Sacramento Bee

Owens and 49ers: Finally mutual admiration society
January 12, 2003
By Mike Triplett -- Bee Staff Writer

SANTA CLARA -- It was one year ago tomorrow when Terrell Owens called his agent from the losing 49ers' locker room in Green Bay and told him to "get me the (expletive) out of (San Francisco)."

It was just the other day when Owens and coach Steve Mariucci were hanging out in the 49ers' weight room, joking about a pass Owens threw during San Francisco's playoff victory over the New York Giants on Sunday.

" 'Mooch' and I, we're fine," Owens said of his coach Friday in an exclusive interview with The Sacramento Bee -- the first such interview he has granted since boycotting the Northern California media three months ago. "We haven't had any problems. Coach, he's been in my corner, and I can go to him.

"Right now, we're both pushing for a common goal."

So much has changed since last year, when the 49ers' volatile star was saying too much to the NorCal writers and refusing to say anything to Mariucci.

Since then, Owens has gone from a guy who wanted out to a guy who fits in.

He has begun to embrace his coach, his teammates, his role as a leader. And they, in turn, have started to embrace him. It wouldn't be overstating things to say this is a happy ending to an ugly situation that grew worse with each passing month last season.

One that will only grow happier if they keep riding his massive shoulders deeper into the playoffs. They will try to reach the NFC championship game for the first time in five years when they face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this afternoon.

"You might not hear it from him," Mariucci told reporters, "but you can see it. You see him smiling. He's more communicative with coaches, more fun to be around. Obviously I think he's enjoying this, I really do. More so than in years past, and it shows."

"He is more fun to be around."

Mariucci said that last part twice, and for anyone who followed the situation closely a year ago, that is a startling statement. The cold war between Mariucci and Owens was extremely unsettling during a season in which the 49ers returned to contending status.

The team did not grant Owens his wish and throw him into the expansion draft pool. But they have made him a happier superstar.

For starters, the 49ers have won a playoff game, something they failed to do in Green Bay a year ago. And even more importantly, they increased Owens' involvement last Sunday in a more wide-open offense.

Not only did he catch nine passes for 177 yards with two touchdowns and two two-point conversions in the 49ers' dramatic 39-38 victory over the New York Giants, he threw a 25-yard pass on a reverse option.

It was a far cry from the four-catch, 40-yard performance in Green Bay that had him begging for a new home.

"And the thing is, that's all I really ever asked for, an opportunity to help this team win," Owens said. "I knew the talent I had. Going into Green Bay, I was so ready. I was so ready to take that stage. And it was like a tug of war, trying to get that opportunity."

Opportunity has come in abundance this season for Owens, even though he has barely practiced because of nagging injuries to his groin and heel. In his last 11 games, he has caught 91 passes, 14 of them touchdowns.

Owens' happiness has become a common goal for T.O. and Mooch, just like winning. Owens came into this season saying he wanted to try to make the best out of a bad situation -- being stuck in San Francisco.

He's done it. And that his boycott of the media has a lot to do with it.

"I pick my times when I want to speak and who I want to speak to," said Owens, who can still be found regularly on national television and in national magazines. He said he has cut out the regular talks with the NorCal writers because he was constantly putting his foot in his mouth, and it hurt his family to see bad things written about him.

"I think my mistake was really trying to give everybody the benefit of the doubt and trying to be honest. But honesty has been my downfall," said Owens, who, among other things, sparked a controversy last season when he suggested that Mariucci let up on the Chicago Bears when the 49ers were ahead 28-9 because of Mariucci's friendship with Bears coach Dick Jauron.

"I've talked to my mom, my brother and sister, and really it's more hurtful to them when things like that come up. I'm taking myself out of the limelight as far as talking to the media. I'm trying a different approach, and everything's working out good for me."

Owens said he realized that life is short when a close friend was killed during the offseason. He said football was becoming too much of a business and starting to wear on him mentally. And he said he wanted to try to wipe that scowl off his face.

Dealing with the media made him unhappy. He admits that feuding with his coach was a distraction, too.

It's better now, Owens said, with him and Mariucci talking, laughing, arguing with the referees side by side during games. The two of them made good on an agreement to understand each other better after a long sit-down last summer in Owens' hometown of Atlanta, where Mariucci flew to try to tear down some walls.

Owens' role with his team has genuinely improved as well. Mariucci made him a member of his "Dirty Dozen" this year, a group of veterans with whom he discusses team issues from time to time.

During halftime against the Giants, with the 49ers losing 28-14, Owens surprised everybody by calling his teammates together and giving a fiery speech in which he asked if they were pretenders or contenders.

The team's most veteran player, offensive tackle Derrick Deese -- who hasn't always been an Owens supporter -- said the speech was both sincere and inspiring. Owens said he was surprised it received so much attention.

"I just feel like in the last few years and in the playoffs, there were times I wanted to say something and I just sat at my locker," Owens said after Sunday's game. "I thought maybe (Bryant Young or Dana Stubblefield) or the veterans on this team would say something. But today it was just the time for me to get up and say something. Today I had to be the voice."

"From day one this year," Owens added Friday, "I made an effort on my own to involve myself more with my teammates."

Receivers coach George Stewart, whom Owens said he is closer to than anyone else in the organization, said Owens is still maturing.

"He's learning to lead," Stewart said. "He said that a year ago, that he's never led before. He's learning how to do that."

And teammates are allowing him to do so. Veteran linemen Deese and Jeremy Newberry have both come around on Owens more this season than ever before.

Newberry, for one, threatened to kick Owens' butt after the receiver started going off on Mariucci in Green Bay if the receiver didn't shut his mouth.

Both linemen said they respect how hard Owens has always worked and how badly he wants to win.

"It's funny because he's a guy who wants to win and does everything he can to win," Deese said. "And he asks for the ball and he'll say, 'Give me the ball,' and you guys will say he's being greedy. He wants to win the Super Bowl, and that is all he is focused on.

"You can't take anything away from his talent. You have to respect him. You might not like what he does on the field, and you might not like what he does off the field. But once you look at what he's doing in the game, you have to respect that."

Those touchdown celebrations are even becoming more endearing. Not only did teammates tolerate the Sharpie incident, but most of them, including Mariucci, enjoyed the pom-pom celebration.

Owens is not the typical selfish player. If the 49ers win, he won't complain about catching four balls for 41 yards -- as he did against the New York Giants in Week 1. But if they lose, look out.

All Owens asks is that he get an opportunity to carry the 49ers if they need to be carried. When Garcia ran for a touchdown in the fourth quarter last Sunday, Owens was the first one hugging his quarterback in the end zone.

When it was Tai Streets, and not Owens, who caught the game-winning touchdown pass, Owens was also the first to embrace his fellow receiver.

"Like I've said since I've been here, as long as we're winning, we're fine," Owens said. "Tai catches the game-winning pass. I don't feel he got enough credit. I was so happy for him."

Of course, immediately after that, Owens was the first 49er to get into skirmishes with the Giants defensive backs that resulted in two sets of offsetting taunting and unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties.

There is a price that comes with Owens' unbridled emotion. And everyone is well aware his lack of composure could have cost the 49ers some valuable yards against the Giants. Mariucci said he spoke with Owens and with his team about the importance of keeping a cool head in those situations.

But both Mariucci and Stewart commended Owens for his poise. Both coaches said Owens' reputation as a ticking time bomb makes teams try to goad him every week -- in addition to double-teaming him every week.

"T.O.'s done a great job all year. Believe me, he grabs a lot of attention," Mariucci said. "In a lot of ways, he's grown this year. From talking to the team at halftime, to being part of the Dirty Dozen, to knowing what he's going to face every week.

"In fact, we were just talking about it the other night when we were working out together. I was finishing up my 10-minute workout, and he was starting his two hours. I said to him, 'Do you realize we didn't complete a single pass downfield in that game? We didn't throw a pass over 12 yards.' "

Owens corrected his coach. His buddy.

"No, that's not right," Owens said. "My pass was downfield."

Garcia skips practice -- Garcia did not attend the 49ers' Saturday walkthrough in Tampa's Raymond James Stadium because he had a cold, according to Mariucci. Garcia never works out on Saturdays.

Mariucci said there was no concern it will affect Garcia's availability for today's game.

"He needed a little rest," the coach said. "It's just a cold. He's fine. He'll be OK."

Starting cornerback Jason Webster also did not practice and remains a questionable game-time decision with a sprained ankle.

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