Thoughts on Terrell Owens and the NFL HOF

On last week’s podcast I discussed some thoughts on Terrell Owens and since that’s a story that’s still lingering around I thought I’d move off the cap stuff for a few minutes to talk a bit about Owens. I always find the Hall of Fame voting pretty fascinating and I think the way that its structured you will see situations like with Owens where it’s easy to leave him off and then figure you will get back to him in a future year. I can buy that argument and think it’s the reason why many times players that seem like no brainers for the Hall fall short for a few years. This was a bit different though as there were a few stories that popped up about Owens being unprofessional, that nobody wanted him around their locker room and then the kicker- that he dropped the ball too much. 

Owens was definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea to watch play. Owens was an entertainer and a self promoter. He certainly wasn’t the first to ever be that but he brought it to a level that at times overshadowed the game and probably did some things that weren’t exactly in the gameplan because he was doing things his way. He became must see television when in prime time because you knew he would have a big game and he made sure he was always in the spotlight. At times this was to his detriment because there were often no limits when he had a chance to expand his notoriety and brand. Ask him about Jeff Garcia and he’ll go well beyond what anyone else would say. Ask him about Donovan McNabb and he’ll explain to you how bad he was. Some of the football related comments may not have been different than what many sports hosts were saying at the time but in the NFL you are expected to defend your teammates not use them as a reason to explain why you weren’t even better. Still there was probably only one time in his career where I think that portion of his game negatively impacted a team.

A lot of the unprofessional talk stems from the fact that Owens spent his career on multiple teams and the leaving of each team was not exactly under the best of circumstances. By no means should multiple teams be an issue and moving forward will be less and less of one. With free agency in full swing more and more players switch teams. This HOF class includes Kurt Warner who was given the ax a few times in his career and spent seasons as a backup trying to rehab his career. Deion Sanders used to be a hired gun and in the future the Hall will include players like Randy Moss and Darrelle Revis who each played on three different teams in the prime of their careers and were given up on by more than one team.

Owens portrayal is somewhat hurt in this regard because of when his career began. Owens career began in the relatively early days of free agency and the current style CBA agreement. Basically every few years there were rules changes as the league figured their way around the salary cap and various rules governing contracts. One of those change years caused Owens to basically miss a deadline to declare himself a free agent. At the time San Francisco was about to undergo changes that would see the team move into a rebuilding effort. So clearly that was not going to be the place anymore for Owens.

Had Owens been a free agent nobody would have batted an eye when he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. But because the deadline may have been missed the 49ers insisted they controlled his rights and had the right to trade him, which they did, to the Baltimore Ravens. Owens refused to report and felt he was still a free agent and could sign with the Eagles. Somehow this became a story of Owens being unprofessional. If this same situation happened nowadays the reporting on the story would have been very different and likely a much more pro-Owens situation. Eventually a compromise was reached in which Owens would be traded to the Eagles and the Ravens and 49ers would get some compensation.  A situation like this never would have happened after 2006 and if his agent filed on time the divorce from the 49ers never would have been this ugly.

The second Owens situation is the one where I think he hurt a team.  After agreeing to a big contract with the Eagles in 2004, Owens decided he was underpaid and his contract became a distraction to the team, leading to the infamous sit up routine in his driveway in 2005.  A lot of that situation was likely due to bad advice from his agent or at the very least his agent enabling him, but reflects on Owens. The situation went from bad to worse as Owens fought with coaches and criticized teammates before simply being sent home for the rest of the year. This was a clear negative for him and the Eagles and the situation actually led to rules changes from the NFL regarding the deactivation of players as discipline.

The third area of finger pointing comes from his leaving the Cowboys. Im not sure what really warrants that criticism. Even though that may have been Owens most remembered timeframe since the Cowboys are such a popular franchise, it was clear that there was some type of decline at the end and his release was just football business. Even looking at the Bills and Bengals situations in my mind is pointless. These are end of career teams, one of which signed him for as much as a publicity stunt as it was for football.

As a player it’s hard to find many players from his era that were better. That was why I found the drops story so surprising. You can debate his character and some of the situations he was involved in, but its incredibly hard to discount his production. He was a dominant player and for the most part his numbers were legit not the type that become inflated because played so long.

The only thing I can come up with on the drops was the end of time with the Cowboys. Maybe it was an issue before than and I don’t remember it but statistically it would seem that it happened with Dallas. It would be most noticeable then because that was Owens most notable part of his career and the 2007 team was excellent. Owens being older probably didn’t have the same kind of skillset to perhaps avoid some concentration lapses that were easier to hide when younger.

Here is how the prime of Owens career broke down year by year

Year% of Team Targets% of Team Receptions% of Team Yards% of Team TD’sIncrease in Comp %Increase in YPRIncrease in YPT
199723.8%21.6%29.8%40.0%-9.5%38.0%24.9%
199818.7%19.3%25.8%34.1%3.2%33.7%37.8%
199917.5%18.5%23.0%28.6%5.8%24.3%31.2%
200025.0%26.5%34.2%40.6%5.8%29.5%36.7%
200130.6%29.2%41.0%50.0%-4.5%40.3%33.8%
200227.8%28.2%37.6%56.5%1.4%33.1%35.0%
200328.6%26.8%32.3%36.0%-6.4%21.1%13.2%
200423.2%22.9%30.2%43.8%-1.3%31.7%29.9%
200514.8%13.9%20.8%28.6%-6.0%48.5%39.8%
200629.6%27.4%30.8%50.0%-7.5%12.3%3.8%
200726.6%23.7%33.0%41.7%-10.8%39.1%24.3%
200825.6%21.0%27.8%34.5%-17.8%31.6%8.5%

These are pretty dominant numbers and why I brought up the point about drops with the Cowboys. For the most part Owens was catching passes at a higher than average rate in his earliest seasons and then he began to decline. A lesser than average catch rate is to be expected for guys who are prime targets and often running lower percentage routes, but those last two years in Dallas saw significant declines relative to others on his team. My guess is a good portion of that is attributed to drops, some of which were probably in high profile games that people remember.

Still even if my own conclusion is wrong on his drops (and it might very well be) you can’t discount his yards per target. Even if you want to argue that he left some yards on the field its hard to argue that he wasn’t an overall big positive, with most of his career seeing teams gain over 25% more yards on an attempt than they were to others on the same teams.

How do his numbers compare to the two players he will most be compared to? Pretty well.

Player% of Team Targets% of Team Receptions% of Team Yards% of Team TD’sIncrease in Comp %Increase in YPRIncrease in YPT
Owens23.1%22.1%29.3%39.2%-4.0%32.2%26.8%
Moss24.9%22.9%31.0%42.8%-8.2%35.6%24.4%
Harrison24.7%24.1%28.2%34.4%-2.7%17.0%13.9%
Average24.2%23.0%29.5%38.8%-5.0%28.3%21.7%

*Numbers do not include Owens final two years in the NFL, nor Moss’ last two years.

I think in looking at the numbers you can somewhat see where the people who discounted Harrison at times were coming from. His increases over the team YPR and YPT were small compared to the other two which was in large part due to playing his career with Peyton Manning who was exceptional. Owens played with players a notch lower as did Moss for a majority of his career. I would expect the numbers to be lower for Owens and Moss if they played with better QB’s as well but still above Harrisons.

The overall production is terrific for all three players. All are around 24% of team targets, 23% of the receptions and 30% of the team yards. The TD production was outrageous. Each player saw a slightly lower completion percentage when the ball was thrown their way. That’s another reason why I cant say that in any scenario Owens dropping of passes could have had much of a material impact. His numbers should be far worse if that was the case. Like I said above these are riskier plays that teams are more prepared for(remember the old Randy ratio days where everyone knew where the ball was going) so they are going to result in a lower percentage than safety outlets to a tight end or something to a possession receiver.

While you can debate the order of these three players I’m not sure how you can make the case that any don’t belong in the HOF.  It took Harrison a few years as well to get in though I don’t believe in either of his years of eligibility he missed out on a HOF class that had so few cant miss guys as this one, so Owens I would think would get in sometime soon, but the few arguments that have been written about him just seem as ways to justify not voting for someone because you don’t like him.  That should not be and hopefully wont be the criteria moving forward.

  • eddiea

    TO had the “dropsies” throughout his career,but early on they were his fault from not concentrating. He started blaming his QBs loudly when McNabb didn’t agree he needed an updated Deal. Then Romo got it the worst when TO thought Romo was favoring the TE,name escapes me now, and that’s after he “cried That’s My QB Man”. He belongs in HoF,but many Voters don’t like him so as Peter King stated it might be awhile before he enters. So better late than never especially since we know his Speech will be GREAT!!!!!

  • Alan Barnes

    T.O. was an absolute STUDDD!!! He was also an absolute Jackass!!! The man belongs in the Hall yesterday, not not tomorrow. For T.O. to not go first ballot, really diminishes the credibility of the Hall in the eye’s of people like myself. I witnessed with my on eye’s how special he was. I also witnessed with my on eye’s how SPECIAL (idiot) he was. I can’t say that I didn’t see this coming, because we all did. Good luck T.O. hang in there.

  • Werner

    by my understanding Hall of Fame entry should be awarded first and foremost against the achievements and merits as a player. It is not the Hall of Nicety or the Hall of Sympathy. From a performance view, T.O is a must in.