We’re all waiting for the next “true” Eagle to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, something we haven’t really enjoyed since Reggie White went in in 2006, and no doubt Owens doesn’t fit into the “true Eagle” category. Could be that quarterback Randall Cunningham or safety Brian Dawkins or quarterback Donovan McNabb is the next Philadelphia Eagle to make it, or perhaps the Veterans Committee will finally recognize the greatness that was the career of Harold Carmichael, the giant-sized wide receiver who ranked sixth all time in career receptions (590) at the time of his retirement. That catch total pales in comparison to the inflated numbers of today, so maybe that’s why the rest of the voting country can’t see what we all saw when Carmichael roamed the land as the Eagles’ primary – and in some seasons, only – receiving target.
Anyway, Owens is an interesting case and his status raises some interesting questions for Eagles fans and, really, all of us. Owens, of course, played with the Eagles from 2004 through half of the 2005 season when he finally melted down completely and was banished from the roster. Owens played in 21 regular-season games as an Eagle and caught 124 passes for 1,963 yards and 20 touchdowns. In Super Bowl 39, coming off of his broken ankle and fresh out of his Hyperbaric chamber, Owens was targeted 14 times by McNabb and caught 9 passes for 122 yards in the 24-21 defeat against New England.
Those 21 games and 124 catches were but a blip in Owens’ numbers-impressive career. He played in 16 seasons for five teams, appeared in 219 games and caught 1,078 passes. Owens was drafted by San Francisco and played for eight seasons with the 49ers before he was traded to the Eagles, who then made him a featured part of a loaded 2004 team that roared to a 12-1 record with Owens leading a high-powered passing attack. Despite the natural headaches that Owens brought with him at nearly every turn, the marriage seemed to be blissful in that 2004 campaign.
Owens was a dominating player. The fans embraced him as they had embraced no other player – with non-stop adoration, with serenades, with acceptance of his headline-inducing ways. Then it all changed on a December afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field. Owens caught a pass from McNabb and gained 20 yards before being dragged down from behind by Dallas safety Roy Williams. Owens suffered leg and ankle injuries on the play, his final of the regular season, and then worked relentlessly to get back on the field for the postseason.
The rest is a history lesson in how to harpoon a career. Owens returned for the Super Bowl and played a great game, but the Eagles fell short. Instead of building on that performance, Owens made a public stance in the following offseason and asked for a new contract, despite having played just one season into a seven-year deal.
In the end, Owens played just seven games in that 2005 season. He was released – for good – after the season and then signed with Dallas, with whom he played three seasons.
All of these years later – we’re four weeks away from Super Bowl 50 – Owens remains one of the most compelling figures in Eagles history. His talent was, and has never been, the question. Owens had the size, the speed, the desire to be great and the toughness to catch the ball in any circumstance. He helped the Eagles’ swagger in their bid to get over the NFC Championship Game hump; remember, the Eagles had been to three consecutive NFC title games, losing each time, before Philadelphia pulled off the trade with San Francisco to acquire No. 81.
Merchandise sales soared. Eagles fans, a hard bunch to submit to unrequited love, did just that. The offense was a complete machine, as Owens’ big-play abilities at wide receiver gave McNabb the first legitimate star target at that position in his career, and he went on to have the greatest season of his career.
Now Owens is a step away from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His numbers say he’s a shoo in: Owens ranks fifth in NFL history with 156 touchdown catches. His receptions total ranks sixth best of all time. Had Owens not been such a difficult teammate to work with and a player to coach, there’s no telling how high he would rank.
That’s the rub, in the end. Owens was supremely talented, but his selfishness detracted from the numbers he posted. Despite all of the headaches and the me-first approach, Owens deserves his place in the Hall. He was just too good, with numbers so impressive, to ignore.
What if he gets in? How will Eagles fans react? What is the proper way to recognize Owens and what he brought to Philadelphia in that magical 2004 season? How would the Eagles organization recognize the moment?
Owens won’t be a “true Eagle” to get into the Hall of Fame. We have to wait for that. White was a “true Eagle” but Cris Carter and Claude Humphrey and Richard Dent and Art Monk, all of whom played for the Eagles in their Hall of Fame careers, don’t fit into that category.
Still, Owens holds a unique place in our hearts. His was a remarkable “shooting star” season and a half as an Eagle, one that continues to remind us how quickly a player and a team can go from great to good to scuffling in the relative blink of an eye.