The Hall of Fame: Much T.O. About Nothing?

There’s been a lot of talk in recent weeks about Terrell Owens’ omission from the 2017 Hall of Fame class, but what does the history of those who have previously received the gold jacket say about his chances?

Much has been made of Terrell Owens’ failure to secure the votes for Hall of Fame admission this year in his second attempt. Was his career worthy of this timeline for admission? Is this a case of recency bias or perhaps even a generational disconnect? Are the “good teammate” issues weighing him down? We may not be able to pick off all of those considerations, but what we can look to do is look to establish some historical perspective to better understand T.O. and his quest for admission.

Terrell Owens has often been the center of controversy — here warming up in the HOF Game for Buffalo in 2009

How many wide receivers actually are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame today? Do you have a guess? If we go back to those who at least played since 1950 (in the modern era, to more accurately define a wide receiver), only 24 wideouts have been enshrined. That’s less than one per team. It’s easy to think of who the best receivers were on several teams in the last ten to twenty years, but how many of them were truly great — or even elite?

To put it another way, you’d think that a measure of being truly an elite wide receiver would be slam dunk admission to the Hall on the first ballot, right? Jerry Rice territory. He holds all the records. He is the GOAT. Think about all the receivers who have ever played. Think about Owens’ two other rivals for best receiver of his generation — Marvin Harrison and Randy Moss. How many have been admitted on the first ballot of the 24?


There are only five first-ballot Hall of Fame wide receivers. Only five were considered elite enough as the type who changed the game. Let’s walk through them. Rice holds all the records — several near unbreakable. You knew that. Steve Largent (Seahawks) held all three major receiving records before Rice and was the owner of a two-story trophy that the back stairwell of the Hall of Fame used to wrap around as you made your way back to the gift shop. Paul Warfield (Dolphins/Browns) was a Calvin Johnson before Megatron — a physical specimen that was such a mismatch that his mere presence as a decoy created opportunity for Shula’s Dolphins that ruled the AFC in the 70s. Lance Alworth (Chargers/Cowboys) was called “Bambi’ for his inimitable grace on the field as the AFL’s premier receiver and a member of the NFL’s 75th Anniversary team while Raymond Berry (Colts) was a groundbreaking receiver who left the league owning the catch and yardage records while dominating The Greatest Game Ever Played in 1956. That’s it. Those are the elite, the groundbreakers. It’s reasonable to think Owens is great — but not at that level.

Here are the five first ballot members along with the other 19 modern Hall of Famers. The line in the middle indicates where Terrell Owens resides currently as he readies for his third attempt next year. The yellow shading points out the only cases where receivers were voted in (outside Senior Committee eligibility) who missed being a finalist at any time. T.O. is still clean on this count. Finally, look at Marvin Harrison as his best comparison — and to an extent, other recent players as inductees since 2000 who never missed on being a finalist (Michael Irvin, Cris Carter, Tim Brown, Art Monk).

Only four modern wide receivers have made the Hall of Fame after missing being a finalist — even once!

Marvin Harrison and Randy Moss joined Terrell Owens as the greatest wide receivers of their generation — and it took Harrison (who has a Super Bowl ring and better statistics than Owens) three years to get in. So, perhaps it is reasonable to say this is Owens’ ceiling for admission — the Class of 2018. Cris Carter, and even Michael Irvin, famously experienced very emotional responses after long delays of admission. Carter, in particular, had made major improvements in his life coming from Philadelphia to Minnesota and was second to Rice in most career receiving categories when he retired. He had to wait six years as did Tim Brown.

If you look at this history, it’s reasonable to think, given his peers, Owens should make the Hall of Fame between the Class of 2018 and the Class of 2021 (3rd-6th ballots). Should he miss out once on being a finalist (unlikely at this point), his ceiling looks more like James Lofton and floor might be Andre Reed — discounting Swann and Stallworth, who are aided by their Super Bowl rings. The 2018 ballot will represent Owens’ third ballot attempt.


Another consideration is a logjam the Hall of Fame has experienced with wide receivers for the better part of a decade as shown below.

Tim Brown, Cris Carter, Marvin Harrison, and Andre Reed have spent some time in line as Finalists.

What jumps out above is that only one wide receiver tends to make the Hall at a time, and more often than not, you need to be at the head of the list with seniority and no newcomers in your way. The trouble here for Terrell Owens is that Randy Moss joins the eligibility list next year. Will he be considered more worthy despite the seniority advantage Owens has? Could the presence of two wide receivers hurt both of their causes? What else is on the horizon?

A look at the 2018 Hall of Fame ballot possibilities as well as a preview of future years.

Looking at this information, Owens and Moss have a window through 2020 to make it into the Hall before Calvin Johnson and others start creating the next logjam. Things are more ominous for Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt beyond those two by historical standards.


Owens’ chances as a future Hall of Famer look bright, however, the timeliness of admission is an open question. It is perfectly reasonable to think he would be admitted between 2018 and 2021, but complications exist in the form of Randy Moss in 2018 and a number of other well-respected wideouts like Calvin Johnson emerging in 2021. His future will be determined on how he is weighed against Moss and whether edge his previous two finalist appearances give him in that discussion. An admission next year would put him on par with a contemporary in Harrison who had better statistics and a Super Bowl ring, so honestly, it’s tough to complain should that occur.

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