CANTON, Ohio – Terrell Owens(notes) stood next to the ticket office just inside the glass doors of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, headphones covering his ears, sunglasses on his face, and stared outside at the throng of people Saturday evening who were here for the enshrinement ceremonies.
Owens, who joined the Bengals last month after an offseason of little interest in his services, looked out of place.
A place he may never arrive if you buy the opinions of some people in the game.
“Absolutely not,” a long-time NFL team personnel executive said recently when asked if Owens deserved a spot in the Hall of Fame. Another prominent team executive echoed that, calling Owens a “figment.”
“I think he is so overblown statistics-wise, it’s unbelievable,” the first executive said. “If you play long enough, you’re going to have stats. He’s playing long enough and he’s got stats and now he has another gig, so there are more stats coming. But he’s no more a Hall of Famer than this bottle of water.
“I’m talking about the route runner. I’m talking about the hands. All that stuff, the wide receiver skills. I just don’t see it. Big, strong, all that that? Yeah. That’s there. But Hall of Famer? Years ago I would have said he was heading in a Hall of Fame direction. But a winner? He doesn’t have any of that. We don’t even have to bring that [into the discussion]. ”
Whether the 44 media members who vote on the Hall of Fame agree with that one day remains to be seen. Owens enters his 15th season with his fifth team, an impressive résumé of stats and a bad reputation even he acknowledges.
And zero concern about whether the Hall is in his future.
“Even when I came [to the Hall] the first time, the second time, I never really thought about it,” Owens said Sunday. “Toward the end of my career with the numbers where they are now, people tend to say, ‘You’re going to be here some day.’ Of course, from a statistics standpoint, yeah, I’ll be here.
“But there are going to be a lot of things that factor into that, probably reputation and character and things of that nature. For me, honestly, I could really care less. When I started playing in this game, football wasn’t my first love. I didn’t have that passion the way some guys who grow up have that passion for the game of football. … If I get in, I get in. If I don’t, I don’t, it’s not a big deal.”
The 36-year-old Owens, who has 1,006 receptions and 144 receiving touchdowns, backed that up with a nearly defiant attitude Saturday as the Bengals visited the Hall prior to their preseason game with Dallas on Sunday night in the Hall of Fame game.
Owens took about 30 steps to the top of the spiral walkway that opens to the Hall’s main floor. He then spent the better part of an hour leaning back on the rail at the top of the walkway, arms crossed and saying little. He didn’t look at any of the exhibits and never wandered anywhere close to the Hall’s best display, the room filled with the busts of all the inductees.
Almost every other Bengals player took it in. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth(notes) spent almost every moment researching the offensive tackles in the Hall, including Anthony Munoz, Gary Zimmerman and Jackie Slater. Wide receiver Chad Ochocinco(notes) walked around tweeting about the things he learned.
“This is sweet, really nice,” Ochocinco said with a genuine smile.
All the while, Owens struck a disaffected pose, like a teenager forced to see an art exhibit. He said he wants to wait, his body language edgy. He said his other visits have been the same. He has never walked the halls of football’s greatest shrine.
“I didn’t even walk around [Saturday],” Owens said. “It’s not a disrespect to the people who are in the Hall of Fame. I think that I’m going to leave that up to the day when I walk away from the game that I can bring my kids and experience it with them. I want to have a full experience.”
Perhaps that’s believable, but Owens is missing the bigger point, even as it came walking past him. As he stood in the front of the Hall, the Dallas Cowboys entered a little later. His last best team strolled past him. He gave hugs to some of his old buddies and ignored those who helped force his departure.
He continues to believe that his dismissal from the Cowboys after the 2008 season wasn’t his fault. He continues to deny that his pouting, distrusting, divisive attitude (which also helped hasten his departures from San Francisco and Philadelphia) is what hurt him.
“I think about it, but it is what it is at this point," Owens said. "There’s no turning back at this point and I still stand by the things that I said and what was done and I know, honestly, it wasn’t my fault."
As the saying goes, denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. But it is the reason that Owens is now playing his home games on a riverfront. Owens has arrived in Cincinnati – the Ellis Island of the NFL – because nobody else wanted him. He was on the market for the better part of five months and the Bengals were the only team that showed real interest. St. Louis thought about it and the New York Jets rolled the idea around, but neither made a serious offer.
That seemingly shouldn’t happen to a guy such as Owens. Unlike the men who are in the Hall, Owens has let too many things get in the way. There are moments when he gets that point. He even admitted to showing great restraint last year while he played through chaos in Buffalo. Between weird coaching moves and numerous injuries to other players, Owens said he kept his mouth shut and his attitude positive.
That brings up the obvious question: why didn’t he do that before? Why not keep your mouth shut after making the Super Bowl for the first time in Philadelphia? Why not suck it up in Dallas when you had an owner who loved you and wanted to pay you?
Why not get it before you have to finish your career on a series of one-year deals with teams that build the way some people play craps. Take a bunch of long shots and hope it works.
Instead, Owens has created a has-been aura. It’s to the point that football people dismiss his once overwhelming skills.
“I just don’t see the talent,” the first executive said. “I see a big guy, who in his heyday did damage when with other weapons. Damn right you better deal with him. But all the accolades of the 'One-man band' and 'You can’t stop him,' I never bought any of that. Just stay on him, do your job and eventually he’ll self-destruct. He’ll drop balls, lose concentration, run a [bad] route, leave the quarterback out to dry. Not in a verbal way, in route running. All those things are what he is. Add it all up and he’s not in the conversation.”