If there is one thing I have always loved about the Pro Football Hall of Fame it is that it never claimed to be anything other than, you know, the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That is to say, nobody ever claimed that the people enshrined in Canton were saints or angelic or even good sports. To the contrary, most of the people in the Pro Football Hall of Fame are there precisely because they are NOT any of those things.
Are there cheaters in the Pro Football Hall of Fame? You betcha.
Gamblers? Of course.
Drug users? Plenty of them.
Convicted criminals? Sure, there are a few of those in there too.
But you know what they all have in common? Right: They were damned good at playing or coaching or managing football. When Lawrence Taylor came up for induction in 1999, there were some rumblings that he might have to wait because his football career had been a blinding rush of sex and drugs and alcohol and all the various crimes that come with such a life. He did not have to wait, though: Taylor was elected his first year. Why? Because he was a seminal football player, maybe the best defensive player of them all, and this is the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
As a longtime voter for the Baseball Hall of Fame, I have found the Pro Football Hall’s focus on, you know, football, to be refreshing. I’m not saying the same process would work for baseball because the sports are very different and the fans have very different expectations for their Hall of Famers. A vast number of baseball fans like to believe the Baseball Hall stands for something more than baseball, and I get that.
I’m just saying that to hear, year after year, that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens don’t belong in the Baseball Hall of Fame because they cheated the game or because their greatness was not authentic makes me look a bit longingly to Canton, where 325-pound offensive linemen who are stronger than tractors and 240-pound linebackers who move like bullet trains are elected without judgment because they could really play.
All of which is to say: It’s almost impossible for me to believe that Terrell Owens did not get elected to the Hall of Fame on Saturday.
Now, before we get to the T.O. specifics, we should pause for a moment to appreciate the wondrous gall of Lynn Swann. You might know that Swann came out this week to say that Calvin Johnson might not be a Hall of Famer. Here’s the money quote:
“Calvin Johnson has an extreme amount of talent and ability, but when you start to look at his team, the success of his team and did he lift that team; he made them a little bit better, but at the end of the day, I’m not quite sure.”
Lynn Swann has 5,462 receiving yards in his career. This ranks him 222nd in NFL history. Now, of course, Swann played in a very different time, but even in his own time he never led the league in receptions or yards. He never CAME CLOSE to leading the league in receptions or yards. Even if you reduce pro football to just the nine years that Swann played, 1974-82, he still ranks 12th in receptions and receiving yards, well behind non-Hall of Famers like Cliff Branch, Drew Pearson and Ahmad Rashad.
So why is Lynn Swann in the Hall of Fame? It’s not because the Steelers won four Super Bowls. Sure, that helped, but I’ll tell you the main reason why: It’s because he was a BEAUTIFUL player, a ballet dancer in cleats. His catches — especially in the playoffs and Super Bowl — were mesmerizing, unforgettable. His greatness transcended numbers and time.
In other words, Lynn Swann should be CAMPAIGNING for Calvin Johnson because Megatron’s case is exactly the same as Swann’s. Well, not exactly … Johnson’s numbers are mind-blowing. He has the record for receiving yards in a season, he has twice as many receiving yards and Swann and so on. But Johnson’s case is that he transcended the game. You watched him play and you knew that you were watching one of the all-time greats. He was bigger, stronger, faster and jumped higher than any receiver we had ever seen. He was impossible to tackle. He wanted the ball more than any cornerback did. He was a beautiful football player.
That’s Swann’s case, too. Does he really think he led the Steelers to those Super Bowls? Sheesh, they had the best defense, maybe ever, and for much of his career Swann was the second-best receiver on HIS OWN TEAM. If Megatron had been on those Steelers teams instead of Swann, they would have never lost a game.
I bring this up because I do believe that wide receiver is the toughest position for Hall of Fame voters to judge. It’s one of the few positions where you have real numbers to work with — receptions, yards, receiving touchdowns — but in many ways those numbers distract more than they help. As mentioned, 221 receivers have more receiving yards than Swann but that’s just trivia. Receivers put up huge numbers now, and that’s why there’s a glut of receivers with Hall of Fame credentials crowded into the atrium at Canton.
So, yes, you can see how Terrell Owens could fall through the cracks a bit. The voters have become numb to big receiving numbers, which is why it took Andre Reed and Tim Brown and Cris Carter a long time before they were finally elected. I can see voters saying that Owens can wait his turn just like they did, especially when you consider how much baggage Owens carries with him.
Except for this: Owens was better than those guys. He’s second all-time in receiving yards, only to the incomparable Jerry Rice. He’s third in receiving touchdowns, behind Rice and just behind Randy Moss. He’s fourth among receivers in Approximate Value, which is one way of trying to incorporate a player’s value to his team. And, anyway: You saw Terrell Owens play. You know what an absurdity he was out there. Defensive backs couldn’t cover him. They couldn’t muscle him. They couldn’t tackle him.
So, why didn’t the voters elect him? Well, there’s some guesswork involved here because they guard the Hall of Fame voting like it’s the Vatican, but it seems pretty likely that they didn’t vote for him because Terrell Owens was, well, a jerk and a troubled person. He was the guy who wore a Michael Irvin Cowboys jersey just after his Eagles got stomped by the Cowboys. He’s the guy who called the Eagles “classless,” the guy who ripped his own quarterback, the guy who spit at a defensive back, the guy who accidentally overdosed on pain medication when at his lowest point.
All of these things are a huge part of Owens’ story, no question about that. Owens played for five teams in his career, and I’m not sure how many of his many teammates you could get to say nice things about him. There are arguments to be made — arguments that I know were made in the Hall of Fame voting room — that his divisiveness hurt his teams more than his greatness helped them. And it may be true — though the strong counterargument is that eight of his teams made the playoffs and in his one Super Bowl appearance he carried his team as far as he could (only weeks after breaking his leg). But, hey, Owens was obviously not a model teammate.
But this is the point I’m making: The enduring charm of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, at least for me, was that it didn’t make judgments about people’s character. Guys who would bite your nose off are in Canton. Guys who survived by shooting up whatever drug happened to nearby are in Canton. Guys who do anything — absolutely anything — to win are in Canton. This is the defining spirit of the game. You understand when you walk in the door in Canton that the place represents just one thing: Here are the greatest football players of all time. That is all.
Terrell Owens is one of the greatest football players of all time.