Owens could have done so much more

Terrell Owens’ playing days probably weren’t going to end well.

They just weren’t expected to wrap like this.

News that Owens has suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament will likely serve as the proverbial death knell. ESPN reported that Owens won’t be able to return until at least November.

He will be on the cusp of turning 38 then. The free-agent market for his services was already extremely limited, even if the wide receiver were healthy once the lockout ends and signing period begins.

And for that, Owens only has himself to blame.

All five teams he has played for — San Francisco, Philadelphia, Dallas, Buffalo and Cincinnati — gladly parted ways with Owens after losing patience with his selfish and narcissistic antics. Owens was once so gifted that clubs could tolerate his me-first behavior before running out of patience.

Not anymore.

In his prime, Owens forced defenses to game-plan specifically against him. Despite the extra attention he drew, Owens averaged an impressive 88 receiving yards a game from 2000-07.

Regular double-teaming created opportunities for others. Excluding the 2005 campaign, when he was suspended at midseason by the Eagles for insubordination, all seven of the offenses featuring Owens in that span finished in the NFL’s top nine.

Most important, Owens was a winner. The combined record of those 2000-07 squads was 71-40 when he played. They made five playoff appearances in eight seasons, including a trip to Super Bowl XXXIX with Philadelphia.

Owens could have his popcorn and eat it, too.

But starting three seasons ago, Owens no longer made his team marginally better. Dallas (2008), Buffalo (2009) and Cincinnati (2010) were 18-28 in games that Owens played.

His best chance for a second Super Bowl appearance in that span was with the Cowboys. Owens ran his mouth enough in bickering with quarterback Tony Romo, a la Donovan McNabb in Philadelphia, that he was run out of town during the 2009 offseason.

The freak show aspect of Owens’ career did appeal to Buffalo. The Bills signed him to a one-year, $6.5 million contract in hopes of generating interest in a moribund franchise.

Owens sold tickets but floundered to a 55-catch, 829-yard season when surrounded by a lousy offensive cast. Owens also didn’t endear himself to Bills management, which made no attempt to sign him in the offseason.

Owens had become such a pariah that he remained unsigned until just before the start of the 2010 preseason. That’s when Cincinnati — a franchise that has no problem gambling on troublesome-but-talented players — signed Owens to a one-year, $2 million deal after learning wide receiver Antonio Bryant had a career-threatening knee condition.

Owens rebounded with better statistics, including a monster 10-catch, 222-yard outing in a Week 4 loss to Cleveland. Owens, though, also led the NFL in dropped passes with 11 by the time he was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury in late December. By that point, Cincinnati was 3-11 and already looking toward a 2011 draft class that would yield a first-round replacement (A.J. Green) for Owens and/or Chad Ochocinco.

If he has played his final snap, Owens would draw strong consideration to become a first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee in a 2016 class that will be headlined by Brett Favre. Owens fits all the statistical criteria: 1,078 catches for 15,934 yards and 153 touchdowns. The only way Owens doesn’t receive immediate entry is if enough Hall voters decide his antics were too big a detriment for the teams he played with.

Once his bust is unveiled, such negativity will be overshadowed by highlights of T.O.’s most outrageous moments. It’s impossible to avoid chuckling at T.O. celebrating TDs by grabbing a cheerleader’s pom-poms, signing the football with his own Sharpie or posing on the star at Texas Stadium after scoring against the Cowboys.

But it’s also fair to wonder how much more ground Owens could have made on Jerry Rice’s NFL receiving records had he been more of a team player who didn’t repeatedly try to emasculate his quarterback.

That’s no laughing matter — just like Owens’ NFL future.