Wide receiver Terrell Owens put up the kind of statistics over his 15-year career worthy of becoming a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But the biggest question mark and area of debate – more than 45 minutes of debate on Saturday -- had little to do with his on-field production.
Selectors are instructed that only a player’s on-field performance should be taken into account when weighing Hall-of-Fame credentials. But, with the polarizing Owens, the playing field grew to the point that the sideline and locker room were considered, too.
Was Terrell Owens a good teammate? Did he make teams better? Why did the 49ers, Eagles and Cowboys trade or release him at the peak of his career?
Owens helped quarterbacks maximize their levels of production. Jeff Garcia, Donovan McNabb and Tony Romo achieved their best win-loss records in seasons Owens was the No. 1 target.
Garcia, McNabb, Romo and, before any of them, Steve Young recorded single-season career-highs in passing touchdowns with Owens getting into the end zone far more than any other receivers on those teams.
The on-field aspect of Owens’ resume was unquestioned. But there were questions about whether the impact he had on those teams was always positive.
In his first two years of eligibility for the Hall of Fame, Owens did not survive the cut from 15 finalists to the final 10 players to be considered for the five modern-era candidates for enshrinement.
Owens might have needed some of his teammates to step up for him in order to get into the Hall of Fame.
Two weeks ago, the 48 Hall of Fame voters received an 11-page document that included nearly 30 testimonials from former teammates and coaches with quotes supporting Owens’ candidacy. Some of the comments were from published reports, but the majority were statements provided exclusively to Hall of Fame voters.
Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Bryant Young, Garrison Hearst, Derrick Deese and Gary Plummer were among Owens’ former 49ers teammates who voiced support of him.
But Garcia might have provided the most-impactful statement of all.
“He was a teammate,” Garcia said upon learning Saturday night that Owens was elected into the Hall of Fame. “I can look at a lot of things we did together as positive.
“I’m excited and thrilled for a former teammate to be acknowledged and recognized for his great contributions to his teams, as well as the game of football, on the field. It’s about time. Congratulations to Terrell Owens.”
Garcia and Owens formed one of the game’s top pass connections in their 74 regular-season games together. No NFL quarterback played more games with Owens than Garcia – and it is not even close.
Owens ranks second all-time behind Rice with 15,934 receiving yards. He had 153 touchdown receptions, No. 3 all-time behind Rice and Randy Moss. Owens caught more touchdown passes from Garcia (50) than any other quarterback.
Yet, Owens and Garcia were never friends. And toward the end of their time together, they were not even friendly. There were times when Owens seemed to lobby for backup Tim Rattay to replace him. It appeared to get personal.
But Garcia made it clear he supported Owens’ induction into the Hall of Fame. Any grudges of the past appear to be over for Garcia.
Here is a portion of the statement Garcia provided for the selection committee and that he repeated to NBC Sports Bay Area. He gave permission for his statement to be shared with the public:
“My response to your question about Terrell Owens is that I believe he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.
“Personality and off-the-field reputation put aside, he was one of the most feared players at his position and was highly productive despite all of the extra attention and defensive game-planning that came his way in order to disrupt his performance.
“He was one of the hardest workers on the practice field, and come game day, he always gave all that he could give, despite at times dealing with personal injury.
“He was a physical beast on the field and created matchup problems in favor of our offense. The combination of size, speed and physicality that he brought into a game made him difficult to defend.
“He wore his emotions on his sleeve and sometimes that was taken in a negative way, but there's no taking away from the fact that he wanted to win badly and is near the top of every important receiving category in the history of the NFL. No matter who his QB was or what team he played for, his production was consistent and raised the standard of the position from a performance aspect.
“The proof is in what he did on the field.”
It is not known exactly how much impact was provided by the words of Garcia and the others. But, clearly, some voters who did not check the box next to Owens’ name on previous ballots made a change this year.
Garcia and many of Owens’ teammates with the 49ers, Eagles and Cowboys may have helped recalibrate the conversation of Owens back to the strictest possible definition of the playing field.
NOTE: Matt Maiocco is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and made the opening presentation on the qualifications of Terrell Owens.