Reasons Owens might return

Many observers feel Terrell Owens has played his last game in a 49ers uniform. But despite the All-Pro receiver's occasionally antagonistic and self-centered behavior during 2003, the team continues to assert it wants him back next season. And that scenario might not be as much of a longshot as it once appeared.

As he has done for years, Owens went his own way this season, causing a ruckus with his sideline tirade aimed at offensive coordinator Greg Knapp and his belittling of quarterback Jeff Garcia. After breaking his collarbone in the first half against Philadelphia on Dec. 21, he could be seen talking on a cell phone on the sidelines as his teammates battled for an upset victory.

The next week, in the season finale against Seattle, Owens - wearing street clothes and a shoulder sling - left the field in the final minutes while the Niners still were fighting for a victory. The next day, he was the only 49er who did not show up for an optional team meeting at Niners headquarters.

Niners coach Dennis Erickson said he didn't see this kind of conduct as a sign T.O.'s days in San Francisco are finished.

"Not at all," Erickson said. "I really don't. I think it is all about what is out there. Let's face it, he's a free agent and he is going to test the market, which he should. Hopefully, we can compete with that."

Erickson said he enjoyed coaching Owens in 2003 and wants him back on the team next year.

"I have no complaints about T.O. at all," Erickson said. "He has played hard. Ever since the confrontation that we all had (in September), there hasn't been a problem. I asked him to play hard and he has played hard and done everything that we have asked. I hope he's here (in 2004). We all hope he is here."

And it could happen, with Owens' behavior off the field and inconsistent performance on it playing big factors in a possible return to the Niners.

Owens was named to the Pro Bowl for the fourth consecutive year this season, and his numbers were solid, though well off what he has produced in each of the past three seasons, when Owens' play elevated him to elite status among the game's superstar performers.

But he did not actually play as well as those numbers - 80 receptions for 1,102 yards and nine touchdowns - might suggest. He dropped at least a dozen passes during the course of the season, and several of those could have been difference-makers in games the 49ers lost. He also short-armed some passes and did not display the ability to go get deep balls that were lofted in his direction.

That will be noticed by personnel people around the league. How much it will be held against him remains to be seen. Nobody can deny Owens still has MVP-type ability, and he can make a big impact on practically any - and every - NFL team.

But in 2003, he only added to his reputation as a headache both on and off the field. That will have an adverse effect on his worth on the open market, and there is no way Owens will get that record $20 million bonus on his new contract, a number that was bandied about during the offseason last year.

The Niners considered inking Owens to a long-term contract during that period, when they probably could have signed him substantially below that kind of figure, but they wisely held off, letting his 2003 play establish his 2004 value.

That, ironically, has put the Niners back in the running for Owens' services, or at least more willing to take a chance on tagging him so that they can attempt to get something for him in return via trade. That might be risky, however, since his cap figure would be enormous for 2004 should the team slap the franchise tag on him.

"In his particular case, he only practiced one day a week and I have more information today available to me than I did (during the past offseason)" said Niners general manager Terry Donahue, who in a post-season meeting with reporters said several times he would like to have Owens back with the team. "And I think that information is useful. That's why I think it was a good decision not to extend him."

It was a good decision, but it also leaves the door open that Owens will return to the team, when it appeared just months ago the Niners would allow him to walk in free agency, even if they got nothing in return.

Of course, it's difficult to get a read on which way Owens is leaning. He said publicly in recent weeks that he would be willing and open to returning to San Francisco.

But when he finally appeared at the team facility on the day after the Dec. 27 loss to Seattle, Owens brushed through the lobby and brushed off Niners beat writers whom he has avoided all season, saying, "I've washed my hands of you all."

Despite appearances in 2003, the Niners now have some viable reasons to reconsider washing their hands of him.

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