PHILADELPHIA -- After living in the NFL spotlight for most of the past year - mainly for off-the-field controversies - Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens was reduced to a bit player yesterday in his biggest game since he was banished from the Philadelphia Eagles in midseason last year.
In his return to Lincoln Financial Field, the former Eagle was held to three catches for 45 yards in Philadelphia's 38-24 win. Dallas quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who had a dreadful game in throwing three interceptions and losing a fumble, tried to get the ball to Owens 13 times; twice those passes wound up in the Eagles' hands.
"The opportunities were there and we didn't [take advantage] of them," said Owens, whose departure from Philadelphia followed a feud with ex-teammate Donovan McNabb. "I don't know what the answers are. As an offense, I think we were all frustrated."
Typical of the problems Bledsoe and Owens were having connecting was a fourth-quarter play from the Philadelphia 33-yard line when Owens had beaten the Eagles' defense and appeared open for a touchdown inside the 5-yard line. Instead, Bledsoe badly underthrew Owens and cornerback Lito Sheppard made the first of his two interceptions.
Had the quaterback's throw been on the mark, it would have tied the score at 31.
"When I talk about opportunities, you saw the game," Owens said. "That was an opportunity and it was a missed opportunity."
Bledsoe's final miscue of the game came as the Cowboys appeared on the threshold of tying the game in the final 30 seconds. After an Eagles pass interference penalty that moved the ball 57 yards to the Philadelphia 6-yard line, Bledsoe tried to hit tight end Jason Witten in the end zone. But the quarterback threw the ball to Witten's left toward the sideline and Sheppard intercepted, sprinting 102 yards for the final score.
"It was just a miscommunication between Jason and myself. He broke in and I thought he was coming out," Bledsoe said.
Bledsoe also was sacked seven times, and the pressure, the quarterback said, limited the Cowboys' options on offense.
The drum roll to the game had been dominated by the hostile reception the notorious Eagles fans were planning for Owens. More than 700 media credentials were issued for the game, including one for a reporter from Arab satellite station Al-Jazeera.
Fans began arriving early in the morning for the 4:15 p.m. game and by 11 a.m., parking spots were almost impossible to find as the giant anti-Owens tailgate pep rally was in full swing.
Eagles fan Joe Switzer laid an Owens No. 81 jersey across a busy parking lot road and encouraged motorists to drive over it. Most obliged, some backing up to do it more than once. Switzer said he planned to burn the shirt just before game time, a ritual that was repeated elsewhere in the parking lot.
Next to a radio sports talk show broadcast tent near the stadium, a carnival game was set up where fans hurled beanbag "penalty flags" at Owens bobble-head dolls. A roar went up whenever a doll shattered.
Signs ran the range from the ridiculous ("T.O. supports terrorism"), to the predictable (cartoons of pills referencing the receiver's accidental overdose of pain medication a week and a half ago) to the creative (Owens in a powdered wig captioned "Benedict Arnold").
During the game, the crowd occasionally mockingly sang "O.D." to the soccer chant "ole." And fans were energized as much by any Owens failing, such as when he dropped a pass on a crossing route, as when the Eagles struck for a big play themselves.
In contrast to Bledsoe, McNabb had a stellar day, completing 18 of 33 passes for 354 yards and two touchdowns, including the eventual game-winner, a 40-yard flea flicker to wide receiver Reggie Brown midway through the fourth quarter.
The Eagles quarterback deflected the suggestion that the outcome was personally satisfying because of Owens' criticisms last year.
"The pleasure I get out of it is the fact that we get a chance to stay in our position at the top [of the NFC East]," the Eagles quarterback said. The Eagles climbed to 4-1 and the Cowboys fell to 2-2.
"It's not T.O vs. Donovan. It's the Dallas Cowboys vs. the Philadelphia Eagles," he said later. "If I wasn't playing in this game, I definitely would've been watching. This is a game you love to see."
The Eagles jumped to a quick 10-0 lead on two Dallas miscues. Cowboys punter Mat McBriar failed to handle a high snap, setting up Philadelphia on the Dallas 12-yard line, and two plays later, running back Brian Westbrook scored on a 5-yard touchdown dash. Then, Bledsoe fumbled at his 14-yard line after being sacked and Philadelphia went ahead 10-0 on David Akers' 27-yard field goal.
Dallas answered with running back Marion Barber's 2-yard, first-quarter touchdown run that made it 10-7, then went ahead 14-10 in the second quarter when linebacker DeMarcus Ware rumbled 69 yards with McNabb's fumble.
Philadelphia wrestled the lead back at 17-14 when McNabb plunged for 1 yard after a 60-yard hookup with tight end L.J. Smith, but Dallas took a 21-17 lead into halftime on a 7-yard run by Bledsoe.
In the third quarter, the Eagles scored on an 87-yard pass from McNabb to receiver Hank Baskett and the Cowboys tied it at 24 on Mike Vanderjagt's fourth-quarter, 39-yard field goal. Philadelphia finally went ahead for good on the 40-yarder from McNabb to Brown. email@example.com