T.O. ready to smack it to rest of NFL

The image of an exuberant Terrell Owens, defiantly spiking the football after yet another touchdown, graces the cover of USA Today's Sports Weekly NFL kickoff issue that has hit the stands just in time for Thursday's season opener against the New York Giants. The words to the left blare loudly: "Can Terrell Owens back up his smack?" Well, yes, he can. And the football world is about to get its first look of 2002.

It's a different Owens that will take the stage in Thursday's nationally-televised game that will kick off the NFL season. A better Owens. An Owens that has improved from his back-to-back All-Pro seasons. An Owens that is calmer, more relaxed and definitely more mature.

But talking smack? Well, T.O. is just really telling it like it is.

And just as much as everyone will be watching how high Owens can take his game this season, he is eager to show everybody.

"This year I am going to try to start out on fire and try things at a fast pace," Owens said. "I have done that with the way I have gotten into shape and worked out during the offseason. So, I am looking for a productive year. If I stay injury free, who knows where Terrell can go?"

One thing's for sure: Where Terrell goes, the 49ers will follow. He has developed into the most dangerous threat in football, and now that he and coach Steve Mariucci are buddies again, or at least collaborators in a common cause, the ball should be coming his way more often than last season, and at least enough to make him a factor - and often a deciding factor - in every game.

He is going to dominate opponents this year, and the 49ers will give him plenty of opportunities to do so as they set him up with their strong running game. There has been talk that Owens likes to embarrass opponents, but he pooh-poohs the suggestion.

"I guess if scoring touchdowns is embarrassing," Owens said. "That's not my part of the game. I just go out and do my part. I bring a whole lot of things to the table, whether I am blocking or making plays. I think, if anything, DBs probably embarrass themselves trying to dictate what I am going to do and counteracting some things that I am doing."

That's about all the smack you'll get out of T.O. these days. The once defiant superstar is now settling into a more focused persona as he attempts to become the NFL's best player and carry the Niners with him deep into the playoffs this season.

"I'm more laid back now," he said. "Well, maybe not laid back, but just more active more with people. Just being stress-free and laughing and talking with the guys a lot more. Really, just not letting a lot of things bother me."

He'll save that for opponents every week. Beginning Thursday with the Giants.


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