Steve Mariucci coached Terrell Owens longer than any other coach. He said there is no question in his mind that Owens deserves a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Based on the stats, of course, there is little question. Owens ranks second all-time in receiving yards; third in receiving touchdowns; fifth in touchdowns, period; and sixth in receptions.
Those are Hall of Fame numbers. And that is not being disputed by anyone. I covered Owens for the eight seasons he played with the 49ers. I have not seen many players who were as dominant and game-changing as him.
I am not a Hall of Fame voter, but I know quite a few of the 46 members that comprise the board of selectors. And I think I have a pretty good handle on what those in the room were thinking when Owens did not even make the cut from the 15 finalists to 10 -- let alone the final five who were chosen as the modern-era Class of 2016.
Most of the members who were thumbs-down on Owens told me they were not doing so because of any personal grudge or any perceptions about how he fit into locker rooms. They said they were merely taking the lead from the decision-makers who had Owens on their teams.
After eight productive seasons, the 49ers essentially traded Owens to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2004 for defensive end Brandon Whiting. Owens was ultra-popular in Philadelphia for one season. The next year, the team suspended him for seven games when he became too disruptive and released him in March 2006. Owens spent three seasons with the Dallas Cowboys before releasing him in 2009. He signed a one-year deal with Buffalo in 2009. He was not re-signed. He signed a one-year deal with Cincinnati in 2010. He was not re-signed for 2011, and he would never play another NFL regular-season game.
The consistent theme I heard was that football is the ultimate team sport, and a Hall of Famer should be the ultimate team player. Moreover, I was told that a Hall-of-Fame player should be somebody that 32 teams desire -- someone they never want to get rid of once on their roster.
The problem with Owens is that five teams got tremendous statistical production out of him in his prime but ultimately decided they were better off without him.
When I proposed that theory to Mariucci, he acknowledged Owens was not easy to coach. But, also, he was quite clear he never felt the 49ers were better without Owens.
Mariucci recalled the time the 49ers suspended Owens for one game in 2000 after the Dallas incident. The 49ers’ starting receivers the next game were J.J. Stokes and Tai Streets. Certainly, the 49ers were not better without Owens, he said.
In Owens’ final season with the 49ers, the team went 7-9 under Dennis Erickson. Owens was traded as part of San Francisco's roster purge. The next year, the 49ers finished 2-14 and had the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. They would go eight-consecutive seasons without producing another 1,000-yard receiver.
Here’s how the other teams fared before, during and after Owens:
Philadelphia: Before Owens, the Eagles went 12-4. In Owens’ first season, they were 13-3. Owens missed the final two regular-season games and first two playoff games with a broken leg. He was exceptional with nine catches for 122 yards in a losing effort in Super Bowl XXXIX against New England. The next year, a disgruntled Owens was suspended. The Eagles finished 6-10. The year after he was released, Philadelphia bounced back to 10-6.
Dallas: The Cowboys were 9-7 the year before Owens and 11-5 the first season he was gone. With Owens, the Cowboys went 9-7, 13-3 and 9-7.
Buffalo: The Bills were 7-9 before Owens, 6-10 with him, and 4-12 the first year he was gone.
Cincinnati: The Bengals were 10-6 before Owens, 4-12 with him, and 9-7 the first year without him.
Hall-of-Fame voter Clark Judge cited a quote from Bill Polian when discussing Owens’ candidacy.
“The Hall of Fame ought to be for people who make their teams better,” Polian said, “not for those who disrupt them and make them worse.”
Clearly, a lot of voters agreed. That is why it’s difficult to imagine that Owens will make it next year, either.
The only thing that will change a year from now is that Marvin Harrison, a wide receiver who was a finalist three-straight years, is no longer standing in the way. Because there’s a maximum of five modern-era inductees per year, the voters appear reluctant to enshrine multiple players at the same position in the same year.
There is a certain amount of patience that’s required. Not every deserving candidate can get elected into the Hall of Fame on the first or second ballot.
I also spoke with multiple Owens supporters in that room. There was one voter who arrived in San Francisco with the belief that Owens was a "slam dunk." Then, as the arguments on both sides were being made, it became clear there was more than enough negativity in the room to block his selection.
“T.O. will get in,” Mariucci said. “If it’s not this year, it’ll next year, and if it’s not next year, it’ll be the year after. But his numbers support Hall of Fame greatness. There’s no debate about that.”
We agree with Mariucci’s assessment. But it might be awhile.