Setting aside for now (but perhaps not for long) whether the not-so-subtle admonition from Hall of Fame quarterback and Hall of Fame voter Dan Fouts to Terrell Owens about criticizing the process proves that his omission from the Hall of Fame is less about whether he deserves a spot in Canton and more about whether the panel “likes” him, it’s time to unwrap an increasingly common theme. If the journalists on the selection committee who are opposed to Owens aren’t going to do it, then a sort-of journalist who will never be on the selection committee needs to.
Here’s a quick caveat: I’m not doing this because I “like” Terrell Owens. I’m ambivalent at best about him as a person. In 2013, he called me “Satan,” so depending on T.O.’s personal worship habits it’s safe to assume he doesn’t like me.
That said, I’d like to think after following the NFL for more than 40 years and working in this business for nearly 17, I know a Hall of Famer when I see one. Owens, in my opinion, is a Hall of Famer, and it’s not close.
I also have developed a very strong aversion over the years to BS. There seems plenty of it going around regarding Owens.
The biggest potential pile comes from the narrative that multiple “teams couldn’t wait to get rid” of Owens. First publicly articulated a year ago by Gary Myers of the New York Daily News when being properly grilled by Ross Tucker for specific proof that Owens was too disruptive to be enshrined, the presumption that the 49ers, Eagles, Cowboys, Bills, and Bengals all lined up to dump Owens continues to emerge as a knee-jerk mantra for justifying keeping him out of Canton — and possibly as a pretext for the fact that the folks voting to snub him simply don’t like him.
This year, the “teams couldn’t wait to get rid” of Owens narrative is back. Fouts echoed it in explaining T.O.’s omission. So did Hall of Fame voter Ira Kaufman of JoeBucsFan.com.
“Teams couldn’t wait to get rid of him at his peak,” Kaufman said regarding Owens during a Wednesday appearance on Chris Russo’s SiriusXM radio show. “He was suspended twice, he was told, ‘We don’t want you around.’ The Eagles said, ‘Goodbye, we don’t want you. Get out of here.’ The 49ers said, ‘We don’t want to see you anymore. . . . This is about a guy who teams couldn’t wait to get rid of.”
That’s a gross oversimplification of the situation at best. It’s a flat-out misrepresentation at worst. (It’s not Ira’s fault; he’s simply passing along the things he’s being told by members of the committee who oppose Owens’ enshrinement.)
Lets’ start with the 49ers. Owens had the ability to void the final two years of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent in 2004. Based on some of the information gathered by PFT (i.e., sort-of journalism), it is believed that the 49ers would have gladly kept Owens beyond his eight years with the team if he hadn’t voided his contract. However, they weren’t interested in signing him as an unrestricted free agent, given that the team was young and rebuilding — and that it would have been very expensive to sign him in competition with the open market.
Ultimately, an error in the filing of the paperwork voiding his contract resulted in an effort by the 49ers to trade Owens to the Ravens, a grievance filed by the union, and a settlement that resulted in Owens being shipped to the Eagles under a seven-year, $42 million contract with a $10 million signing bonus. (The Ravens reportedly would have paid him $17 million to sign, but Owens reportedly wanted to play with Donovan McNabb, not Kyle Boller.)
Owens delivered immediately in Philadelphia, with 1,200 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns in 14 regular-season games. He suffered a broken ankle during a December 19 win over the Cowboys, missed two regular-season games, missed two playoff games, and somehow returned for Super Bowl XXXIX, catching nine passes for 122 yards and arguably performing better than any other player on the field in a 24-21 loss to the Patriots.
Due to earn a base salary of $7.5 million in 2005 and looking for a more significant financial reward for his efforts in 2004, Owens asked for a raise. The Eagles, notorious at the time for putting their ability to manage the salary cap and to sign young players to long-term deals they would likely outperform over winning, refused. Repeatedly.
So Owens opted to utilize the leverage available to him. Instead of holding out, however, he chose be disruptive in the hopes of getting paid or getting traded to a team that would pay him. An ill-advised tactic to be sure, the reality is that the Eagles wanted to keep Owens under the terms of the contract he signed. Only after a season of squabbles and suspensions and grievances and exasperation did the Eagles give Owens his freedom.
If Owens hadn’t decided to take a stand and try to get the Eagles to adjust his contract based on what he did in 2004, the Eagles would have been happy to keep him around. Put simply, they “couldn’t wait to get rid” of Owens only after Owens made it clear that, without a new contract, he couldn’t wait to leave.
Beyond the 49ers and Eagles, it’s likewise a stretch to say teams “couldn’t wait to get rid of” Owens. In 2006, the Cowboys gladly embraced Owens, signing him to a three-year, $25 million deal. Two years later, the Cowboys didn’t cut him. They signed him to a new contract, worth $34 million over four years with a $12 million signing bonus.
Yes, the Cowboys cut Owens in 2009. But if they “couldn’t wait to get rid of” him, why did they sign him to a new deal following only two seasons with the team?
After leaving Dallas, Owens signed a one-year deal with the Bills, for $6.5 million. He wasn’t cut or suspended or otherwise gotten rid of before the contract ended and he became a free agent once again.
Ditto the following year, in Cincinnati. Owens signed a one-year deal, played one year for the Bengals, tore an ACL in the process, became a free agent again at the age of 37, and ultimately never played in another regular-season game.
To summarize, Owens spent eight years with the 49ers, and they would have kept him if he hadn’t had the ability to void the remaining years of his contract. He then spent two years with the Eagles, and they gladly would have extended the stay if he had gladly accepted the terms of a contract he quickly outperformed.
Owens then spent three years with the Cowboys, who ripped up the final year of a three-year deal and gave him a four-year contract one year before moving on. The Bills then signed him for a year, the Bengals signed him for a year, and that was that.
Was Owens a disruption at times? Yes. Should that be considered when assessing his Hall of Fame credentials? Yes, as long as the issues are being fully and properly fleshed out — and as long as the voters are considering the disruptions created by other players who made it to Canton in past years, including but not limited to the stabbing of a teammate in the neck with scissors on team property.
Absent an objective look at T.O.’s career and a comparison of his locker-room characteristics to other players who previously have made it to Canton, it appears that the narratives preventing Owens from enshrinement are nothing more than a lazy and convenient excuse for keeping Owens out, apparently because those who oppose him simply don’t care for him.