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T.O. in Buffalo elicits `Wows'

Marv Levy had just stepped off a plane in Chicago when a friend informed him that Terrell Owens had signed with the Buffalo Bills. The Hall of Fame coach's first reaction was wondering if the person picking him up at the airport required a breathalyzer.

I was surprised, naturally, like everybody else,'' the former Bills coach and general manager said by phone Sunday.I verified it a little bit later that it was true, and that my friend hadn't been drinking.''

T.O. in Buffalo certainly takes some getting used to. The Bills aren't the NFL's sexiest destination, and they've traditionally operated on a low-profile, small-market scale, building mostly with draft picks and mid-range free agents. But the head-turning news of the receiver signing a one-year deal with the team Saturday is, in fact, for real.

Wow,'' said Bills Hall-of-Fame running back Thurman Thomas.I said it at the end of last year that the Bills have to make a big splash. This is a bigger splash than I thought the Bills organization would ever make.''

Something this big hasn't splashed in Buffalo since they started construction on the Erie Canal in the 1800s. And move aside chicken wings, Owens might be on the short end of his career in entering his 15th NFL season, but he can still draw attention that's as hot as an Anchor Bar drumstick.

Though Buffalo has been home to numerous high-profile athletes, including Thomas, Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, O.J. Simpson and hockey's Dominik Hasek and Gilbert Perreault, all of them were either developed in Buffalo or arrived early in their careers.

Owens' situation is far different.

Here's a bona fide A-list athlete, capable of commanding the modern-day electronic, 24-hour news cycle with a rare combination of great skill and high-maintenance personality, landing in a blue-collar town that former Bills running back Willis McGahee once complained lacked any semblance of a nightlife beyond Applebee's.

Even Owens, after stints in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Dallas, acknowledged how this might initially seem a fish-out-of-water fit.

This may not be the most ideal place for a lot of people, but I'm the guy,'' Owens said.I beat to my own beat sometimes, my own thinking, my own intuition. For me, this is an opportunity. It's an interesting situation.''

What's also clear is that the Bills needed the type of dramatic boost - on offense and in marketing - that Owens can immediately provide.

As a receiver, he's among the NFL's most prolific and capable of providing the Bills' popgun passing attack a much-needed 1-2 punch opposite Lee Evans. Owens' 25 touchdowns receiving over the past two years are one fewer than Buffalo has produced as a team over that span.

Marketing also plays a factor.

This is a team that hasn't made the playoffs in nine years and was coming off three consecutive 7-9 finishes under coach Dick Jauron. And the Bills did need to do something big to counter the negative backlash and threats of a fan revolt that came at the end of last season when owner Ralph Wilson announced he would retain Jauron after his contract expired.

It's no coincidence that shortly after Owens was signed that the Bills unveiled an Owens No. 1 team jersey and text-messaged fans to announce that their ticket office would be open Sunday morning.

Bills spokesman Scott Berchtold didn't have the final numbers, but reported that sales were brisk.

Suddenly a few more prime-time network games aren't out of the question, and don't forget the team's annual regular-season game in Toronto. The five-year across-the-border series kicked off to mixed reviews and lukewarm reaction last year, following a 16-3 loss to Miami at which at least a third of those in attendance were rooting for the Dolphins.

This year's game, which has yet to be scheduled, will now feature an actual T.O. in T.O., as Toronto is sometimes called.

I think it's a great move,'' Thomas said.I always said they needed more play-makers out there, and he's definitely one.''

Thomas discounted Owens' reputation, and the extra baggage of distraction that has followed him throughout his career.

He can be a headache sometimes, but I just think that comes with him being competitive,'' Thomas said.Nobody's ever questioned his work ethic. And I tell you what, he definitely will be motivated because I think he knows this might be his last go-around at it.''

Even Levy, who favored bringing in what he called ``high-character'' players, reserved judgment.

Everybody knows about him,'' Levy said.I remain an avid Bills fan and supporter. I hope it works out.''

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