≡ Menu

Terrell Owens, and Career Receiving Leaders and the HOF

Howton soars for a reception

On September 29th, 1963, Billy Howton recorded a 14-yard catch against the Redskins. That gave him an even 8,000 career receiving yards, breaking the long-standing record held by Don Hutson (7,991). Through the end of the 1965 season, Howton was still the career leader in receiving yards. Howton, of course, is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

For a decade, Charlie Joiner ranked in the top 3 in career receiving yards, including a first- or second-place ranking from ’84 through ’90.  As of the end of the 1986 and 1987 seasons, it was Joiner who was the all-time leader in receiving yards. Joiner was passed over by the Hall of Fame four times, before being inducted on his fifth try.

James Lofton ranked in the top 3 in receiving yards from ’90 to ’06.  He ranked 1st or 2nd in each year from ’91 through ’01, and 1st in 1992, 1993 (the year he retired), and 1994. Lofton did not make the HOF until his fifth try, too.

And then there’s Don Maynard.  On December 1, 1968, Maynard caught 7 passes for 160 yards and 3 touchdowns in front of the home fans at Shea Stadium.  In the process, he broke Raymond Berry‘s career record for receiving yards.  A month later, the Jets would win the Super Bowl.  It wasn’t until October 6, 1986, 18 years later, that Joiner finally moved Maynard out of the top spot in the record books.  Yet it took Maynard nine years to get inducted in the Hall of Fame.  Here’s a record that won’t ever be broken: it wasn’t until 19 years after he broke the career yardage record that Maynard was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Howton, Joiner, Lofton, and Maynard all were the career leaders in receiving yards at one point in their careers, and none of them were inducted into the Hall of Fame on their first, second, third, or fourth ballots.  So while Terrell Owens is a deserving Hall of Famer, it’s hard for me to call this an unprecedented oversight that Owens — who has ranked 2nd in career receiving yards since 2010 — didn’t make it to Canton on his first or second try.

The table below shows all players (minimum 8,000 receiving yards) who have ranked in the top 5 in career receiving yards since 1963, when the Hall of Fame opened its doors.

PlayerHighest RkHOFYearsLast Yr
Billy Howton1Nona1963
Raymond Berry1Yes11967
Don Maynard1Yes91973
Charlie Joiner1Yes51986
Steve Largent1Yes11989
James Lofton1Yes51993
Jerry Rice1Yes12004
Lance Alworth2Yes11972
Harold Jackson2Nona1983
Tim Brown2Yes62004
Isaac Bruce2Nona2009
Terrell Owens2No??2010
Tommy McDonald3Yes251968
Henry Ellard3Nona1998
Cris Carter3Yes62002
Randy Moss3Nonot el.2012
Charley Taylor4Yes21977
Art Monk4Yes81995
Andre Reed4Yes92000
Marvin Harrison4No32008
Art Powell5Nona1968
Fred Biletnikoff5Yes51978
Stanley Morgan5Nona1990
Tony Gonzalez5Nonot el.2013

Joining Owens as men not in the Hall of Fame but who ranked 2nd in career receiving yards are Harold Jackson (1983), Isaac Bruce (2008, 2009, until Owens passed him).  And Tim Brown, who ranked 2nd in career receiving yards from 2002 until Bruce passed him in ’08, didn’t get inducted until his sixth ballot.

It’s easy to say things like “But Owens was better than Jackson or Bruce or Brown, and even Howton, Joiner, Lofton, and Maynard.”  Maybe he is, but that’s not relevant.  Each player has to be judged in his time, against his own standards.  Someone will come along some day and nudge Owens out of 2nd place, but that doesn’t diminish what Owens did. When votes said no to Maynard and Howton and Joiner and Jackson, they weren’t comparing those guys to Owens. Receiving numbers have been climbing for decades, which has always caused problems for the Hall of Fame come induction time. Owens will get in to Canton at some point, just like Joiner and Lofton and Maynard and Brown and Marvin Harrison, who was snubbed twice, too. And then we’ll move on to the next wide receiver snubbed by the Hall of Fame.

  • Living up to the name and providing some perspective. Humans are getting worked up over a thing that really isn’t a big deal. TO hasn’t been inducted yet, which is the key word. Hard to call Owens a real snub when Del Shofner and Jerry Kramer are out in the cold.

    • Topher Doll

      I keep seeing the “yet” qualifier but reading what voters say, I know three who say they won’t ever vote for TO, I’m not so sure TO is a lock to get in after reading and listening to voters.

      I am fine with the wait, the bigger issue for me is the WHY voters aren’t voting for him and that some voters will never vote for him that bothers me more.

      • Well, eventually those voters will be smothered in earth. That will usher in a new generation of voters whose high horses are a little lower.

        • Dr__P

          Eventually we are all dead too

          Yet it is fair to evaluate the voters

          • I am not sure if your second statement follows from your first. Or what you mean at all, really. I haven’t talked to you enough to completely understand your meaning based on one sentence.

            • Dr__P

              Two sentences, the first is a riff on Lord Keynes who when asked about the long term, replied “In the long term, we are all dead”

              Yet I don’t want to be just snark. You properly note that over time new voters come to play, with new views. It is entirely appropriate to note the biases of the current voters, Indeed noting their ability to properly define what is hall worthy should be a factor in their selection and their continued service,

              Over time, that should minimize, though not eliminate, such controversies

        • Richie

          Hopefully before Owens is smothered in the earth. They already made that mistake with Stabler.

          • They made that mistake with Stanfel in the same induction class and Les Richter a few classes prior. Benny Friedman’s and Fritz Pollard’s waits were pretty absurd as well. By the looks of things, they came pretty close to making that mistake with Tingelhoff. Came pretty close with Jack Butler, if I recall correctly. They may make it with Kramer as well.

      • Yes, I agree. I think the issue people have with Owens not getting in is that they feel the voters are moralizing — actually not even moralizing, because that implies TO’s misdeeds (doing arrogant stuff) are greater than they are. It’s more like they’re just being petty.

        • I don’t think it’s even a big deal in the context of sports. It’s the sports equivalent of a middle school beef between two pubescent goofballs.

      • True — I assume he will get in, but this could turn into a Cris Carter thing. You are right in that the leaks don’t paint a great sign. I guess I just believe public opinion will carry the day. I think he or Moss gets in next year.

  • Dr__P

    This is just another reason not to take a single stat by itself

    Perhaps it might sound different to say Owens has almost DOUBLE the yards of Howton

    A more convincing arguement is that six receivers have 15,000 yards receiving but only Rice is in the HOF

    The others are Owens, Moss, Bruce and the TE – Gonzalez

    • bachslunch

      How about some period adjusting? The passing game was very different in the 50s-60s than when TO played.

      • But again, we’re not comparing Owens to them. We are comparing the 2017 HOF passing on Owens to the 1969 HOF passing on Howton.

    • Richie

      There are only 5. And 2 aren’t HOF eligible yet. So there are 3 HOF eligible receivers with 15,000 yards. Rice is in Owens and Bruce aren’t.

      • Dr__P

        you are right, there are five. I wrote the names down correctly but cannot count.

  • But I don’t feel you can make the case for Owens without including touchdowns. Owens led the league in touchdowns three times, the other receivers mentioned (Howton, Maynard, Joiner) did it twice combine. He was fourth all-time in career TD when he retired; the others were 13th, 7th, and 46th, respectively.

    Also, TO has as many first team All-Pro Teams as the other three guys combine, indicating he was seen as more dominant compared to his peers than the others.

    • No doubt. This was a quick and dirty post. Obviously Owens has a huge edge with the TDs, but he also played with some great QBs, which helps. My WR rankings are basically

      1. Rice
      2. Hutson
      [big gap]
      3. Alworth
      4-~10: number of guys here. Owens may be at the front of the list, but I can make cases for Moss, Harrison, Calvin Johnson, Antonio Brown and Julio Jones as better than Owens, and that’s just in the last 20 years. I think Owens is in the discussion, but he’s not an inner circle HOF guy.

      • Richie

        That means you would have a max of 3 inner circle HOF WR?

      • WhatAnIdiot

        Why would you mention Owens playing with “some great quarterbacks”…and then you mention the likes of MARVIN HARRISON. At one point, Jeff Garcia was benched for freak’n Rick Mirer in week 2 of 2000. Garcia’s numbers with and without Owens are about as night and day a difference as it gets.

        Owens’s quarterbacks were nothing special compared to the majority of the other top receivers in history, unless you are counting his early career with Steve Young.

  • If you’ll forgive the paraphrase: it’s the touchdowns, stupid. Every other guy on this list did better in yards than in TDs.

    The Hall has ignored yardage monsters, but the Hall has a known bias against yardage monsters (see: Ellard, Henry re: ever getting a sniff). What’s the list look like if you only look at guys who retired in the top two in receiving TDs, instead?

    • To partially answer, here’s all the players who ranked 1st or 2nd in receiving yards at some point, sorted by their Yard:TD ratio, as well as how long they had to wait.

      186.9 – Charlie Joiner (5)
      186.7 – James Lofton (5)
      167.1 – Isaac Bruce (4+)
      149.3 – Tim Brown (6)
      138.7 – Billy Howton (forever)
      136.5 – Harold Jackson (forever)
      136.4 – Raymond Berry (1)
      134.5 – Don Maynard (9)
      130.9 – Steve Largent (1)
      120.8 – Lance Alworth (1)
      116.2 – Jerry Rice (1)
      104.1 – Terrell Owens (3+)

      Here’s the same list sorted by career 1st team AP All Pro awards, as well as how long they had to wait.

      0 – Isaac Bruce (4+)
      0 – Tim brown (6)
      1 – Steve Largent (1)
      1 – Charlie Joiner (5)
      1 – James Lofton (5)
      1 – Don Maynard (9)
      1 – Harold Jackson (forever)
      2 – Billy Howton (forever)
      3 – Raymond Berry (1)
      5 – Terrell Owens (3+)
      6 – Lance Alworth (1)
      10 – Jerry Rice (1)

      Howton’s a clear snub. Maynard had to wait a few years longer than his resume suggested he should, though there was probably some anti-AFL bias at play there, too, (see also: Johnny Robinson). Largent got in on the first-ballot with a resume that maybe suggested he should have been a 3rd-5th ballot kind of guy. But otherwise the only ones of Terrell Owens’ yardage-based peers who were anywhere near him in All Pros or Touchdowns were all first-ballot, inner-circle Hall of Famers, (Alworth, Rice, Berry).

      Owens will get in eventually. It’s still stupid that he hasn’t gotten in already, and saying “he’s not as big of a snub as Billy Howton”, (true, assuming he makes it in eventually), doesn’t really change that fact. I’d say comparing a supposed HoF WR to Billy Howton is the inverse of comparing a supposed non-HoF WR to Lynn Swann to argue he belongs in.

      • mrh

        “Largent got in on the first-ballot with a resume that maybe suggested he should have been a

        3rd-5th ballot kind of guy.”

        I think the best argument for Largent’s greatness is Zorn/Krieg. It’s a lot different to be a great wr with a HoF QB for some part of your career. There are other guys on this list and Chase’s original list that could use this argument too.

        • I think that’s a fair argument, and as someone who gives a lot of thought to issues of entanglement, I find it very compelling. Of course, that’s less relevant in comparison to Terrell Owens. 🙂

    • Fair, but are TDs really the way to measure things? Or is that just what the HOF does?

      • That’s what the HoF does. It was an “is” statement, not an “ought” statement. You know I’m a Henry Ellard guy.

        Although as I say, Wide Receiver is the position where the Hall of Fame committee has never been able to establish anything even remotely resembling a consistent, coherent standard. They aren’t electing enough safeties, say, but their standard there is consistent and coherent, it’s just too high.

        But at WR, there’s no looking at the guys getting elected and saying “this is what the Hall values and this is what it doesn’t care about”, so perhaps it’s fitting that they seem to be ignoring their previous TD and All Pro focus for Owens. The most consistent thing about their WR decisions is the complete lack of consistency in their WR decisions.

        • sacramento gold miners

          Henry Ellard had a tremendous career, but only had one 100 yard receiving day in ten career postseason games. I think that’s problematic when other receivers up for the HOF had stronger postseasons. Owens did have the game winning catch in the classic win by SF over Green Bay, and had a heroic performance in the SB loss to New England. Harold Jackson is another guy who could have used a more productive postseason.

  • BigMoFo

    @chase, you did some research to support your opinion, but it does not negate the fact that TO should be in the HoF. And, as pointed out below, your analysis is inconsistent, especially when you bring in the “great QB” factor. Not many receivers are great without a great QB. My personal opinion is that the voters can’t get past his personality even though many of them displayed the same behaviors when they were his age. I think it’s called being a hypocrite.