year, $6.5 million contract and a brand-new job in upstate New York.
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This, by the way, isn't a bad thing. The Bills finally have another talented target who can keep defenses from focusing most of their attention on star receiver Lee Evans. Owens also has a chance to prove he still can contribute something positive to a team, even though the Cowboys were willing to take a $9 million salary-cap hit just to shed him from their roster.

As strange as it sounds to those who can't stand Owens -- and figured he might not find any suitors after Dallas dumped him -- this deal might very well work out for the Bills.

Here are five reasons why:

1. Owens can still play: It's amazing that so many people are questioning whether Owens can be a productive player in the near future. For all the talk about his recent struggles with media coverage and his age (he will turn 36 on Dec. 7), he still was the best receiver the Cowboys had this past season. He caught 69 passes for 1,052 yards and 10 touchdowns, numbers that probably would have been greater had quarterback Tony Romo not missed three games with a fractured pinky finger.

That happened to be the ninth 1,000-yard season Owens has produced in the past 11 seasons, and he was far more effective than other receivers with his experience level (such as Marvin Harrison or Joey Galloway) last season.

That's not to say Owens isn't going to slow down eventually. It's just that he's still dangerous enough to warrant the respect of opposing defenses. Not only will that make life easier for Evans, but quarterback Trent Edwards also will face far less pressure in guiding an offense that didn't produce a 300-yard passing effort all season.

Sure, Owens ultimately will make some noise if he's doesn't seeing enough balls his way. But the Bills' offense needed a jolt of energy, and he's capable of providing that.

2. He has plenty of motivation: If you've followed Owens' career at all, you know he's at his best when the doubters are hovering around him. That's a big reason he developed from an unknown, third-round pick in San Francisco into a weapon so potent he made Jerry Rice expendable.

It's also why he helped the Eagles reach the Super Bowl after he burned every last bridge he had with the 49ers. And finally, it's why he was able to play at an elite level in Dallas after he tormented the Eagles into dumping him in 2005. The man, if you haven't noticed, loves to take on a challenge.

That means the Bills can expect Owens, a noted workout junkie, to train harder for this season than he's ever trained before. They also can expect him to be more focused on being a difference-maker for his new team. Owens probably won't be doing this solely because he loves the idea of playing in Buffalo, but the Bills shouldn't worry about that. As long as he's committed to sticking it to his legions of critics, the Bills are going to benefit.

3. He's far less toxic in his first year with a new team: Owens' career bears this out. He used to say "sir" when addressing teammates when he first arrived in San Francisco in 1996. He got along well with quarterback Donovan McNabb during that first season in Philadelphia, and veteran defenders like Jeremiah Trotter and Brian Dawkins were quick to embrace him as well.

Even in Dallas, the major headlines Owens generated during the 2006 season were hardly enough to make Cowboys owner Jerry Jones fret about his investment at the time.

One incident -- Owens' accidental overdose -- was just plain bizarre. Another highly publicized matter -- the friction between Owens and former Cowboys coach Bill Parcells -- had as much to do with Parcells' apparent disdain for Owens as it did with Owens' personality. (The two never spoke to each other during their time together, and Parcells referred to Owens only as "the player.") The point to be made here is that Owens is smart enough to know the value of a first impression. His undoing usually has more to do with how he operates once he has plenty of leverage and a modicum of security.

4. He'll be in a small media market: This is the most underrated factor in the potential success of this deal. An important thing to remember about Owens is that he loves performing on a big stage, which was exactly what he had in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Dallas. His arrival in Buffalo after playing in Dallas is akin to a seasoned actor working dinner theater after years of toiling on Broadway. The substantial change in his audience is likely to have a huge effect on his ability to manipulate the media.

The truth is that Owens loved all the attention he received in his other stops, whether it was negative or positive. In Buffalo, he'll have to get used to the idea that it takes a lot to create ripples in the national media. After all, Bills running back Marshawn Lynch has run afoul of the law twice in the past year -- once for a hit-and-run incident last year and the other for possessing a concealed firearm last month -- and that news generated little buzz outside Buffalo. Although Owens will be the most controversial Bills player in history, it's fair to assume that some of his behavior will fall into that same vacuum.

5. He won't be around for 2010 if he doesn't behave: The smartest thing the Bills did was to set up this deal as more of an experiment than an investment. They obviously know the risks involved -- including the possibility that Owens could torment a third-year quarterback like Edwards the same way he made life difficult for Pro Bowl signal-callers like McNabb, Romo and former 49er Jeff Garcia -- but they effectively have established boundaries around Owens for the time being.

That's something Jones didn't do when he signed the receiver three years ago and basically let Owens run wild within his franchise. See, the better you treat Owens, the more likely it is that he'll haunt you in the long run.

That's probably why the Bills have Owens on board for a short period of time and a manageable amount of money. They don't need him to be the savior he was portrayed to be when he joined Philadelphia, and they don't need him to be the main attraction Jones hoped he'd become in Dallas. All the Bills need from Owens is a reliable player who can energize an inconsistent offense. Judging from all the factors currently in their favor, that's exactly what they'll get.

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.