Tuesday, August 2, 2016
Terrell Owens Made His Teams Worse
Terrell Owens ranks 6th all-time in receptions, 2nd in receiving yards, and 3rd in receiving touchdowns. He led the NFL three times in receiving TDs and is one of only three Modern-Era wide receivers named to five all-pro teams as a starter (Jerry Rice, Del Shofner). Owens had nine 1,000-yard seasons, eight years of double-digit TDs, six Pro Bowl selections, and four years gaining at least 1,300 yards.
Judged solely by his on-field performance, Owens is not just a Hall of Famer, he's one of the most outstanding WRs of all time. But Owens' legacy isn't limited to his touchdowns and his great moments in the postseason. Owens is also remembered for his disrespectful celebrations, unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, getting Steve Mariucci and Jeff Garcia released — the catalyst for a decade of losing in San Francisco — overturning his trade to the Ravens, fighting with Hugh Douglas, demanding to renegotiate his contract after just one year, dividing the Eagles' locker room and getting suspended, making Drew Rosenhaus famous, calling Ed Werder a liar following reports of conflict in the Dallas locker room, and many more controversies.
Owens was a physical marvel, big and powerful, who cared about winning and would become visibly upset when his team wasn't doing well. He also dropped a lot of catchable passes, antagonized his quarterbacks, and made himself unwanted when he was still a capable player. Owens gained 983 yards in 2010, and no one signed him the next year; he wasn't worth the trouble.
This year, Owens became eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Although he reached the Finalist stage of voting, Owens was not selected. On the one hand, that's not entirely shocking. Only five Modern-Era receivers have made the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot (Raymond Berry, Lance Alworth, Paul Warfield, Steve Largent, and Jerry Rice). It is notoriously difficult for wide receivers to attain enshrinement in Canton. Marvin Harrison didn't get in until the third ballot, for heaven's sake.
On the other hand, Owens' statistical accomplishments and extremely high profile suggested that he might be an exception to the voters' reluctance at enshrining WRs. Many observers suspect that the voters dinged Owens to deny him first-ballot status, as punishment for being a jerk, but that he will get the necessary votes next year.
I'm taking a wait-and-see approach on Owens' HOF candidacy; my mind isn't made up. If I had to vote today, I'd vote no. It's not just because I found his behavior distasteful. The Hall of Fame already has some real jerks, and even a handful of convicted criminals. The PFHOF doesn't have a character clause, and I'm glad it doesn't. But Terrell Owens' bad behavior hurt his teams. He was a jerk in a way that made a difference on the field: I believe that from 2005-10, Owens mostly made his teams worse. And without those seasons, I don't think he has a Hall of Fame career.
I played wide receiver in college. It was Division III, and I was a backup, but I understand the position. A receiver's job is not limited to catching passes. Every WR is called upon to block sometimes. A player who doesn't do that has a deficiency in his game. That deficiency may not be disqualifying, but it's certainly part of his job, and if he's not doing it, that affects our assessment of him as a player. Receivers are not only expected to make important catches and to block, they are expected to run routes that create opportunities for their teammates. They are expected to avoid penalties. They are expected to stay in shape, to help their teammates in practice and meetings, to respect their coaches, to make the bus on time. Some of those factors are nebulous and hard to quantify, and some of them are more important than others, but a player who's not meeting those expectations has shortcomings that must factor into an educated assessment of his career.
When we're talking about the greatest players of all time, a player who made his teams worse did not fulfill his job. Maybe he had feet of lead and hands of stone, maybe he ran the wrong routes and didn't block, maybe he systematically undercut his coach and quarterback, on and on. Terrell Owens was a great talent; I'm not sure he was a great football player.
Team stats support the idea that Owens made his teams worse. The seasons immediately before Owens joined the 49ers, Eagles, Cowboys, Bills, and Bengals, those teams went a combined 49-31. In their first year with Owens, they went 44-36.
In their final years with Owens, the 49ers, Eagles, Cowboys, Bills, and Bengals went a combined 32-48. In their first year after he left, they went 36-44. Let's put that in chart form:
Owens' teams got worse as soon as he arrived, declined badly during his tenure, and improved as soon as he left.
He made good teams worse, and those teams began to bounce back when they got rid of him. Actually, the stats above are generous to T.O., because they don't account for his role in destroying the 49ers. Owens was a rookie with San Francisco in 1996. The 1996 49ers went 12-4, up one game from 11-5 the previous season. That's not a meaningful improvement, and to the extent it is, it probably wasn't because of Owens' 35 catches for 520 yards and 4 TDs. But Owens wasn't really T.O. — the narcissist bad boy — until at least 2000, when he celebrated two touchdowns in the same game by running out to the Dallas star at midfield. The first sparked a retaliatory mimic by Emmitt Smith, the second a hit from Cowboys safety George Teague. The Niners fined Owens a game's pay and he was held out of the next week's game, although he remained on the active roster and was not technically suspended.
T.O.'s response, which most people have forgotten but I never will, was to compare his non-suspension suspension to — and this is not the most obvious comparison — the Monica Lewinsky scandal. "It makes me feel like this was a classless act. Like President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, that was a classless act, and he didn't even get impeached for it." Actually, Clinton did get impeached, but a one-game fine is not equivalent to impeaching the president or removing him from office. The whole comparison is kind of a non sequitur.
The controversy turned Owens from just another productive receiver into a headline-generating media draw. Owens liked the attention, and concocted new schemes to stay in the public eye. Twitter not being invented until Owens was past his prime just might be proof of a benevolent God. He — Owens, not God — also began to publicly criticize teammates and coaches. He played a significant role in head coach Steve Mariucci and quarterback Jeff Garcia getting released. Garcia was released because Owens publicly said that backup Tim Rattay was better and, asked whether Garcia was gay, answered, "If it looks like a rat and smells like a rat, by golly, it is a rat." The team decided it wanted Owens more than Garcia, and cut ties with the Pro Bowl quarterback. Then T.O. left anyway.
In 2002, the 49ers went 10-6 and reached the second round of the playoffs. They dropped to 7-9 the following season, with Owens frequently expressing his discontent. The team fell to 2-14 in its first year (2004) without Owens, but that probably owes more to replacing Mariucci and Garcia with Dennis Erickson and Tim Rattay — for which Owens deserves some if not most of the blame — than it does to losing T.O. In the chart above, showing his teams' records, the 49ers years are misleading, since they show the team getting better (11-5 to 12-4) in his insignificant rookie season and much worse (7-9 to 2-14) in the first year without him, when Owens himself had provoked the key changes that led to decline.
While Owens was the catalyst for the 49ers' decline — a decade-long debacle in between head coaches Steve Mariucci and Jim Harbaugh — it was team management that deserved most of the blame. By 2002, Owens had become a disruptive player, but his talent still exceeded the damage he did on the sidelines and off the field. I think Owens was a valuable player from 1997-2002. It's from 2005 on that I believe he hurt his teams more than helped them, and without 2005-10, he's not a Hall of Famer, he's Herman Moore.
These are my key assertions, all of which I believe would be difficult for an objective party to dispute:
* Owens made the 49ers worse at the end of his tenure there.
* Owens ruined (or played a significant role in ruining) the Eagles' 2005 season, and the team was better after he left.
* The Cowboys improved immediately after cutting Owens.
* Owens did not noticeably improve the Bills.
* The Bengals were significantly worse during Owens' brief tenure.
* Owens gained 983 yards in his final season and stated his desire to play in 2011 and 2012, but no one would sign him because he was perceived as a toxic teammate and a distraction.
If coaches and teammates have to spend time dealing with your attitude when they're supposed to be game-planning or training, that hurts the organization. If the quarterback has to stress about getting you the ball, that limits the offense. As great a player as he was, in the second half of his career, Owens actually made his teams worse. His bad attitude, narcissism, and media coverage dictated play-calling and divided locker rooms. There's no substitute for talent, but team chemistry matters, and no player in NFL history has disrupted team chemistry like Terrell Owens.