There’s a word that comes to mind when you let Terrell Owens’ Hall of Fame fate Saturday night rattle around in your mind for a second. The word? Baffling.
If Owens was edged at the end by another worthy candidate, maybe the blow would be cushioned. If the decision to enshrine him ignited a lengthy and passionate debate, then maybe the combination of anger and confusion you’re feeling right now would be turned down just a notch.
And oh, look, there was a spirited discussion…about whether Owens deserved to be among the top 10 candidates considered. The answer? Nope, as confirmed by Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com:
Lively debate in @profootballHOF selection meeting on Terrell Owens, who didn't make cut from 15 to 10. Lasted more than 43 minutes— Mary Kay Cabot (@MaryKayCabot) February 7, 2016
So, yes, feel free to be baffled, because when you scroll down the traditional list of cumulative statistics we use to gauge every receiver’s career, you’ll notice a pretty consistent name.
Owens is sixth all-time in career receptions (1,078), second in receiving yards (15,934) and third in touchdowns (153). Those numbers earned him five first-team All-Pro selections. He didn’t win a Super Bowl, but if holding that against a quarterback is silly (it is), then doing it with a wide receiver is deeply flawed thinking too.
Go ahead and flip through those same lists again, though, and tell me if there’s another name you notice.
Marvin Harrison was first eligible for Hall of Fame induction two years ago. He still holds the NFL record for single-season receptions (143). Overall he's third all time in career catches and seventh in receiving yards.
He shared his Indianapolis Colts glory years with Peyton Manning, and together they formed a record-setting quarterback-receiver combination. Manning and Harrison hold records for the most completions (953), yards (12,756) and touchdowns (112) between a quarterback and receiver.
I could go on listing more shining numbers, but the point here has been sufficiently sledgehammered home. Every number associated with Harrison said first-ballot Hall of Famer and ditto for Owens.
Yet Harrison waited until his third year of eligibility before being selected Saturday. There's a word for that: baffling.
There are two factors at play, then, in the Owens snub. One is procedural in nature, and the other involves the potential for off-field cloudiness.
Let’s deal with the latter source of murkiness first, because as Eugene Frenette of the Florida Times-Union quite rightly noted, conduct away from the field shouldn’t have been a Hall of Fame road block for Owens:
Still think Terrell Owens deserved to get into HOF on first try, regardless of what people think of some of his antics.— Eugene Frenette (@GeneFrenette) February 7, 2016
Voters will deny such pettiness, and maybe their view of Owens’ candidacy truly wasn’t obstructed by the aura of his flare-filled personality.
You’re familiar with the various examples of swagger that dotted his time in the NFL: the driveway push-ups, his sprint toward the star in Dallas, his Sharpie and pom-pom skills on the sideline and the many times Owens loudly proclaimed that, yes, he really does love himself.
Some found his antics amusing, while others found them incredibly irritating. You could never really separate T.O. the entertainer from Terrell Owens the football player. The two were forever linked and still are even to this day.
Owens wants to entertain even now. He quipped that, at 42 years old, his postponed trip to Canton provides an opportunity:
This makes eligible for the upcoming 2016 football season. I live in LA, the Rams r coming to LA. *hint hint* Follow me on IG:@terrellowens— Terrell Owens (@terrellowens) February 7, 2016
Voters are allowed to be turned off by Owens the person. The only justification they need there is that liking every person you meet goes against the most basic realities of human interaction.
They’re not voting on Owens the person, though. They’re voting on Owens the football player, and if said football player wasn’t even worthy of top-10 consideration, it’s difficult to believe non-football factors were disregarded.
In 2015, John McClain—the Houston Chronicle writer who has been a Hall of Fame voter for more than 20 years—was asked about how much character issues are considered throughout the process. His answer? Never, and he used former San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys defensive end Charles Haley as an example.
“I voted for Charles Haley every year,” McClain told Damon Almendolara of CBS Sports Radio's The DA Show. “And the only thing he ever said to me was at the Pro Bowl: ‘Get out of my face you no-good, mother-bleeper.’ And I still voted for him every year because I thought he was one of the greatest players in history.”
If matters of character were indeed disregarded, there was still a larger issue that, in hindsight (and foresight?) was always going to make Owens wait. Rightly or wrongly, many have waited before him, and many will wait after.
Harrison is just the latest and most notable name to wait far too long for his Canton invitation. As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Clarence Hill Jr. observed, waiting has become a sort of twisted rite of passage for Hall of Fame-bound receivers:
Terrell Owens should be in the Hall of Fame on the 1st ballot.. but keep in mind that Mike Irvin, Chris Carter were not 1st ballot guys— Clarence Hill (@clarencehilljr) February 6, 2016
Often the line of wide receivers waiting for their Hall of Fame call resembles a frequent Starbucks experience. We all know what we’re there for, yet someone at the front is stumbling through their order, halting the natural cycle of line movement.
This year it was Harrison because he (again, absurdly) waited into his third year. In 2014 he was pushed back by Andre Reed, and in 2015 he waited again as Tim Brown was enshrined. They were both highly deserving candidates, just like Isaac Bruce, the former St. Louis Rams legend who’s also waiting now.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame voters have selected just five first-time eligible receivers, and none since Jerry Rice in 2010. Waiting is just what you do as a receiver.
Sure, maybe Harrison and Owens could have gone in together. Then the perpetual logjam would have been relieved somewhat. But the number of receivers who merit consideration is too high simply due to depth at the position. Having multi-receiver years would block out other positions and coaches too often.
We’re left to first be baffled, then enraged and to finally shrug our shoulders at a procedural matter. Almost annually a deserving name is left to wait, and this wait feels far more maddening than others.
How long that wait will be for Owens is the next question, but 2017 feels like a pretty safe bet.