T.O. to Falcons in 2004?

Are we the only ones thinking right now that George Stewart's departure to Atlanta could have far-reaching implications for the 49ers in 2004? As in, could Stewart's new job as the Falcons' receivers coach be paving the way for Terrell Owens to join the Falcons once he becomes a free agent next year? Think about it. Stewart was Owens' confidant during his seven seasons in San Francisco, and Owens already has expressed a desire to play in Atlanta, where he just happens to live in the offseason.

When an unhappy Owens was making loud noise about playing elsewhere at the end of the 2001 season, he mentioned Atlanta near the top of his short list, even though the Falcons weren't a playoff team. But the situation has changed considerably in Atlanta since then, and you can only imagine the visions T.O. might have of finishing his career running underneath passes thrown by strong-armed quarterback Michael Vick in Owens' hometown.

Some might think the recent firing of Steve Mariucci as Niners head coach might improve Owens' chances of remaining in San Francisco, but that's not necessarily true. Despite their well-documented differences, Owens and Mariucci pretty much had patched things in their relationship in 2002, and Owens seemed genuinely sorry to see Mooch get such a raw deal as he was shown the door by team ownership.

On the other hand, Owens likes that the Niners are making changes, and he seems pleased the team is leaning toward a defense-minded head coach while ostensibly leaving the offense to holdover coordinator Greg Knapp, whom Owens always had gotten along with just fine.

"Sometimes it's good to get a little change," Owens said this week from Hawaii, where he will start for the NFC in the Pro Bowl on Sunday. "We were going along pretty well, but sometimes when you shake things up, it can help. I hope that's the situation with our team. I hope it doesn't mean we have to take a step back to go forward."

Owens will have to move forward in San Francisco without one of his greatest supporters. Stewart was Owens' friend and mentor in San Francisco, and also a calming influence and go-between for Owens during his acrimonious disputes with Mariucci and always was close with Owens during the days when the star receiver had few friends on the team. Stewart also has spent countless hours throwing and catching with Owens and helping him further develop into perhaps the NFL's greatest receiver.

"That's a great opportunity for him. I'm happy for him," Owens said of Stewart and his new job opportunity. "All good things come to an end, and that's the way it is."

We're not exactly sure what T.O. means with that last comment. Stay tuned.

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