We noted earlier that one Pro Football Hall of Fame voter, Ron Borges, has finally made an on-field case for why Owens should be excluded, that he dropped too many passes. We’ve now taken some time to examine that claim, and we find it to be weak.
Although drops are not an official NFL statistic, Borges appeared to be relying on Stats, LLC, which has tracked drops since the 1990s, for his claim that “Owens not only led the NFL in drops once, he finished in the top four in drops seven other seasons during his 15-year career.” That is true, but missing the important context that league leaders in drops are often among the NFL’s best wide receivers.
After going through all the Stats, LLC, drops data for Owens’ career, I’ve compiled these notes on Owens’ dropped passes in each of his 15 NFL seasons:
1996: Owens dropped just one pass while making 35 catches as a rookie.
1997: Owens dropped five passes and wasn’t even in the Top 50 in drops. Hall of Famer Michael Irvin was second in the NFL with 11 drops, while Hall of Famer Tim Brown was tied for fourth with nine drops.
1998: Owens dropped five passes and wasn’t even in the Top 50 in drops while catching 64.4 percent of the passes thrown to him. His teammate Jerry Rice dropped eight passes and was tied for 12th in drops while catching 54.3 percent of the passes thrown to him.
1999: Owens again dropped five passes, again wasn’t even in the Top 50 in drops, and again had better marks than Rice while playing in the same offense: Owens caught 61.2 percent of the passes thrown to him while Rice dropped nine passes and caught 54.0 percent of the passes thrown to him.
2000: Owens dropped 13 passes and was fourth in the NFL in drops. Leading the NFL in drops that year with 16 was Rod Smith, who has been discussed as a Hall of Fame candidate.
2001: Owens dropped 10 passes and was tied for fourth in the NFL. (Owens also led the league in touchdown catches.)
2002: Owens dropped 10 passes, tied for ninth in the NFL. Tied with, among others, Jerry Rice, who dropped the same number of passes while having fewer catches, fewer yards and fewer touchdowns than Owens. Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison led the NFL with 16 drops.
2003: Owens dropped 11 passes and was tied for third in the NFL. He also caught 80 passes for 1,102 yards and nine touchdowns and went to the Pro Bowl.
2004: Owens dropped seven passes. There were 17 NFL players who dropped as many or more passes than Owens while catching fewer passes that season.
2005: Owens dropped five passes, tied for 36th in the NFL.
2006: Owens led the NFL with 17 drops. This is Owens’ first year in Dallas and the one and only year when it’s legitimate to argue that he dropped an inordinate amount of passes. It’s also worth noting that he led the NFL in touchdown catches.
2007: Owens dropped 10 passes, tied for third in the NFL. He also caught 81 passes for 1,355 yards and 15 touchdowns and was chosen as a first-team All-Pro.
2008: Owens dropped 10 passes, fourth in the NFL. He also caught 69 passes for 1,052 yards and 10 touchdowns.
2009: Owens dropped nine passes and was tied for fourth in the NFL. He also led an otherwise terrible Bills passing offense with 55 catches for 829 yards.
2010: Owens was tied with Brandon Marshall for third in drops. Wes Welker was first and Reggie Wayne was second.
So did Owens drop a lot of passes? Sure, especially as his career was winding down in Dallas, Buffalo and Cincinnati. But a lot of great receivers drop a lot of passes. Is Borges going to argue that Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin, Tim Brown and Marvin Harrison should be removed from the Hall of Fame because they were all on the drops leaderboards with Owens? Is Borges going to argue that Rod Smith, Brandon Marshall, Wes Welker and Reggie Wayne don’t have good career résumés because they were all on the drops leaderboards with Owens?
When you’re knocking a player because he did a lot of bad things — dropped a lot of passes or threw a lot of interceptions or fumbled a lot — it’s important to remember that you can only be in a position to do a lot of bad things if your team is relying on you a lot, and your team is only going to rely on you a lot if you’re a good player. Brett Favre is the NFL’s all-time leader in both interceptions and fumbles, but no one disputes that he belongs in the Hall of Fame.
Owens dropped a lot of passes, which tells us that his quarterbacks threw to him a lot, and he got his hands on the ball a lot. A mediocre NFL receiver doesn’t get the opportunity to drop a lot of passes because he doesn’t get open often enough for his quarterback to throw to him, he doesn’t adjust to the ball well enough to get his hands on it, and he doesn’t last long enough to stay on the field if he keeps dropping the ball.
Great receivers like Owens, Rice, Irvin, Brown and Harrison dropped the ball a lot because they got the ball thrown to them a lot. And they got the ball thrown to them a lot because they’re Hall of Famers. At least, all of them but Owens are Hall of Famers. Owens’ absence from Canton says more about voters like Borges than it says about Owens himself.