Owens? Unleashed. Critics? Unimportant.

IRVING, Tex. -- The oft-criticized Terrell Owens will never learn. Nor, however, will everyone who oft-criticizes him.

T.O.'s whining – and to anyone who cherishes what used to be considered traditional values, to anyone who respects the sanctity of team, to anyone who clings to the old-school belief that players should simply play, then stoically hand the football to the referee and then play some more, that's what it was, whining – is offensive to the purists.

"The Cowboys offense should be more creative in getting the ball to me'' … "The Cowboys offense should be more focused on getting the ball to me'' … "The Cowboys offense runs better when the ball is thrown to me'' … "The new stadium in Arlington should be named after me'' …

From Monday through Saturday, it does get tiresome.

I therefore try to avoid paying attention to Terrell Owens on Monday through Saturday.

Because come Sunday, he pretty much ends up being correct.

"They unleashed me!'' T.O. said Sunday after keying Dallas' 35-22 home stomping of the 49ers.

Owens' unique knack for selfish thinking is part of the package. It is as much a what-you-bargained for facet of the man as is the fact that Tony Romo isn't 6-5 or that Marion Barber II doesn't run a 4.2 40 or that Wade Phillips isn't quite ready for bikini season.

Do I wish Terrell Owens had some of the traits that made, say, Raymond Berry great? Yup. Of course, I bet Raymond Berry wishes he possessed some of the traits that make Terrell Owens great.

God decided to do it this way instead.

That T.O. negativity begets negativity. There are therefore media people who have spent the last decade-and-a-half making a living off being Owens haters. This week, the NFL Network knew exactly what it was doing when it sent Deion Sanders to sit down with a "candid'' visit with the Cowboys receiver: It would get candid.

Uncomfortable. Nakedly. Foolish.

But Candid.

Owens cawed about the flaws in offensive coordinator Jason Garrett's gameplans. He repeated the complaints throughout the week. By Sunday morning, T.O. was again a TV star – this time because all the network pregame shows tackled him from every angle.

Tackled him in ways the San Francisco 49ers could not.

I'm not sure why Terrell Owens' petulance is news anymore. His owner, Jerry Jones, accepts it, signs the checks, and makes grandfatherly excuses for it. His coach, the avuncular Mr. Phillips, manages T.O. gently, wisely naming him a team captain in order to give the guy some ownership of the situation. And Jason Garrett?

I've known Jason Garrett, and known him well, for almost 20 years. Here, I believe, is the three-phase manner in which Jason responds to Owens' oddities:

PHASE 1: Like many of the fellas on the team, he almost certainly empathizes with the insecurities that motivate T.O.'s unfortunate behavior.

PHASE 2: While Garrett is still a young man who is an on-field contemporary of some NFL players, he is grounded in football tradition enough to roll his eyes at T.O.'s antics.

PHASE 3: And then finally, Garrett responds to T.O.'s squeaky wheel by. … greasing him.

"Terrell understands that it's a team game,'' said Garrett, blue eyes focused and un-rolling. "He understands that he's a big part of what we try to do on offense. Obviously, we got a chance to see that today.''

The network pregame shows – largely made up of self-styled old-schoolers – were pretty much stuck on Phase 2. Their disgust with Owens is such that some of them even suggested that the reason Owens' numbers are down is because he can't "get off the line,'' because he's no longer special, because he can't play anymore.

Thankfully for the Cowboys, Jason Garrett is smarter than that.

Thankfully for the Cowboys, Jason Garrett doesn't have the bloated ego that serves not only as the foundation of Owens' personality, but also has the foundation of many commentators who rise to the network level.

(It is with grand amusement that I watch the likes of Strahan, Keyshawn, Tiki, Marino, Jimmy and others paint themselves as throwbacks who never let individual selfishness get in the way of team success. I've covered all of these guys, some of them on a daily basis. Tom Jackson gets a pass here. But the rest? Grand amusement, I tell you.)

So the Cowboys let T.O. be right. They let him catch seven balls. They let him gain 213 yards. They let him score a 75-yard touchdown.

They let him be right.

From Romo: "You can see he's still got it. He's a fantastic player."

From Phillips: "The demise of Terrell Owens was greatly exaggerated."

In his career, Owens' yardage total is second only to the 283 yards he had in 2000 when he played for the 49ers. It is the fourth-best in Cowboys history and the most by a Dallas player since Tony Hill had 213 against Philadelphia in 1979.

The Cowboys, by the way, didn't do this with some drastic revamping of the playbook. Heck, there were two ready-made changes from previous weeks: One, they weren't quarterbacked by a cadaver. And two, they were playing against a 49ers team that will finish the season DOA.

And I ask the purists, the traditionalists, the old-schoolers. … what would you have the Cowboys do? Punish Owens for expressing his unbending selfishness? Bench him for giving dopey interviews? Cut him for flapping his silly gums? Draw-and-quarter him for showing up for the NFL Network interview while wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with an eagle (gasp!)?

I mean, at some point, don't you become numb to what he says. … and therefore freed to cheer for him to catch the football?

I get asked all the time, "Do the inmates run the Valley Ranch asylum? Boy, back in my day. … Is there organizational harm in this in the long term?''

And here's my answer:

What long-term? The 7-4 Cowboys needed to win TODAY.

T.O. helped them do that. And long-term – which really only means five more weeks – T.O. is equipped to help the Cowboys win some more.

His critics will not change. They do not understand his importance.

Terrell Owens, like the Cowboys, has a slight advantage on them. He's just like the critics in the sense that he will not change. … but he is way ahead of them in the sense that he quite obviously understands his importance.

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