Terrell Owens will someday be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Probably some day in the next few years.
That's not wishful thinking, an educated guess or my position on what should happen. It's the opinion of nearly every member of the Hall of Fame selection committee I spoke to during the offseason, the folks whose opinions matter:
"I think TO's a Hall of Famer."
"The guy is almost certainly going to be a Hall of Famer sooner rather than later."
"I thought he would get in last year."
"I'd be surprised if he's not in within three years. I could see him getting in next year."
If that's what most of the selectors are saying, why isn't Owens preparing a speech and getting fitted for a yellow jacket to wear in this weekend's induction ceremonies? Here's a hint: Owens is about as divisive among voters as he was among teammates and coaches. Even those who voted for him and believe he will get in have their reservations:
"I am very conflicted by his candidacy."
"He's the most polarizing figure I have ever come across in a Hall of Fame meeting."
"There is this extra layer with TO. And I can't remember any other player having it with this much of an 'it' factor other than TO."
When Owens failed to reach the Hall of Fame on his first ballot, he blasted the system and the selectors, whom he called "pencil pushers." "I feel so disrespected" he said at Ticketstock 2016, complaining about the "media portrayal of [his] character."
Were Hall of Fame selectors so turned off by Owens' persona that they snubbed him, putting his overwhelming qualifications aside in the name of personal agendas? I spoke to a bunch of my fellow pencil pushers to find out.
As it turns out, there is a small, passionate contingent of anti-Owens voters who made their voices heard at the last selection meeting.
But Owens' greatest enemy as he seeks enshrinement is the same guy who stood in his way through most of his career: Terrell Owens.
Tidal Waves of Sentiment
The Hall of Fame selection meeting on the Saturday before each year's Super Bowl week is like Fight Club: You aren't supposed to talk about it. Specifically, voters are not allowed to divulge details about the debates on the floor.
It's a rule that allows the selectors to be frank, knowing that a candid remark among peers won't end up in an article like this one. It also protects sources. Not everything an old coach or player tells a selector is meant for a wider audience.
But the many voters I spoke to provided enough hints and anecdotes to piece together what happened when Owens' case came up in February. Keeping everyone off the record, here's a breakdown of the debate.
- The committee deliberated for about 50 minutes. That's an unusually long time to spend on one player. "Finally, we said, ‘We have to move on. We are going nowhere with this,'" one voter said.
- A very vocal group of anti-Owens selectors vehemently opposed his candidacy. Opinions on the pro-Owens side were equally passionate. "There was a tidal wave of sentiment," a voter said. "There was some vigorous discussion and a lot of strong opinions were voiced," another voter diplomatically joked.
- The anti-Owens group consisted of nine or 10 selectors, a small minority of the 43-person board of selectors, but large enough and entrenched enough to block Owens from making the cut for the Class of 2016. A candidate needs at least 80 percent of the vote at the end of the meeting to be enshrined, and Owens did not have the numbers.
- Several of the anti-Owens selectors were armed with harsh quotes and opinions from his former coaches and teammates. Endorsements from respected coaches, teammates, executives and even opponents carry a lot of sway with voters. Owens can complain about a "media portrayal", but he has some bad recommendations following him around.
- Voters trim the field of 15 finalists down to 10 before another series of ballots cuts the list to a final five, which must then meet 80 percent approval. Owens did not even make the first cut, effectively finishing outside the top 10. Some more experienced selectors may have switched horses during that initial cut-down vote, promoting less-controversial players and coaches instead of battling the anti-Owens bloc. "It was pretty obvious he wasn't going to get in," a voter said. "Why bring him to the final 10, and take up a spot there?"
- While some selectors stressed that there was nothing unusual about the Owens deliberations, none could cite another player who produced 50 minutes of heated debate. The only precedents that the voters cited were owners and executives like Eddie DeBartolo, Art Modell and Paul Tagliabue—men who write checks, move franchises and impose suspensions naturally have complicated legacies.
The Owens Hall of Fame candidacy clearly falls into a unique category. Owens' combination of dazzling production and complicated clubhouse relationships forces selectors to weigh great plays against bad behavior, all the while adhering to strict rules of the Hall of Fame selection process.
The Ultimate Diva
If the first rule of the Hall of Fame selection committee is not to talk about the Hall of Fame selection committee, the second rule is equally sacred: Thou Shalt Not Consider Off-Field Issues When Making Decisions.
When Ray Lewis comes up, there will be no discussion of what went on in Atlanta in 2000. Brett Favre's four-second deliberations did not include a peep about sexting. From Lawrence Taylor and Michael Irvin through Marvin Harrison and Charles Haley, many candidates have reached the Hall of Fame despite drug problems, legal problems and scandals, which selectors have always been instructed to disregard if they did not impact the players' teams or football career. You may not agree with the rule, but it's a rule each voter takes seriously.
In Owens' case, the problem comes down to defining the separation between on-field and off-field issues. Owens wasn't "on the field" when he criticized Jeff Garcia or Donovan McNabb in press conferences or did sit-ups in his own driveway while demanding a new contract from the Eagles. But these activities, and others, had serious on-field ramifications.
"It's not off the field," said Hall of Fame voter Clark Judge of Talk of Fame Radio of Owens' many controversies. "It's in the locker room. It's in the huddle."
Now that we aren't talking about the specifics of the Hall of Fame deliberation floor, our selectors can go back on record. Judge is pointedly, unabashedly anti-Owens.
"This is a guy, at the top of his career, who nobody wanted," he explained. "Five teams couldn't wait to get rid of Terrell Owens."
Judge is well aware of Owens' reception, yardage and touchdown totals.
"If we're simply going by numbers, they shouldn't put 46 selectors in there. They should just bring in an accounting firm.
"I think the NFL Hall of Fame has to be about more than simply numbers," he added. "That's what we should bring to the table as selectors."
There are some surprising voices on the other side of the debate.
"When I went into the meeting, he was one of the top five ranked on my ballot," said Paul Domowitch, longtime columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.
Domowitch covered Owens daily during the receiver's soap operatic 2004-05 tenure in Philly, including constant McNabb feuds, a major clash with offensive coordinator Brad Childress, a contract dispute after just one season, many breathtaking touchdowns, an amazing recovery from injury and some Super Bowl heroics.
"I saw TO at his worst in Philadelphia," Domowitch said. "I know he was and can be a cancer. He was the ultimate wide receiver diva. I just felt that his numbers were so compelling that they should override everything else. And they will eventually."
Judge, it must be pointed out, also covered Owens on a day-to-day basis for years in San Francisco. Two experienced football analysts had front-row seats on the Owens roller coaster for different parts of the ride yet came away with two opposing opinions.
But those views share a lot of common ground as points of reference.
On the one hand are 1,078 catches, 15,934 yards, 153 touchdowns, five All-Pro selections, nine catches for 122 yards in a Super Bowl he was supposed to be too injured to play in and overwhelming evidence that he was one of the most talented players in the NFL for most of his career.
On the other hand: the 2005 Eagles implosion, the "looks like a rat and smells like a rat" remarks about Jeff Garcia, the obvious friction with Bill Parcells (who refused to even call Owens by name) and other histrionics in Dallas, a season of glorified reality television in Cincinnati and other peccadillos that straddle the line between on-and-off field issues.
"The big debate is: How do you quantify how TO's behavior within his own team affects his team?" said Hall of Fame voter Bob Glauber of Newsday.
The Hall of Fame does provide selectors with some philosophical guidance when separating on-field from off-field matters, though that doesn't particularly work in Owens' favor in this case.
"The mission statement of the Hall of Fame talks about promoting the values of the game," voter Dan Pompei of Bleacher Report explained. "Those values, as defined by the Hall, are commitment, integrity, courage, respect and excellence."
You can assign your own values to Owens in those five categories. But while even an Owens basher must give him a high score in excellence, his biggest boosters must admit that he's a little wanting in the integrity and respect departments.
Opinions, Not Agendas
Full disclosure time: I'm an Owens skeptic. Many of the selectors I spoke to knew this. I have bent their ears about my Owens opinions at NFL events in the past, usually for reasons involving beer.
In my opinion, Owens single-handedly dismantled the greatest Eagles team in modern history with his selfish behavior, then left his coach and quarterback to absorb the blame. His tenure in Dallas coincides too neatly with the "Tony Romo, Choke Artist" era to be a coincidence. Owens' final seasons in Cincy and Buffalo were more like an old baseball slugger batting .220 with 25 home runs while pursuing some milestone than an evidence of enduring greatness.
Owens may have helped his teams more than he harmed them, but I believe he didn't help them nearly as much as his numbers suggest. That's how he could play with Romo, McNabb, Garcia, Steve Young and Carson Palmer, and play for Bill Parcells, Andy Reid, George Seifert and others, yet only tally four playoff wins when he was in the huddle.
But my vote does not count. Also, my opinion can be swayed. When Domowitch tells me he thinks Owens is a Hall of Famer, I listen, because Domo was in the Eagles locker room and the driveway in 2005 and I wasn't. Similarly, Hall of Fame selectors are peers and colleagues who listen to one another.
"I'm never one of those voters who goes in there and says, ‘My guy, right or wrong,'" said Peter King of TheMMQB.com, who has been on the board of selectors for over 25 years.
King, like the other voters I spoke to, bristles at the suggestion that selectors enter the February meeting itching to settle old grudges.
"It isn't a group of people who have agendas. It's a group of people who have opinions. People should have opinions. Those debates should be debates."
The board's voting record proves that they don't settle old scores against players who were rude during interviews. Exhibit A: first-ballot Hall of Famer Warren Sapp, who treated reporters (and many others) like deer ticks.
"Nobody was a bigger jerk for a longer time than Warren Sapp," said one voter, though he was not alone in his feelings. "Even in retirement, he's been kind of a pain to deal with. At the same time, he's Warren Sapp for heaven's sake."
"This is not a popularity contest," Glauber said. "The issue with TO is not how he treated reporters. It's how he treated his teammates."
Hall of Fame selectors also do their homework. They don't show up for the Super Bowl Saturday meeting armed with nothing but a Pro Football Reference page, some faulty memories and an axe to grind. Voters interview players and coaches, perform or commission detailed statistical breakdowns and scour the archives.
Hall of Famers Dan Fouts and James Lofton audited last year's selection meeting as silent observers. According to one voter, Lofton (who coached for several years) compared the level of detailed research to the pre-draft process. When I called selectors in mid-July, vacation time for most NFL writers, many were knee-deep in research about greats from the 1940s through the 1990s as they prepared for senior committee selections. In other words, this isn't a group that just goes out and snubs somebody.
"The idea that there's this monolithic conspiracy against TO, for whatever reason, well…it just isn't the case," said voter Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.
"People gave their opinions about what they thought mattered in football," King said.
First Ballot Fallacy
Owens' spotty record as a teammate is the biggest obstacle between him and the Hall of Fame. But Owens faced other hurdles this year, some of which may be easier to clear in the next few years.
• The strength of the 2016 Class: Selectors must ultimately whittle their ballots down to five nominees. With Brett Favre a unanimous choice, Owens was competing for one of four available slots with several strong candidates who had been waiting for years.
• Marvin Harrison: Harrison was one of those strong candidates. Like Owens, Harrison was a wide receiver with overwhelming statistical accomplishments. Unlike Owens, Harrison had a stellar record as a teammate.
"I don't think that there's an overwhelming statistical difference between TO and Marvin to make you think he ought to leapfrog him," Gantt said.
• The order of succession. Experienced selectors learned their lesson from the logjam that occurred at wide receiver over the last decade, which resulted in Art Monk, Andre Reed and Tim Brown waiting years for enshrinement because of a split ticket at the position.
"There's a lot of sentiment for keeping guys in order," Pompei said. "Unless someone is a truly incandescent candidate like Brett Favre or Junior Seau, we should make sure that there is a line so guys get in when it makes sense.
So Owens got stuck behind Harrison on some ballots. Randy Moss becomes eligible in 2018, and he likely will get stuck behind Owens, which could provide a momentum boost.
• The general backlog. The Pro Football Hall of Fame is not like the Baseball Hall of Fame, where a trickle of qualified candidates must simply present some benchmark statistics and a clean reputation to saunter in on the first ballot. Football voters have been playing catch-up since the very first class was inaugurated in 1963.
This year's semifinalist class was deep in players most fans would consider highly qualified for the Hall of Fame, including Kurt Warner, Edgerrin James, John Lynch and many others, including Owens and the inductees.
"We're given a list of 15 modern era guys," Gantt said. "If we put the ones who finish six through 10 in the Hall of Fame, everybody would say, ‘What a great class of Hall of Famers!'"
With such a long list of qualified candidates, it's hard for a non-Favre, non-Jerry Rice to reach the Hall of Fame on his first ballot. It's far easier to declare someone a "first-ballot Hall of Famer" on a telecast or Twitter than to actually sort through the list of excellent candidates, some of whom have been waiting for years, and decide which former Super Bowl quarterback or nine-time Pro Bowler gets chopped from the top five.
"Those words are used far more than they ever should be used," King said. "If everybody who's supposed to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer really was, there would be a class of 30 every year."
None of this means anything if Owens cannot get 80 percent of the vote to clear the final hurdle. But all of these factors can help him reach it by climbing into the top 10 and top five. After that, a swing vote or two by the anti-Owens hardliners is all he will need.
And TO can help sway those swing voters by being a little less like TO.
The Essence of a Guy
Based on everything I heard on and off the record, plus years of meta-analysis of Hall of Fame voting tendencies, I think Owens becomes part of the Hall of Fame Class of 2018.
Moss joins the ballot that year, creating a queue of diva receivers with Owens at the front. Some voters will be reluctant to create a leapfrog situation. Others may be more sympathetic to Owens now that Harrison has cleared through. Two years may also soften the stances of some of the Owens extremists.
"The essence of a guy gets a little clearer over time," Glauber said. "When you get further away from events, that tends to be helpful."
Then again, this whole debate is about Owens' "essence." It doesn't help his cause when he complains about not getting selected on the first ballot, then engages Harrison (who waited for three years) in a public beef and takes sideswipes at Cris Carter (who waited six).
"When he became eligible, he made a big deal about how he would never get it because, ‘They are going to hold it against me, they don't like me,'" said Domowitich, whom you will recall is pro-Owens. "We're not petty. It's an honor to be able to vote. We take it seriously."
Selectors are not supposed to hold Owens' complaints against him. But Owens' remarks add weight to the opinions of his detractors.
"It gives credence to those stories that you hear in the locker room about a divisive, entitled guy," Judge said.
There's also a difference between listing someone among the Hall of Fame top five and pounding a table in support of him during a 50-minute argument. If Owens wants his majority of voters to be a little less silent, it might help if he didn't refer to them as "pencil pushers."
There are some knowledgeable, influential voices on the Hall of Fame selection committee that are ready to give his candidacy some momentum. It's a matter of convincing the skeptics that Owens did enough to balance the "respect" and "integrity" ledgers. Respecting the folks who cast the ballots can only help.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @MikeTanier.