In Defense Of Terrell Owens

Distraction or not, T.O. is one of the greatest receivers to ever lace ‘em up

The following is an excerpt from Christopher Pierznik’s new book In Defense Of… Supporting Underappreciated Artists, Athletes, Actors, and Albums, in which the author defends and celebrates individuals, teams, and projects that were unfairly maligned or misunderstood from the world of music, sports, TV & film. It can be purchased in both paperback and Kindle.

He was the prototype for the modern wide receiver, too big for cornerbacks and too fast for safeties. He had no fear going over the middle and was a far better blocker than many of his peers. He is the only receiver in NFL history to be named a First Team All-Pro with three different organizations. Deion Sanders, the greatest cover corner in history, has said he was the receiver he least liked to play against. He is a six-time Pro Bowler and a member of the 2000s All-Decade team. He ranks in the top ten for most career receiving records, including receptions (sixth, with 1,078), yards (second, with 15,934), and touchdowns (third, with 153). Check any list of the greatest wide receivers of all time and his name will be there.

Yet, in spite of all of that, Terrell Owens is one of the most despised, and thus, underrated athletes in recent memory. His attitude and his antics got him banished from San Francisco, Philadelphia, and even Dallas, despite his historic production and one-of-a-kind physical gifts. And while his ultimate exile from the sport was certainly self-imposed, the narrative on T.O. as a locker room cancer and quarterback killer had been written early on, so anything he did was immediately seen as selfish and in poor taste.

His personality was looked down upon in the so-called No Fun League, but he was a recognizable star in a sport in which helmets and facemasks obscure players’ faces. And, let’s be honest, his touchdown celebrations were fantastic and, for the most part, harmless. He made it to the end zone a lot and he used that opportunity to make statements, such as poking fun at the media’s view of him — miming taking a nap with the ball as the pillow after reports of his falling asleep during team meetings — poking fun at other players — performing a perfect rendition of Ray Lewis’s pregame dance — or simply having fun — borrowing a cheerleader’s pompoms or pulling a Sharpie out of his sock and signing the ball he caught for the score.

If nearly anyone else had done those things, they would have been lauded for having fun and enjoying the moment, but when Owens did it, pundits and columnists criticized him for being selfish. This double standard was crystallized during the lead-up to the Super Bowl in February of 2005. Owens, who had broken his leg and tore a ligament in his right ankle seven weeks prior, did everything he could to get back onto the field in time: undergoing surgery, sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber, and rehabbing intensely. In the end, he even defied his doctor by suiting up to play. Rather than praise his dedication and sacrifice, he was eviscerated for putting his own wants and needs over those of his team, an opinion that would have been different if he had been someone else, a point he himself made after the game: “The media made it a situation to where they thought I was grandstanding. But like I told a lot of people. If [that was] Brett Favre, they would have called him a warrior. For me, they said I was selfish. If I’m selfish, I’m selfish because I want to help my team win.” [1]

And he did everything he could. Playing with two screws and a plate in his injured ankle, he caught nine passes and racked up 122 yards. “It might have been the most courageous performance in Super Bowl history,” [2] and, unlike most of his teammates, he was clearly not intimidated by the pressure of the moment. “Owens, against doctor’s orders, signed legal waivers so that he would be able to compete in Super Bowl XXXIX — risking his career on what was essentially a broken leg in an effort to help his team win a championship…To call Owens a warrior would be an understatement — the game’s rightful MVP.” [3]

Does that strike you as an egotistical me-first player that doesn’t care about his team? “Say what you want about Owens, but the guy risks everything for his teammates and himself. What he did was unbelievable.” [4] His Super Bowl sacrifice, like the time he cried after catching the winning touchdown in the 1998 Wild Card Playoff or when he broke down crying while defending Tony Romo following the Cowboys’ playoff elimination in 2007, was downplayed while the dumb, ancillary stuff — the end zone celebrations, sit-ups in the driveway, awkward interviews — were magnified and dissected.

He always seemed to leave teams on bad terms, but his production never suffered and regardless of where he went, he continued to be a great player. Michael Irvin, the best Cowboys receiver in history, caught 65 TDs in his twelve seasons with the team. Owens caught 38 in just three seasons in Dallas, cataloging more than half the production in a quarter of the time. Even as his career wound down, he still put up numbers. In his final season in Cincinnati, he had one game in which he caught ten passes for 222 yards and a TD, and finished the season as the team leader in receptions, yards, and touchdowns.

He often made his quarterbacks look better than they really were — snatching Jeff Garcia wobblers out of the air, scooping up Donovan McNabb’s bullet passes aimed at his feet, helping to compensate for Romo’s mistakes — and his presence alone opened up half the field for other receivers.

After wearing out his welcome with the 49ers, he was never able to stick with any team for more than a few seasons and his big mouth and big personality eventually became too much for any team to handle. Still, despite the headaches, T.O. was one of the most feared receivers in NFL history for several years and the numbers prove it. “Terrell Owens is the Jimi Hendrix of modern pro football. He was (and is) a virtuoso genius with talent the likes of which we’ve rarely if ever seen.” [5]

[1] Clayton, John. “Playing Injured, Owens Still a Handful.” ESPN, February 7, 2005.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Michael, Ryan. “Picking Terrell Owens Over Jerry Rice & Randy Moss as the ‘Greatest of All Time.’” Bleacher Report, February 9, 2013.

[4] Clayton, John. “Playing Injured, Owens Still a Handful.” ESPN, February 7, 2005.

[5] Byrne, Kerry. “The Terrell Owens Experience.” Cold Hard Football Facts, March 4, 2009.