SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Terrell Owens ranks sixth in NFL history in receptions with 1,078. He’s second on the list in career yardage to Jerry Rice with 15,934. He’s third in receiving touchdowns with 153.
But when Owens came under consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the first time on Saturday, he was soundly rejected. The man known as T.O. didn’t even make the final cut from 15 finalists down to 10.
The 46-member board elected five modern candidates: Quarterback Brett Favre, wide receiver Marvin Harrison, linebacker Kevin Greene, tackle Orlando Pace and former Bucs and Colts head coach Tony Dungy.
This was not a standard case of a wide receiver not making it in his first year of eligibility because of a logjam at his position, as it was for Buffalo great Andre Reed, Cris Carter, Tim Brown and Art Monk.
Owens’ supporters argue that his statistics are beyond dispute, and that he should have been judged by his numbers alone. And if it were simply about stats, he almost surely would have been elected in his first year eligible.
But for many football people, the Hall is about more than numerical achievements. Owens was perceived as a divisive force, a bad teammate many times over, a player who put his personal goals ahead of team success.
“The Hall of Fame ought to be for people who make their teams better,” former Bills General Manager Bill Polian, a Hall of Famer, said on the Talk of Fame Network, “not for those who disrupt them and make them worse.”
It’s hard to argue that a man who caught 153 TD passes didn’t somehow make his teams better. Owens played on several winning teams and appeared in 12 playoff games. He showed courage by playing with a partially healed broken leg for the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX and catching nine passes for 122 yards in a loss to the Pats.
On the other hand, three teams dumped Owens during his prime because they were tired of his self-serving antics, which included ripping his own quarterbacks. Evidently, those teams felt they were better off without him.
Yes, every sports hall of fame is populated by dubious characters. Ken Stabler finally got in. He was no choir boy. Neither was Marvin Harrison. But being a bad teammate is a cardinal sin in the minds of other players.
That’s a big factor with Owens. The media who vote for the Hall of Fame don’t simply pull up the statistics and decide who is worthy. They talk to former players, especially the legends who are already in the Hall of Fame.
I spoke with a number of electors during the week leading up to the vote. They had all spoken with coaches, players and executives, including Hall of Famers, who felt Owens didn’t belong. They wouldn’t want T.O. on their football team, and they didn’t want him as the ultimate teammate in Canton.
Owens was also famous for his elaborate touchdown celebrations. Cam Newton has been criticized for his TD dances, but Newton is known as a great teammate who loves involving his teammates in celebrating their successes.
But again, this isn’t about self-serving touchdown celebrations. It’s about T.O.’s frequently disruptive and juvenile behavior, which inside football types feel made him a negative influence on his teams.
It’s hard to see Owens getting in anytime soon. He’s become like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens in baseball, players whose extraordinary on-field achievements have been compromised in the eyes of Hall of Fame voters.
There’s a big difference, of course. Bonds and Clemens used performance-enhancing drugs. They’re viewed as cheaters. Owens didn’t cheat or get caught using steroids. But being a bad teammate is a stain on his career, one that will be difficult for him to erase as the years go by.
Owens tweeted out news of his fate Saturday: “Unfortunately I did not make it. CONGRATS to the 2016 HOF CLASS. Thanks to ALL MY FANS for ur unwavering love & support. #ONLYGODCANJUDGEME”
It struck me as a typically insincere and self-indulgent gesture by Owens, who has tried very hard to rehabilitate his image and enhance his earning power. It has been estimated that Owens squandered most of the $80 million he made in his career due to poor financial management.
T.O. played one forgettable year with the Bills in 2009, for a cool $6.5 million. Looking back, his one season in Buffalo seems even more laughable. It’s embarrassing to think they gave the guy a key to the city.
Owens and the Bills essentially used each other. Owens wanted a place to polish his image, a launching pad to his next contract. The Bills, stuck with an unpopular coach in Dick Jauron, needed a big name to sell tickets. Bills fans, willing as ever to buy hope, went along for the ride.
I’ll confess, I fell for it, too. On the day Owens signed with the Bills in March of ’09, I said it was a move that made the Bills relevant again. It’s a notion that drives me nuts today, this idea that a good sports town has to make snazzy moves to reclaim “relevance” on the national scene.
I don’t recall much about Owens in ’09. He’s like a phantom who passed through without leaving a trace. He was going to show little Buffalo how misunderstood he had been, and that he really was a leader of young men.
His first regular-season game was a devastating, 25-24 loss to the Pats on Monday night – the McKelvin fumbled kickoff game. Afterwards, Donte Whitner was literally crying in the locker room. McKelvin was facing the music. Owens told reporters they were wasting their time and said nothing.
Owens was a dud, on and off the field that season. For a supposed entertainer – he had some silly reality TV show at the time, as I recall – he was surprisingly devoid of charm or insight. When his receiving numbers failed to live up to the hype, his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, trashed Jauron and the entire organization.
Aftter one season, T.O. was gone. In 2010, he had 72 catches and nine TDs for the Bengals, who slipped from 10-6 to 4-12. They let him go. Owens tried to come back in 2011 after hurting his knee in the offseason. His agent set up a televised workout. No NFL team showed up.
In time, maybe the voters will soften and put Owens in the Hall. He has the numbers. But he’s finding that it’s a lot easier to get the keys to the city than a pass to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.