Numbers might not carry Owens to Hall

As a 37-year-old unrestricted free agent, a guy with five travel labels in the past eight seasons on the bulky figurative baggage that he has toted around from one NFL precinct to the next, Terrell Owens already faced an uncertain future.

The situation became even more tenuous, though, when ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported that Owens underwent surgery this spring to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament. It’s a procedure that could sideline the 15-year veteran for six months, even under the best of rehabilitative circumstances, and delay until November a potential return to the NFL. All of which, perhaps, could hasten Owens’ retirement from the league.

Just as murky is Owens’ status as a sure-fire Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, which will be debated five years after his NFL exit. And it really has nothing to do – honest — with the peripatetic nature of the second half of his brilliant career or his reputation of being, uh, disruptive.

There’s no denying that Owens, a six-time Pro Bowl performer who was selected as an All-Pro on five occasions, possesses what should be perceived as Hall of Fame-level numbers. He ranks fifth in NFL history in receptions (1,078), second to the incomparable Jerry Rice in receiving yards (15,934), second again to Rice in scoring catches (153) and fourth in overall touchdowns (156).

But such gaudy figures still don’t necessarily ensure that Owens will walk, or even limp, into the Canton shrine.

It has become increasingly difficult for the 44 Hall of Fame selectors — a group that includes yours truly — to assess the statistics of wide receiver candidates. Reconciling the numbers that some feel are inflated by a game that has skewed dramatically toward the pass in recent seasons, is not only tough, but also a tricky balancing act.

And it’s that tightrope Owens will one day walk, maybe gingerly, given his surgically repaired ACL.

Give Owens credit, his diva persona notwithstanding, his due: Eight times the man posted seasons with 70 or more receptions, at least 1,000 yards receiving and double-digit touchdown catches. In 13 of the past 14 seasons, the only exception coming in 2005 when he was suspended by Philadelphia for insubordination and appeared in just seven games, T.O. registered at least 60 receptions. In only one season since his ’96 rookie campaign with San Francisco did he post fewer than five touchdown grabs.

A guy who could fill up the stats sheet? For sure. A Hall of Fame inductee? Well, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Hall of Fame critics aside, there are none of the petty prejudices perceived by some of the poorly informed, when the selectors meet annually on the day before the Super Bowl. It would be naive to suggest there isn’t some subjectivity involved — such is human nature, and the selectors aren’t totally dispassionate automatons, after all — but the degree is small. In a debate that can be occasionally contentious, and which has become a prolonged process in recent years, the accomplishments of players are provided a fair and open hearing.

It’s worth noting, though, that as the game has become more aerial in nature, the Hall of Fame fates of several solid candidates have been left, well, up in the air. As mentioned above, parsing the credentials of wide receiver finalists, divining the small differences, or even similarities, of the candidates has become daunting.

It is, for sure, a log-jammed group. If the recent knee surgery prematurely prompts Owens to leave the game, the gridlock won’t be any less. And it will only get worse, it seems, in future years.

Cris Carter has been a finalist four times. Andre Reed has been brought before the selectors five times. Tim Brown reached the final round the past two years. None of the three — and there might be those who would make the argument that, even with his superior numbers, Owens doesn’t rate ahead of any of them — are in the Hall.

In the past 10 years, five modern-day wide receivers — Rice (Class of 2010), Art Monk (2008), Michael Irvin (2007), James Lofton (2003) and John Stallworth (2002) — were voted into the Hall of Fame. One senior candidate, Bob Hayes (2009), was elected. Of the five modern-day wide receivers, all but Lofton won at least three Super Bowl titles; Hayes won one.

Championships are not a prerequisite for Hall of Fame membership. But even though his miraculous recovery from a broken ankle allowed him to play in Super Bowl XXXIX, a game in which he posted an amazing nine receptions for 122 yards versus New England, Owens does not own a Super Bowl ring.

Neither that shortcoming, nor Owens’ personality, should work against him. Still, those who with Monday’s report will hurry to fill space with opinions about Owens’ Hall of Fame props — in the Age of the Lockout, when in doubt, run a poll or make a list, to gin up opinions and readers — should be wary.

The "nose count" of Hall of Fame selectors is often difficult to read and sometimes doesn’t follow public opinion.

Especially when it comes to wide receivers.

Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.