Thursday, September 14, 2006

IRVING, Texas — A funny thing happened on the way to the season opener and now, really, to the home opener against the Washington Redskins, just three days away.

All the T.O. hysteria is evaporating into normalcy. Poof.

TV trucks no longer camp out at the Ranch. National reporters no longer make pilgrimages to document the player’s every word and every workout or to psycho-analyze the coach’s every mood. The implosion watches have ended.

Dr. Phil just might have lost a gig.

Terrell Owens practiced all last week. He played in the Dallas Cowboys’ season opener at Jacksonville. In fact, he played well and, since he had no relapse with his hamstring injury, he will play his first game at Texas Stadium with the Cowboys on Sunday night against the Washington Redskins.

“I thought it was pretty good,” Cowboys coach Bill Parcells said when asked to evaluate Owens’ performance against the Jaguars. “Overall, for the first time out in a new offense, I thought it was pretty good.”

Time to move on. Owens is suddenly yesterday’s story — for now.

Who would have thought six weeks ago when Owens’ troubled hamstring made him a fixture on the stationary bike in the final weeks of training camp that by Week 2 of the regular season he would be taking a back seat to a gurgling quarterback controversy?

Or who would have expected worries about kicker Mike Vanderjagt’s groin and continued inability to make field goals after receiving a $2.4 million signing bonus would overshadow the enigmatic wide receiver who signed a three-year, $25 million deal with the Cowboys in March?

Throughout training camp and the four preseason games, with Owens missing 21 practice sessions, a day did not pass without Parcells answering questions about Owens. How was he fitting into the team? What was the status of his strained hamstring? When would he return to practice? Would he be ready for the season opener? Did he have to practice before actually playing in a regular-season game? How would he characterize their relationship? On and on and on.

Then, with the season about to open at Jacksonville and Owens having returned to practice full-time the previous week, Parcells fielded but one flimsy question concerning Owens on the Thursday and Friday before the game — something about what he was expecting from Owens and (third receiver) Patrick Crayton, both of whom missed practice time with injuries.

That’s it.

On Sunday at Alltel Stadium, not only did Owens play and start, he played awfully well for a guy with limited practice snaps all summer. On the first play from scrimmage, quarterback Drew Bledsoe hit Owens on a slant for 13 yards. The third play was to Owens for 8 yards.

Owens finished with six catches for 80 yards and a 21-yard touchdown grab in which he made an adjustment on a ball thrown over the wrong shoulder. He also had a 25-yard catch called back because of a penalty and would have caught another one for at least the 31 yards the Cowboys gained because of the Jaguars interfering with him.

On top of that, had Bledsoe not missed Owens running free down the middle on what had to have been a busted coverage by the Jaguars, he would have added a 36-yard touchdown pass to his totals.

And Owens did nothing demonstrative after the play to show up his quarterback or spew anything venomous after the game, saying only, “Sometimes you’re going to connect, sometimes you’re not.” He did nothing in the end zone after narrowing Jacksonville’s lead to 24-17 with 1:54 to play, later saying, “A touchdown celebration at that time wasn’t needed.”

In fact, Owens was on his best behavior Wednesday when the Cowboys returned to practice, trying to prepare for the Redskins while at the same time ridding themselves of that bad taste left over from the season-opening loss.

He was quite aware of the questions being raised by the media about Bledsoe and whether untested fourth-year quarterback Tony Romo might better serve the Cowboys under center.

“Quarterback controversy?” Owens said in mock amazement. “We’re not even talking about that until I move to the defensive side of the ball and play defensive end.

“Don’t ask me.”

Owens said upon signing with the Cowboys that he would do his part to make this work after his previous gigs in San Francisco and Philadelphia ended acrimoniously, and one week into the season he’s living up to that promise.

“Any quarterback questions I’m staying away from,” Owens said with a knowing smile. “You guys are really punching me with that, and I’m staying away from that.”

So Owens goes forward, knowing Week 1 was OK but that the more he practices and the more he works with Bledsoe, the better he will become in an offense he really hasn’t played in previously.

He only gave the Cowboys a taste in the opener of the “get your popcorn ready” excitement he promised upon signing in Dallas.

“Terrell is going to continue to be a great weapon for us,” Bledsoe said. “It’s pretty remarkable the way in tight coverage how he was breaking tackles and getting run-after-the-catch.”

That may be just as remarkable as how the 24/7 attention has shifted away from him to other facets of the team, allowing the 32-year-old receiver to even drop his guard.

When asked whether he was glad the media finally have been talking about someone other than him, his eyes lit up and he said, “Of course.”

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