Terrell Owens vs. Chad Johnson: Which WR's Downfall Was Worse?
“I don’t know that you’re taking this whole thing seriously.”
Those were the exact words Broward County Circuit Judge Kathleen McHugh uttered to Chad Johnson before sentencing him to a 30-day jail sentence just moments after accepting a plea deal that would have kept Johnson a free man.
The “whole thing” McHugh was referring to was a domestic abuse case in which Johnson missed a probation meeting, but she may as well have been referring to Johnson’s life as whole.
Over the past decade and a half, Chad Johnson and Terrell Owens have defined the era of the “diva” receiver in the NFL. During their careers, both players were tremendously productive and clear of the police blotter, but their incessant antics on and off the field will define their careers as much as their ability to run routes and catch footballs.
Through their ways of persistent entertainment, Owens and Johnson have united as peers, friends, teammates, reality show stars and now visitor and inmate in a county jail.
After spectacular careers that are worthy of Hall of Fame consideration, both men have taken a tremendous fall from grace, as football can no longer act as a branch to overshadow their character flaws.
How exactly did each player wind up in the position he is in today? To get a full understanding of their respective downfalls, we must first appreciate just how good each player was in his prime.
On the Field
You can dissect their characters all you want, but there is no disputing the fact that Owens and Johnson were among the best receivers of their generation.
From a statistical perspective, Owens was the more dominant receiver, especially in his prime in the early 2000s with the 49ers. His numbers alone make him a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame—as long as voters don’t hold his character flaws against him.
|via pro-football-reference.com||Chad Johnson||Terrell Owens|
|Yards Per Game/Rank||66.6/28th||72.8/10th|
Meanwhile, Johnson (or Ochocinco, depending on the season) was no slouch. While his production may fall just short of Hall of Fame consideration, he ranks in the top 50 for each receiving category. During his prime, with a healthy Carson Palmer throwing to him in the mid-2000s, Johnson was a dominant receiver who struck real fear into opposing defenses.
As productive as they were at the NFL level, few would have thought that these two would have such tremendous on-field careers in their college and high school days. Owens was just a third-round pick out of the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga—not exactly a hotbed for NFL talent.
Meanwhile, Johnson did not even play football in his early days at Langston University. It was not until he transferred to Oregon State by way of Santa Monica Community College that Johnson landed on the radar of NFL scouts to be a second-round pick.
While they were both gifted athletes, Johnson and Owens did not go from small-school studs to NFL domination on pure talent alone.
Because of their immature demeanor, it would be easy to peg Johnson and Owens as immense talents who just had to show up to play well, but that was hardly the case.
Owens, in particular, is well known for keeping himself in Hercules-like shape, no matter his age. Even now, with his NFL future as bleak as it has ever been, Owens is still keeping himself in shape and running routes as if he was going to suit up next week:
Tom Brady & Terrell Owens playing catch at USC yesterday. Just a workout or is this a future vision. ✌ pic.twitter.com/l7T20oWGEO— USC Water Polo (@USCWaterPolo) April 4, 2013
In fact, Owens was so dedicated to working out that he would do it in the middle of interviews.
After all, the fact that both players were in training camp for NFL teams last year at their age (Johnson is 35, Owens is 39) is a testament to how well they take care of their bodies.
If work ethic was not the issue for either player, what caused their fall from NFL stardom?
The fact that neither player is on an NFL roster is nothing to be ashamed of. Both players have enjoyed a career that spanned over a decade, which is an extreme rarity in such a physically demanding sport. Father Time, against even the biggest superstars the sport has seen, remains undefeated.
For Johnson and Owens, how their careers have deteriorated will leave a bigger impact on their legacy than anything else.
Curtains on the T.O. Show
During the first few years of his NFL career, Owens was always viewed as being immature and self-centered, concerned more about his production than team success.
However, Owens’ immaturity did not fully rear its ugly head until a hideous divorce from his second team, the Philadelphia Eagles.
After great initial success to help get the Eagles to the Super Bowl, his criticisms of Donovan McNabb for being “tired” started a snowball of drama that would eventually lead to a four-game suspension by Andy Reid. In 2006, the Eagles had enough of the distraction Owens had become and released him from the team.
Fittingly, Owens signed with the Eagles’ most-hated rival (and the team whose logo he made a mockery of), the Dallas Cowboys.
Owens was a productive player for Dallas, but once again, his incalculable behavior overshadowed anything he was able to do on the field.
Just weeks into his career as a Cowboy, Owens overdosed on hydrocodone, a prescription pain medicine. That prompted assumptions of attempted suicide, which Owens denied. To make matters worse, Owens’ publicist, Kim Etheredge, stated that Owens had “25 million reasons to be alive” in one of the most embarrassing press conferences a publicist could ever have.
The Cowboys and Owens never did reach the Super Bowl, despite their lofty expectations, and Dallas released Owens following the 2008 season.
Owens managed to squeeze a couple more years out of his career with the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals in consecutive seasons, but as his age caught up with him, his inability to stick on a roster for the long term made him an undesirable asset in the eyes of general managers.
There was little doubt that Owens was better than many starting receivers suiting up on NFL Sundays. Despite being several years removed from the turmoil in Philadelphia, Owens was labeled as a cancer that no team—whether it be the high-profile Cowboys or the small-town Bills—had a cure for.
For Owens, not being able to find a job in the NFL hurt him in more places than just his ego. As much as he loved catching touchdowns and being the center of attention, Owens suffered severe financial woes.
Owens has made over $80 million in his NFL career, but a series of bad investments and overbearing child support payments have left him in a pile of debt. Last year, he faced foreclosure of two of his condos in Dallas.
Now forced to do everything he could to make a quick buck, he swallowed his pride to join the Allen Wranglers of the Indoor Football League in an attempt to get on a field to show that he could still play.
For Owens, who was just a few months removed from suiting up in a packed NFL stadium, this was his lowest point. No longer was he pursuing greatness and Super Bowls; he was just trying to get by, as he told Grantland's Michael J. Mooney:
I'm not asking to be rich. I'm just trying to be financially stable. I just want to be stable. That's any average American that's working hard for their money. I'm trying to get myself back to a situation where I don't have to be stressed out at night, worrying what my mom is thinking or my kids.
The Wranglers provided Owens with basic amenities, such as a house and a car. But just as it did in the NFL, Owens’ unpredictability wore on the IFL club that held its games next to a drive-thru burger joint.
Owens missed a visit to a children’s hospital—he later explained that he was given the wrong time—but it was the last straw. The team released him, and his football days appeared to be all but over.
Owens got a shot in training camp with the Seattle Seahawks in 2012, but he did not make the team. He is still a free agent to this day and has not yet officially retired.
It is difficult to pinpoint one specific area of Owens’ turbulent career that led to his downfall. Everywhere he went, there was drama, excitement, touchdowns and turmoil. Still, no matter how you look at it, Owens churned out a spectacular 15-year NFL career as good as that of any receiver in recent history. Not being able to find a job as an NFL receiver at age 39 is hardly a unique problem.
Ultimately, Owens’ financial woes and mysterious mental state led to his desperate late-career situation more than his showboating and clashing with teammates.
From Johnson to Ochocinco and Back Again
From the fake Hall of Fame jacket to the cheerleader proposal, Johnson’s on-field antics were even more outrageous than that of Owens.
However, unlike Owens, Johnson managed to keep himself very clean off the field and out of trouble in the locker room. After all, Johnson spent the vast majority of his career with one team, the Bengals, until it traded him to the Patriots in 2011.
It is easy to assume Johnson was a troublemaker outside the lines. However, as big of a goofball as he was, Johnson’s name was never in the police blotter. Instead, Johnson, to the dismay of coach Marvin Lewis, would attract attention to himself through innocent, playful means.
Here is a quick list of some of the activities Johnson would do to entertain himself outside of football:
- Was a contestant on Dancing with the Stars
- Created his own smartphone app
- Developed his own news organization, OCNN
- Started his own reality dating show, The Ultimate Catch
- Tried out for an MLS team, Sporting KC, during the 2011 lockout
- Rode a bull
- Was a guest host on WWE Raw
- Teamed up with Terrell Owens for The T.Ocho Show
- Made cameo appearances on Blue Mountain State, The League and American Reunion
Oh, and he changed his name to the Spanish pronunciation of the numbers eight and five, Ochocinco, in 2008 (he has since changed his name back to Johnson).
Marvin Lewis is a trooper for dealing with so many harmless distractions with Johnson over a decade, but Johnson managed to stay out of trouble—until he got married.
Barely a month into his marriage to Evelyn Lozada, Johnson allegedly headbutted his wife during an argument and was incarcerated. The Dolphins released him the following day. After a plea deal, Johnson received one year of probation.
Now, he will serve a month in county jail for violating his probation.
(Update: Johnson was released from jail on Monday after the judge accepted his apology for his courtroom behavior.)
Johnson was always known as the innocent troublemaker of the NFL—what could have possibly transpired to cause him to end a criminal? Less than a year ago, he seemed happily married and was playing football for his hometown Miami Dolphins. Within seconds, his love life and career were left in tatters.
To make matters worse, per TMZ, Johnson is losing a staggering $45,000 per month in expenses, and he no longer has an NFL paycheck to lean on.
Which Player Fell the Furthest?
After being teammates and co-stars on a reality show, Johnson and Owens are forever united by both friendship and the fact that they were the face of the “diva receiver” era of the NFL.
Unfortunately, both players also share severe financial woes, and they no longer can rely on a big, fat NFL paycheck to get them out of trouble.
Now with their careers in the rearview mirror, which one had a greater fall from grace?
For Owens, his decline was very gradual. The fact that he had so much trouble finding stability in his NFL career was a product of his personality. He received ample opportunity to succeed wherever he went, but for one reason or another, not one team was willing to keep him on its roster for more than a few years after he left San Francisco.
For Johnson, his decline came within the blink of an eye. Johnson always flirted with trouble with his constant antics, but his defenders have always pointed to the fact that he stays clean off the field (he does not even drink).
However, just one blemish in his decision-making has transformed Johnson from a carefree goofball into a criminal (literally) overnight, and he paid for his outrageous yet harmless behavior in court with a stint in jail.
Between the two, Johnson’s downfall was more steep and fast-paced, making it more difficult to swallow. Plus, as dire as Owens' financial situation was, he was never in legal trouble, never mind forced time in the slammer.
Therefore, it is Johnson, not Owens, who has had the harsher downfall.
Both players still have plenty of life to live and could certainly rebound from their current situations. However, approaching the real world like they approached the NFL lifestyle will only sink them further into trouble.
Either way, both players are an example that even for the biggest of NFL stars with the most outrageous of personalities, no one is immune from the harsh realities of life.
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