Terrell Owens Deserves to Wait His Turn for the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Jason ColeNFL AnalystFebruary 15, 2017

PHILADELPHIA - DECEMBER 28: Wide receiver Terrell Owens #81 of the Dallas Cowboys stands on the sideline during the game against the Philadelphia Eagles on December 28, 2008 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Eagles defeated the Cowboys 44-6 to advance into the playoffs. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

Let me start by repeating something I said during the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame selection meeting earlier this month: Terrell Owens deserves to be in the Hall, and I'll vote for him.

At some point.

Maybe that will be next year, when the 48 selectors reconvene (assuming the Hall will have me back). I suspect Owens will go in next year given all of the outside pressure from the media world and the potentially thorny problem of having to justify Randy Moss (who is eligible next year) going in the Hall over Owens.

That's just being logical. But for all the people who have accused me and various other selectors of being illogical by not voting for Owens in his first two years of eligibility, let me say that the argument leaves me cold.

I have my reasons.


Survey Says

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In each of the five years that I have had the privilege (and I can't overstate the idea that it's a privilege) of being a Hall of Fame selector, I have surveyed people in the NFL with at least 20 years experience around the game. This is a combination of former players, executives and coaches (or some combination thereof).

The first year I did it, I surveyed roughly 60 people. By this year, the survey has grown to 250. It starts as soon as the candidates are narrowed to 15 in January. Much of it is done via text or email, but a lot is still done face to face.

Most importantly, it's anonymous. People I survey have the freedom to know that what they say won't be relayed by name. I simply tabulate the results and use them to get a sense of what a larger group of experts thinks.

The results are also not empirical. I don't just ask for the top five and go. The whole thing is far too nuanced. The survey really does more to separate groups of people. If there are multiple players at one position, it may help differentiate one player from another.

In 2015, there was a strong discussion between Orlando Pace and Will Shields on the offensive line. The survey I did showed a little more support for Shields, who got in. In 2016, there was a strong discussion between Pace and Joe Jacoby. The survey showed vastly more support for Pace. He got in.

Likewise, in 2016, Owens was on the ballot for the first time. I was really interested to see how he did as I surveyed 199 NFL people. Owens finished eighth, behind fellow wide receiver Marvin Harrison. Notably, quarterback Brett Favre was named by all 199 on the survey.

T.O. ranks second all-time in receiving yards, eighth in receptions and third in TDs.
T.O. ranks second all-time in receiving yards, eighth in receptions and third in TDs.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

While lots of people outside of the selectors felt Owens should be a slam dunk to make the Hall on the first ballot, the support in the NFL community was not there.

Again, that community is the profile of exactly the type of person most fans want to have voting when they sneer at the fact that media members vote. I survey the people who played, coached and managed the game. To them, Owens was a solid candidate, but hardly special.

This year, Owens did better on the survey, but it was hardly overwhelming. Of the 250 people surveyed, Owens finished a distant third with 120 votes, behind LaDainian Tomlinson (207) and Kurt Warner (165). Owens was only slightly ahead of a pack of people including Don Coryell, Morten Andersen, John Lynch, Jason Taylor and Terrell Davis.

Moreover, of the 250 people I surveyed, there was an important subset.

Hall of Famers. To be specific, there were 23 Hall of Famers in the group (not including Dan Fouts and James Lofton, who are now selectors). Of those 23, only seven voted for Owens. Among the best of the best, Owens didn't have many fans.

The only thing this year's survey told me at the top was that Tomlinson was everything we thought and that Warner had great support as well. Warner had more support than I expected, but that's part of the point of doing the survey.


You Only Get Five

All of this is made more difficult by the fact that there's a limit to each class. In short, out of the 15 modern-day finalists, you only get five. In the eyes of a very small minority of NFL people, five is considered too many. For most of the rest, the limit makes it hard.

I cannot begin to say how many times I have heard some derivation of the statement: "I only get five?! Man, that's hard."

Yes, it is. It's really hard because you are trying to sort the best of the best.

At the same time, Owens' supporters like to claim that he's either the second- or third-best receiver of all time. I'm not sure I agree with that, but I wouldn't drop him much past No. 5 or 6, and that certainly means he's going to be a Hall of Famer.

Again, eventually.

The problem is that you're sorting among a lot of people who had the greatest this or that in their career. Tomlinson's 2006 season featured a record 28 touchdowns, and he was one of the greatest pass-catching backs ever. Warner led the Rams and Cardinals to three Super Bowls in the 11 seasons he played for them combined. Other than with Warner, those teams have combined for one other Super Bowl appearance.

The list goes on.

Taylor not only is seventh all-time in sacks, he had more touchdowns, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, interceptions, passes defensed and safeties than Bruce Smith or Reggie White. Incredibly, Taylor had nine touchdown returns in his career. Smith and White had three, combined.

Terrell Davis (T.D.) has been HOF-eligible since 2007.
Terrell Davis (T.D.) has been HOF-eligible since 2007.Bob Levey/Getty Images

Davis is statistically the greatest running back in playoff history, and it's not even close. In eight playoff games, he carried 204 times for 1,140 yards and 12 touchdowns. Against the best of the best in the highest-pressure situations, Davis was, in essence, on pace to be a 2,000-yard back in the playoffs. That's to say nothing of the 6,413 yards rushing he had in his first four seasons, which is one of only three such stretches to start an NFL career (Eric Dickerson with 6,968 and Earl Campbell with 6,457).

And Davis had to wait 11 years to get into the Hall.

Then there's Morten Andersen, who I didn't even vote for on the cut down to 10 or five. The argument for Andersen, who is the first great long-distance kicker, is strong. Andersen was an all-decade player twice, meaning that for the better part of 20 years, he was considered the best at his position.

Think about that. It's hard to be that great for that long at anything you do in life.

That's to say nothing of others who were on the ballot, such as Ty Law, who has 53 career interceptions in the regular season and six more in the playoffs (five against Peyton Manning and one against Warner). Or there are the great numbers put up by safety Brian Dawkins (37 picks, 19 fumbles recovered and 26 sacks).

So the problem isn't so much the case against a player. The problem is sorting among 15 great players to figure out who goes.

With Owens, the numbers are similarly fabulous. He's fifth all-time in TDs, second in receiving yards and eighth in catches. Those lists are cluttered with guys already in the Hall but also include some (Cris Carter, Marvin Harrison and Tim Brown) who have had to wait to get in and even one (Isaac Bruce) who is still waiting.

While some people have called Owens' numbers "Ruthian," they fall short of that standard in my opinion. Babe Ruth transformed baseball—and basically all of American sports—with his ability to hit for power like no one else.

Owens was a great physical talent, but he was never the overall receiver of Jerry Rice. From a pure talent perspective, Moss ran circles around Owens and just about everybody else. The only thing that kept Moss from rewriting every record in the NFL was his own effort, which is a whole different issue.

Further, Owens never had great hands. If there had been advanced metrics at the time, he probably would have had an inordinate number of drops compared to other Hall of Famers. It also doesn't take a lot of work to find quarterbacks and coaches who will tell you that Owens was not a great route-runner and not consistently where he needed to be on plays.

Again, is any of that enough to keep him out? No. But when limited to five selections, it makes the process harder.

Owens became the legendary T.O. as part of the 49ers.
Owens became the legendary T.O. as part of the 49ers.Elsa/Getty Images


The Case Against

Of course, Owens also has his share of negatives. He was a diva. Not a criminal, but still a diva.

Some people have simplified the case against Owens as a narrative that "teams couldn't wait to get rid of him." There is some vein of truth to that, but not enough by itself to exclude him from the Hall of Fame.

It is true that Philadelphia dumped him after a contract squabble in 2005 in which he was suspended and eventually kept away from the team. In addition, the end of his three years in Dallas wasn't much better after he warred with teammates Tony Romo and Jason Witten.

That issue came to a head in December 2008 after an ugly loss in Pittsburgh. Romo threw an interception on a blitz when he tried to go to Witten. On the far left of the formation, Owens threw his arms up in frustration, believing it was just a continuation of Romo favoring Witten the entire season.

The only problem was that Owens failed to run a blitz break-off pattern, effectively killing the play.

The fact is that Owens was all too happy to throw current and former teammates under the bus, even when it wasn't called for. In 2004, Owens made the infamous and petulant remark when asked if quarterback (and former teammate) Jeff Garcia was gay.

"Like my boy tells me: If it looks like a rat and smells like a rat, by golly, it is a rat," Owens said in Playboy magazine.

Later, in his own book, Owens said of Garcia: "He threw the ball behind me, out of bounds. I left a lot of touchdowns on the field throughout the last two or three years."

Owens and QB Jeff Garcia in 2003.
Owens and QB Jeff Garcia in 2003.MONICA M. DAVEY/Getty Images

That's interesting considering that during their four years together as starters in San Francisco, Owens caught at least 93 passes three times (including a career-high 100 in 2002), caught at least 13 TD passes three times (including a career-high 16 in 2001) and had at least 1,300 yards receiving in three of four years (including a career-high 1,451 yards in 2000).

Those are hardly ratty numbers. In fact, Owens should give Garcia an invite to his Hall of Fame induction and party when he gets in.

And then apologize to Garcia for being a jerk.

Owens also made a mockery of his days in Philadelphia, even after pushing for a trade there. In 2004, Owens refused to agree to a trade to Baltimore, forcing his way to the Eagles when San Francisco wouldn't pay him. The Eagles gave Owens a new contract in the process.

But after only one season, Owens started griping about the backloaded deal that he agreed to from the team he wanted to play for. Furthermore, Owens decided to take down quarterback Donovan McNabb in the process. Owens famously said he "wasn't the guy who got tired in the Super Bowl," referring to McNabb's conditioning at the end of the Eagles' loss to the Patriots.

On ESPN's First Take, Owens also complained that McNabb "cursed me out in the huddle" and said that McNabb was simply jealous because Eagles fans liked Owens more.

Years later, Owens' petulance toward McNabb continued. In a TV show he did with Chad Johnson, Owens griped about McNabb again.

"I don't really want to start anything, but I did play in the Super and there were rumors where (McNabb) couldn't get our two-minute offense going at the end of the game," Owens said. "I'm just saying."

Yeah, that's sort of like the old line from comedian Dom Irrera: "Hey, no offense, but your sister is a slut."

Not the kind of talk that breeds camaraderie, which is kind of important in a team sport.

To some people, it's the kind of team-killing behavior that keeps Owens out of the Hall of Fame. In fact, of the 23 Hall of Famers I surveyed, two of them went so far as to say that Owens should be "disqualified" from ever getting in.

That, of course, is ridiculous. At the same time, it's telling. The Hall of Fame is a place reserved for the truly special. It should be revered and treated with dignity, especially by those who have the talent and good fortune to get in.

In my mind, Owens is one of those people. I don't really care that he was a jerk. I voted for Warren Sapp in 2013. I'm willing to overlook a lot of things.

But I also remember when Sapp went in on the first ballot and then proceeded to bad mouth future fellow Hall of Famer Michael Strahan. It was petty, stupid and embarrassing (although that would be an apt description of Sapp's post-football life).

Someday, perhaps a little less than a year from now, I anticipate Owens will get to join Sapp and others in the Hall. For now, his lack of support among his peers, coaches and executives is one issue. The difficulty of the process is another. And his attitude toward teammates was hardly endearing.


Jason Cole covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @JasonColeBR.


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