When Terrell Owens was cut by the Dallas Cowboys last week, it mildly surprise me – granted, it was 6AM, I was half-asleep, and that’s the news I awoke to from Mike and Mike on ESPN2. After I wiped the sleep from my eyes, and really thought about it, was it really a surprise?

A little background – Terrell Owens, or “T.O.” went to college in my hometown, at UT-Chattanooga. Since being drafted in 1996, he has become the best wide receiver in the league…in terms of statistics. He trails only Jerry Rice in touchdowns on the all-time NFL list for receivers. He has the record for most pass receptions in a game. No question, on the field, T.O. is one of the best wide receivers ever.

He was initially drafted by the San Francisco 49ers, and made an unbelievable touchdown catch from Steve Young in the 1997 playoffs. His star was on the rise. Then, his “toxic leadership” started to show. He publicly belittled and degraded his then quarterback Jeff Garcia and feuded with his coach Steve Mariucci. In 2004, T.O. had enough of San Francisco, and left when he became a free agent.

T.O. then signed with the Philadelphia Eagles and was immediately embraced by the team and city and became a top NFL player. He even came back from a broken leg suffered shortly before the playoffs and ended up playing weeks later in the Super Bowl. He shined in that game despite the team’s loss to the New England Patriots. Then, his “toxic leadership” started to show. He publicly belittled and degraded his then quarterback, Donovan McNabb. T.O. also wanted more money, so through his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, threatened to “hold out” and not report to training camp. He came back to the team, only to start complaining again about Donovan McNabb and the entire Philadelphia Eagles management. In 2006, the Eagles had enough. They deactivated T.O. from the roster in the middle of the season. At the end of the season they released T.O.

T.O. then signed with the Dallas Cowboys and was immediately embraced by the team and city and continued his superior play on the field. Then, his “toxic leadership” started to show. At one time, he cried over his quarterback Tony Romo when the media criticized Romo, but the next year, publicly criticized Romo himself for not throwing him the ball enough. T.O. thought Romo and another offensive player, Jason Witten, were drawing up plays without him. T.O. kept criticizing Cowboys teammates and management, in particular, his offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. On March 4, 2009, the Cowboys had enough and released T.O.

What should you take away from this? Talent is talent and can help your team or organization in the short term. No doubt, everyone wants the best talent. But, if that talent has a continual history of not being able to work well with people; of making people feel uncomfortable; of degrading others; of demoralizing or belittling others; of bad-mouthing projects, people, management, the organization; of spreading rumors; of talking behind peoples’ backs; of believing that life is unfair; of having a sour demeanor all the time; of complaining all the time about anything and everything; of feeling that everyone is against him/her; of having an inflated ego; of thinking he/she knows everything; of immaturity; of looking out only for him/herself over the best interests of the team or organization – no amount of talent can overcome that amount of toxicity.

With all of his statistics, this particular one stands out for me – 13 years in the league, T.O. has been a part of ZERO Super Bowl championships. People with less talent and far less toxicity have been more effective in helping their team win championships (see wide receiver Hines Wardof the Pittsburgh Steelers for instance).

Looking back, I am not that surprised T.O. was let go by the Cowboys last week, nor should you, knowing what you now know. Toxicity trumps talent. But, what do you think came to me as more of a surprise than hearing T.O. was let go by the Cowboys? The Buffalo Bills picked up T.O. less than a week later.

If once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, and three times is a trend, what’s four times?

8 thoughts on “Toxic Leadership: The Case of Terrell Owens

  1. John says:

    Is the real issue T.O’s leadership, or the leadership of the Eagles and Cowboys who were well aware of the issues involved but were positive they could “handle” him?

  2. John says:

    Is the real issue T.O’s leadership, or the leadership of the Eagles and Cowboys who were well aware of the issues involved but were positive they could “handle” him?

  3. William Gentry says:

    I think some of the blame should be placed with supposed over-confidence of teams. The NE Patriots have brought in troubled people (Corey Dillon, Randy Moss) and those players have behaved, even thrived, and so has the team. A good culture, climate, and chemistry brings winning, not the other way around. That’s in business and in sports. Jerry Jones, Cowboys owner, thought winning could bring chemistry – as you can see, not really.

  4. William Gentry says:

    I think some of the blame should be placed with supposed over-confidence of teams. The NE Patriots have brought in troubled people (Corey Dillon, Randy Moss) and those players have behaved, even thrived, and so has the team. A good culture, climate, and chemistry brings winning, not the other way around. That’s in business and in sports. Jerry Jones, Cowboys owner, thought winning could bring chemistry – as you can see, not really.

  5. Dan McCarthy says:

    Bill –
    Um.., desperation? A coach trying to save his job? The reaction in Bills nation is mixed. A common comment is “well, he’s never broken the law”. We’re hoping he’ll be another Moss like success story. At least it should be entertaining.
    – Buffalo Bills fan

  6. Dan McCarthy says:

    Bill –
    Um.., desperation? A coach trying to save his job? The reaction in Bills nation is mixed. A common comment is “well, he’s never broken the law”. We’re hoping he’ll be another Moss like success story. At least it should be entertaining.
    – Buffalo Bills fan

  7. Good stuff as per usual, thanks. I do hope this kind of thing gets more exposure.

  8. Good stuff as per usual, thanks. I do hope this kind of thing gets more exposure.

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