Grin and Bear If
The plays that Terrell Owens makes on the field more than offset the headaches he gives the 49ers off it
Last week, as the Cardinals prepared for their biggest game in four years, fiery coach Dave McGinnis analyzed the midseason battle with the 49ers for first place in the NFC West by saying, "We've won some baby games, but we haven't won a big-boy game. This is a big-boy game."
If you want to win the big-boy games, your big-boy players had better play at the highest level. That didn't happen for Arizona on Sunday, when the pivotal moment of the game came with one minute left in the first half. Trailing 24-7 and driving deep into San Francisco territory, Cardinals quarterback Jake Plummer floated a pass into the end zone short of tight end Freddie Jones. It was intercepted by 49ers safety Ronnie Heard. A half-minute later San Francisco quarterback Jeff Garcia wriggled out of a defender's grasp and tossed a short slant pass to wideout Terrell Owens. The 61-yard catch-and-run, which gave San Francisco a 31-7 halftime lead, was all Owens. The 6'3" 226-pounder beat safety Kwamie Lassiter, catching the ball at the Niners' 45. Ten yards into his gallop, he juked safety Adrian Wilson and cornerback David Barrett, then outran them both down the left sideline. Garcia said he watched the play "in awe." Niners consultant Bill Walsh said, "Two defensive backs had the angle on him, and he simply outran them."
It's because of such plays that the 49ers tolerate Owens's occasional immature behavior and incessant whining about not getting the ball more than he does. "What he does [outside the sidelines] has no impact on this locker room," defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield said after the Niners finished off the Cardinals 38-28. "He can take a Sharpie and sign whatever he wants. You think we care? The stuff between him and coach [Steve] Mariucci, that's between them. It has nothing to do with us. What we care about is the fact that he can take over a ball game. You saw that today. He can drive a stake through the heart of the other team."
Nevertheless, Owens's end zone autograph session after catching a touchdown pass against the Seahawks on Oct. 14 was bush league. The 49ers came off as parents who look the other way when their spoiled child misbehaves, but it turns out that their response was calculated. "I think our relationship with Terrell is better, and it's highlighted by how we handled the Sharpie incident," general manager Terry Donahue said after Sunday's game. "We talked to Terrell about it, but we didn't overreact and upset our chemistry. There wasn't a confrontation. A year ago there might not have been the same kind of dialogue."
The Niners know they'll have to fight brushfires with Owens, just as Bill Parcells fought them with Lawrence Taylor on the Giants. When you have a player who makes the difference in the big games, you learn how to put up with the incendiary stuff.
Plaxico Burress Comes of Age
In His Third Year, Steeler Arrives
Steelers wideout Plaxico Burress hopes that quarterback Tommy Maddox never returns to the bench. In the 17 quarters since Maddox replaced an ineffective Kordell Stewart, Burress has caught 26 passes for 385 yards and four touchdowns. Before the switch he had only six receptions and no scores in 11-plus quarters. "I've been working hard to become a better player, and with Tommy in there, people are seeing what I'm capable of," says Burress, who scored twice in the first half of the Steelers' 31-18 victory over the Ravens on Sunday but missed the second half after being ejected for tangling with cornerback James Trapp. "All I have to do is get open, and the ball is going to be there."
While Burress is quick to praise Maddox—a former first-round pick of the Broncos who was out of football from 1996 through 1999 and was MVP of the XFL before signing with Pittsburgh last year—Burress deserves some credit himself for helping to ignite a once-stagnant offense that has carried the Steelers (4-3) to four wins in their last five games and into the AFC North lead. He has matured in his three NFL seasons, but it's only now that people outside of Pittsburgh are noticing.
The eighth selection in the 2000 draft, Burress was considered aloof, selfish and lazy, a poor man's Randy Moss. He had a disappointing rookie season (22 catches), dropping too many passes and not studying his play-book enough. Then two events altered his perspective.