With the news that Terrell Owens suffered a knee injury that required the 37-year-old to have surgery that may keep him out past September, the discussion has turned to Terrell Owens’ legacy and whether he belongs in the Hall of Fame if he retires. I’ll note that Owens did become a full-time starter for the first time in 1997 when Jerry Rice suffered a knee injury in the season opener, and Rice came back to continue to be the greatest of all-time. Whether Owens is done or not, I think we can have a discussion about his legacy, though, because he’s not likely to alter it.
Len Pasquarelli jumps into this breach with his column “Numbers Might Not Carry Owens to Hall.” His position has nothing to do with Owens’ personality, or the 2005 season in Philadelphia where he was suspended by the team for insubordination, or his tendency to wear thin on teams despite his productivity. No, it has to do with the numbers. From Pasquarelli:
It has become increasingly difficult for the 44 Hall of Fame selectors — a group that includes yours truly — to assess the statistics of wide receiver candidates. Reconciling the numbers that some feel are inflated by a game that has skewed dramatically toward the pass in recent seasons, is not only tough, but also a tricky balancing act.
. . .
It’s worth noting, though, that as the game has become more aerial in nature, the Hall of Fame fates of several solid candidates have been left, well, up in the air. As mentioned above, parsing the credentials of wide receiver finalists, divining the small differences, or even similarities, of the candidates has become daunting.
Pasquarelli is not the first Hall of Fame selector to say this, and this line of thinking irks me to no end. This isn’t advanced differential equations. Newsflash: all the seasons encompassing Terrell Owens’ career to date have been finalized, and the results of what happened were recorded. You can go back a decade ago to the 2001 season and find out exactly what Owens did and what other receivers did. In an instant, I can tell you he had 1412 yards, third most in the league, and that he led the league with 16 receiving touchdowns.
I can tell you that the 10th highest receiving yards that year were Troy Brown at 1199 (so Owens was +213 yards over 10th best) and the 31st most yards for a receiver, since there were 31 teams that year, was 868 yards. In a minute, I can compare that to 1975, when teams didn’t throw as much and when they played 14 games, and find that the 10th best yards in 1975 belonged to Reggie Rucker (770 yards) and the 26th best (for 26 teams) was 549 yards.
I can do that for any season. The numbers exist. They aren’t changing, and what happens in 2015 isn’t going to affect what we know about 1995. I don’t care what baseline you decide to use, value over 5th best, 10th best, X-best where X is the number of teams. They are there. Comparisons can and should be made, and there is no reason Hall of Fame selectors should act like they are in the Dark Ages.
Throwing up hands and keeping Cris Carter or Tim Brown or Terrell Owens or any other top receiver from the last two decades out of the Hall of Fame because you don’t think you can compare is lazy and unbefitting of a committee that should act in the best interest of the game. All of the information is out there. Use it.
Wide receiver is clearly the position where the Hall of Fame is clueless about what they are doing, so they just muddle it up and haven’t elected anyone other than the beyond obvious choice of Jerry Rice. If they looked at it and compared the era by looking at dominance or value over certain baselines, I’m sure they would conclude that even with the increase in passing, Terrell Owens is as dominant relative to his peers over his career as anyone this side of Hutson and Rice, and is in the conversation with receivers from other eras like Alworth and Largent, and his own contemporaries Harrison and Moss. (Oh, and Pasquarelli kind of played the Rings! card on Owens, but Alworth and Largent are easily in with similar numbers, not to mention Owens wasn’t a slouch in the postseason). Also, if passing has increased in importance and receivers have become more prominent, there’s an argument to be made that value has increased and there should be more passing into Canton from modern times, instead of the logjam that the selectors are creating.
The richest part of his column is the conclusion that shows equal parts an astonishing lack of self-awareness and preachy hubris:
Still, those who with Monday’s report will hurry to fill space with opinions about Owens’ Hall of Fame props — in the Age of the Lockout, when in doubt, run a poll or make a list, to gin up opinions and readers — should be wary.
[photo via Getty]