T.O. always ready to be on display

Even Deion Sanders never received this kind of prime-time exposure.

The 2010 NFL preseason began Sunday night with Terrell Owens debuting for Cincinnati against his former team. As reserves finished a 16-7 loss against Dallas in the Hall of Fame game, fans could switch channels to watch Owens star on his own reality show.

Unfortunately, a far more intriguing performance than Owens catching two passes for 18 yards or talking about his sex life wasn’t televised. That’s because the real  T.O. show took place 10 hours before kickoff.

A 33-minute interview session at the team hotel revealed more about Owens’ contrary, defensive and narcissistic nature than anything on his manufactured VH1 dreck. Among the highlights:

• Owens said the Pro Football Hall of Fame was “something special” but “(couldn’t) care less” if he gets inducted.

• He ripped the media for creating controversy by misconstruing his words or taking them out of context, yet spent 10 extra minutes addressing reporters Sunday morning because “I don’t have anything else to do.”

• Speaking about Jerry Rice, Owens spent as much time defending his personal relationship with the new Hall honoree as praising his former San Francisco 49ers teammate, even when the question never insinuated there was a problem between the two.

• Owens took no personal responsibility for a mediocre 2009 campaign in Buffalo, blaming the team’s injury situation and disarray among the quarterbacks and coaches.

• And the most dubious statement of all: Owens believes that he never would have gotten cut by Dallas in the 2009 offseason if Jerry Jones “had the ultimate decision.” Such rationale omits the fact Jones is the team owner and hands-on general manager.

What T.O. wouldn’t discuss was just as compelling. Owens refused to identify who he feels made the final decision in Dallas, inviting speculation on possible suspects (Wade Phillips? Stephen Jones? Tom Landry from the great beyond?). Owens also made it clear he will never shed tears for Tony Romo again. Asked whether it was best that he and the Cowboys quarterback parted ways, Owens tersely said, “I don’t know. I don’t really have too much to say about that.”

(Romo later described his days with Owens as “a good time” with as much conviction as Albert Haynesworth following an offseason conditioning regimen).

Mind you, Owens wasn’t completely full of hot air. When he didn’t make your eyes roll, T.O. provided some fascinating insight into his life and what makes him tick.

Owens explained that he doesn’t sweat reaching the Hall of Fame because “football wasn’t my first love.” Basketball was. Even when dissuaded by the 49ers as a rookie from pick-up games because of the injury risk, Owens didn’t stop playing “because it wasn’t that big of a deal for me.” He still hoops it up now, too.

“God has put me in a position and given me enough gifts and talent to play (football),” Owens said. “So I basically kept working at it and working at it and things happened for me … I didn’t start playing this game to get into the Hall. Everything I’ve done has been motivated by my family.”

Like last year before Buffalo played in Canton, Owens didn’t take a Hall tour Saturday afternoon with Cincinnati players. He instead sat around with another uninterested teammate until the Bengals were done.

This isn’t to say Owens shall always shun the room where his bronze bust will someday be displayed. But he is saving that moment for another time.

“It’s no disrespect to any of the people in the Hall,” said Owens, who ranks among the NFL’s all-time leading receivers in numerous statistical categories. “I think that’s something special. I’m going to leave that up to the day when I walk away from the game. I can bring my kids and experience it with them.”

The day is coming soon enough. Owens is 36 years old and doesn’t know whether he will play beyond this season (then again, he also contends that a 1,000-yard receiving season at age 40 a la Rice is possible). Despite his scapegoating of the Bills, Owens showed signs of decline in 2009. He drew tepid free-agent interest and didn’t sign with Cincinnati until July — a move the Bengals made amid uncertainty about wide receiver Antonio Bryant’s health.

Owens’ reputation as a disruptive locker-room presence did him no favors, either. Owens admits he could have “done some things differently” in a 14-year career that includes burnt bridges in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Dallas and Buffalo (even the talent-strapped Bills wouldn’t bring him back).

In his defense, Owens often gets unfairly grouped with the league’s seedy element even though he has never gotten arrested or failed a drug test. Owens also had his share of supporters at Valley Ranch. Cowboys cornerback Terence Newman went so far as to describe Owens as a “role-model” teammate because of his positive interaction with others.

“T.O. is actually a really quiet guy,” Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “He just comes in, works, and every now and then cracks a few smiles.”

Owens is doing something else in Cincinnati — bringing out the competitive spirit in a player who lobbied for his signing. Whitworth says he notices fellow wide receiver Chad Ochocinco “doing some extra things (after practice) I’ve never seen him do before.”

“It seems like there’s an extra little fire for them to prove they can work well together,” Whitworth said.

Owens knows that skeptics contend his pairing with Ochocinco will eventually prove toxic. Individually, Owens and Ochocinco are notorious for pestering their quarterbacks for passes. Collectively, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer — who also endorsed the Owens’ acquisition — may need to buy earplugs.

Owens was targeted on five Palmer passes compared to one for Ochocinco in their two series of action. Cowboys conspiracy theorists will disagree, but Owens wasn’t featured to show Dallas it made a mistake by parting ways. Owens played against soft coverage and must get immersed into Cincinnati’s offense as quickly as possible. Throwing his way makes sense.

But even when the games actually count, Owens insists he and Ochocinco will not try to undercut the other.

“Everybody is looking for Chad and I to bump heads,” Owens said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

The fact Owens and Ochocinco genuinely like each other help better those odds. The Batman-and-Robin nickname given the pairing by Ochocinco has other players asking for superhero monikers. Bengals safety Roy Williams already was dubbed “Colossus” of  X-Men fame.

Owens admits such personal merriment was lacking in recent seasons.

“I’m just looking forward to taking it one day at a time and enjoy this season as much as I can,” he said. “That’s what being around Chad has allowed me to do and see how charismatic and interactive he is with the fans. I know I’m not going to play this game forever. I have a small window. Just have fun with a lot of the guys, enjoy my time and whatever happens, happens.”

Stay tuned.