Terrell Owens: Career retrospective

Hall of Famer Terrell Owens was the definition of a star receiver. He scored touchdowns, made big plays in big moments, and was just as entertaining on the field as he was off it. Let’s take a look at T.O’s one-of-a-kind career.

 

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Thriving as a high school athlete

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Terrell Owens discovered his passion at a young age. He loved watching football as a kid and idolized San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice, who would become his teammate. Owens wasn’t allowed to play sports until he was in high school. His family wouldn’t let him. When he got involved in athletics, he displayed his talents at Benjamin Russell High School. You might be surprised that Owens didn’t start until his junior year. But Owens eventually merited the attention of several college football programs.

 

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Small school star

Small school star

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Owens played college football at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Owens made his mark at the small FCS school. Throughout his college career, Owens caught 144 passes for 2,320 yards and 19 touchdowns. Owens was double-teamed for most of his college career. He also played forward on the basketball team.

 

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Falling to the third round

Falling to the third round

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Owens didn’t gain much exposure at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. There were only a select few NFL scouts keeping their eye on him. He wasn’t projected to become the game-changing pass-catcher he became. Owens fell to the San Francisco 49ers, who selected him with the 89th pick in the 1996 NFL Draft.

 

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The 49ers struck gold

The 49ers struck gold

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Owens touched down in San Francisco and got to work. It became clear early on that he wasn’t your average athlete. At 6-foot-3 and 224 pounds of nothing but muscle, Owens made his presence known as an impact player. The 49ers struck gold when they drafted Owens.

 

The Catch II

Owens took the Packers best hit and held onto the ball (1998).
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Owens came into his own in 1998, breaking out for 1,097 yards and 14 touchdowns on 67 catches. He formed a dynamic duo alongside 49ers legend Jerry Rice. In the Wild Card Round against the Green Bay Packers, Owens caught a miraculous game-winning catch in the final minutes. After taking a bone-chilling hit, Owens managed to hold onto the ball. Steve Young’s pass to Owens is known as The Catch II . The name pays homage to Joe Montana’s game-winning touchdown pass to Dwight Clark in the 1981 NFC Championship Game. The game-winning play would also be the birth of a superstar: T.O.

 

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Celebrating on Dallas Star

Celebrating on Dallas Star

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T.O. had another stellar season in 2000, earning his first Pro Bowl nod. His most notable moment of the season came during a September matchup against the Dallas Cowboys

At what was then Dallas Stadium, Owens scored a touchdown and proceeded to celebrate by standing on the Cowboys’ logo at midfield and looking up at the sky. Later, Cowboys legend Emmitt Smith replied with a touchdown of his own. Feeling disrespected by Owens in his own house, he slammed the ball on the Dallas Star. Then, Owens scored another touchdown, ran to the same spot, and celebrated again. Things got ugly. Cowboys safety George Teague laid him out. The game turned into must-watch TV and stamped Owens as one of the most controversial players in football. Owens finished the day with five catches, 51 yards, and two touchdowns. He was suspended for one game, thanks to his actions.

 

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20 catches in one game

20 catches in one game

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Owens had himself a day during the 49ers’ Week 16 matchup against the Chicago Bears. The All-Pro wideout logged 20 receptions for 283 yards and a touchdown. The 49ers routed the Bears 17-0.

T.O.’s 20 receptions shattered the record books . They were the most receptions in one game, breaking Tom Fears’ record since 1950. Brandon Marshall has since broken Owens’ record in 2009.

 

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Superstar with super attitude

Superstar with super attitude

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T.O. was a superstar on the field, solidifying himself as one of the best weapons in all of football. Owens arguably made just as much noise off it.

Owens wanted the ball thrown to him in crunch time, criticized quarterback Jeff Garcia, told the team he was always open, possessed an unmatched will to win, and wanted to be the highest-paid receiver in football. He also developed a reputation as a locker room cancer. The touchdown celebrations and off-field drama were part of the T.O. experience. If you wanted him on your football team, the side antics were something you had to deal with. After firing Steve Mariucci in 2002, the 49ers went 7-9 in 2003 and missed the playoffs. It was the last straw for T.O., who would test the free-agent waters in the offseason.

Owens caught 592 receptions for 8,572 yards and 81 touchdowns over his eight years in San Fran.

 

Signing a blockbuster deal with the Philadelphia Eagles

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T.O. and Eagles franchise quarterback Donovan McNabb became friends during their many trips to the Pro Bowl together in the early 2000s. Naturally, T.O. was intrigued by the idea of playing football with his good friend in the City of Brotherly Love. McNabb and head coach Andy Reid turned the hapless Eagles into Super Bowl contenders. T.O. wanted to be part of this. After a visit to Philly, he signed a 7-year, $49 million contract with the Eagles.

 

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The missing piece to a Super Bowl?

The missing piece to a Super Bowl?

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It was a new day in Philadelphia. Before signing T.O., the Eagles made three NFC Championship Games in a row, losing all in heartbreaking fashion. Now they had a true No. 1 receiver for McNabb to throw to. Eagles fans saw a Super Bowl on the horizon.

In his Eagles debut, Owens delivered right away, catching three touchdowns in a blowout win over the New York Giants. This game was a preview of T.O. brought to the table. The Philly faithful fell in love with T.O. It’s easy to see why. The Eagles went 13-3 in 2004, the best record in their conference. The McNabb-Owens connection was lethal. T.O. finished the year with 77 receptions, 1,200 yards, and 14 touchdowns in 14 games. Unfortunately, Owens’ stellar season was cut short after he broke his leg from a horse-collar tackle by Cowboys safety Roy Williams.

 

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Eagles win NFC Championship

Eagles win NFC Championship

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Owens started rehabbing his injured leg. If the Eagles made a deep playoff run, Owens’ timetable to return gave him a shot to start in the Super Bowl. T.O. watched from the sideline as the Eagles trucked past the Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons for the 2004 NFC Championship.

 

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Playing in the Super Bowl with one leg

Playing in the Super Bowl with one leg

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The Eagles made it to the Super Bowl for a showdown against the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick Patriots. Of course, the Eagles wanted their star receiver on the field. T.O. wasn’t medically cleared to play when Super Bowl XXXIX rolled around. Against the doctor’s orders, Owens suited up for the Big Game. T.O. had nine catches for 122 yards on one leg. Despite a herculean effort from Owens, the Eagles lost the Super Bowl, 24-21. It was the closest Owens would ever get to a ring.

 

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Beef with Donavan McNabb

Beef with Donavan McNabb

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When T.O. touched town in Philadelphia, it looked like he and McNabb were best friends. As Owens’ time in Philly wore on, the relationship soured. For starters, McNabb was so friendly with Owens that he referred Owens to the Eagles’ front office. Once T.O. and McNabb saw the field, he told McNabb multiple times that he was wide open and wanted the ball more. McNabb did his best to get Owens involved more. McNabb found T.O. to be ungrateful as their time together went on. If it weren’t for McNabb, T.O. would’ve never gone to the Eagles, whose fan base loved Owens and who were Super Bowl contenders. 

The relationship worsened after Owens accused McNabb of getting tired in Super Bowl XXXIX. There have been rumors that McNabb threw up in the huddle during the Super Bowl. T.O. played in the Big Game on one leg. Owens was critical of his quarterback’s performance and wanted his quarterback to show the same level of heart. In T.O.’s mind, that was not the case. 

The Eagles could’ve been a dynasty if Owens and McNabb had found a way to work it out.

 

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Leaving Eagles on a bad note

Leaving Eagles on a bad note

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After losing the Super Bowl, the 2005 Eagles were determined to embark on a revenge tour. Meanwhile, Owens was making headlines.

Owens and the Eagles were in contract negotiations at the start of the season. Owens wanted the Eagles to show him the money and was willing to hold out from training camp. He also wanted McNabb to vouch for him to the Eagles’ front office. McNabb didn’t do it. 

Even if they were in contract discussions, Eagles head coach Andy Reid still wanted Owens to stay in shape. Owens took his coach’s advice. He went outside of his house and did sit-ups on his driveway. This sparked a Philadelphia sports media frenzy. Journalists interviewed him as he performed his workout. Owens’ sideshow was a distraction to the team. (Also, Owens allegedly fought Hugh Douglas in the Eagles’ locker room during the 2005 season.)

Owens suited up in seven games for the Eagles that season before Reid suspended him indefinitely for “conduct detrimental to the team.” Owens never played another down with the Eagles.

 

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Owens finds a new home with the Dallas Cowboys

Owens finds a new home with the Dallas Cowboys

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After a turbulent run with the Eagles, Owens needed a change of scenery. He found a new home in the Dallas Cowboys. Yep, you read that right — the same team he disrespected years ago. 

 

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Monster year in 2006

Monster year in 2006

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T.O. brought his showboating antics and off-field drama to Dallas. He also brought his generational talent. In his first season with America’s Team, Owens torched the league for 85 receptions, 1,180 yards, and a league-leading 13 touchdowns.  Cowboys fans’ animosity toward Owens for disrespecting their Star went away in no time. The celebration was forgiven.

 

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That’s my quarterback!

That's my quarterback!

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Owens brought his A-game in 2007, posting 81 receptions, 1,355 yards, and 15 touchdowns. He earned a Pro Bowl nod at 34, which is a rarity for NFL wide receivers. At that age, most of them are either in the announcer’s booth or fighting for a roster spot. The Cowboys went to the playoffs and lost in an upset to the NFC East rival and eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

During the postgame press conference, Owens was asked about Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo’s performance.  Owens tearfully defended his quarterback. This showed a different side of Owens. While we are used to seeing Owens criticize his QBs, he went out of his way to defend Romo, calling the game a team loss.

 

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Leaving America’s Team for Buffalo

Leaving America's Team for Buffalo

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Eventually, T.O. wore out his welcome in Dallas. He became critical of quarterback Tony Romo and grew frustrated with the organization. He was cut from the team after the 2008 season.

Owens left the Cowboys for the Buffalo Bills. In his lone year in snowy Buffalo, he put up good numbers, but they weren’t what we were used to seeing out of the All-Pro talent. Regardless, T.O. was still T.O. His best moment with the Bills was  a 98-yard touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars in a late-November matchup. 

 

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Named to 2000s All-Decade Team

Named to 2000s All-Decade Team

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When it was time for the NFL to draw up the 2000s All-Decade Team’s roster, Owens was virtually a shoo-in. No wide receiver was more famous than Owens during the ’00s. Often considered one of the best receivers of his era, T.O. caught 784 receptions for 11,644 yards and 114 touchdowns. Few receivers could change a game like T.O.

 

Stint with the Cincinnati Bengals

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At this stage of his career, Owens would sign with any team willing to take him. Like most NFL legends, he bounced around the league a bit in his final years. Owens joined the Cincinnati Bengals, where he played alongside Pro Bowl receiver Chad Ochocinco. The Bengals went 10-6 in 2009 and were looking to improve with their new weapon on the outside. The Bengals won four games in T.O.’s only year with the team. Owens led the team in receiving with 72 catches, 983 yards, and nine touchdowns.

Refusing to give up on the game, Owens participated in the Seattle Seahawks training camp in 2012. He didn’t make the team. Owens hasn’t received any NFL offers since.

 

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Man of many celebrations

Man of many celebrations

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T.O. was a man of many celebrations. After scoring a touchdown, Owens made the most of the attention. 

Besides the previously mentioned Dallas Star celebration, T.O. once pulled a sharpie marker out of his sock, signed the ball, and gave it to a fan in the crowd. He donated a football to the Salvation Army by dropping it into the Red Kettle on Thanksgiving Day. 

During his time with the Eagles, he often did the Bird Dance. He also mocked the Ray Lewis dance against the Baltimore Ravens. 

His mime celebration after scoring his 150th touchdown was a prime example of his end-zone creativity. Maybe his most famous celebration was the “get your popcorn ready” celebration. He often flexed his muscles, did sit-ups, or spiked the ball. Either way, seeing what Owens would do next was always fun.

 

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A scoring machine

A scoring machine

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Owens led the league in receiving touchdowns three times (2001, ’02, ’06). Scoring became a regular occurrence for Owens. Whether it was a fly route going deep, a catch-and-run for 50 yards, or a grab in the red zone, Owens could score on you in every way.

 

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Canton comes calling

Canton comes calling

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Owens was voted into the NFL Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2018. Canton came calling after a legendary 15-year career. Owens was going to get the gold jacket, but it wouldn’t be in Canton. He skipped out on the typical Hall of Fame tradition of attending the enshrinement ceremony in Canton and decided to celebrate it at his alma mater’s campus. Owens is the only Hall of Famer to miss his induction ceremony.

 

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Fan Controlled Football

Fan Controlled Football

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In 2022, T.O. brought his talents to Fan Controlled Football. The 2000s superstar showed he still had “it” by scoring touchdowns on guys half his age. He even caught passes from former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. 

Fun fact: Owens never officially retired from the NFL. He always wanted to make a comeback. But no team has offered him a contract since 2012. Owens expressed interest in playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020. The Bucs weren’t interested. To this day, Owens looks like he can still haul in touchdowns. The dude is jacked.

 

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What we talk about when we talk about T.O.

What we talk about when we talk about T.O.

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Owens stirred a lot of controversy off the field. It was as if there was a new piece of drama every day with T.O. Sometimes, we forget how good he was at football and focus too much on the off-field drama. 

A six-time Pro Bowler, T.O. is third all-time in career receiving yards and touchdowns. He was a tough wide receiver who wasn’t afraid to take a hit. Regardless of what the critics say about Terrell Owens, no one ever questioned his love for the game.

David J. Hunt is a freelance writer based out of Philadelphia. He ran cross country at Penn State, became a volunteer firefighter during COVID-19, and is a self taught journalist. He’s a diehard Philly sports fan. When he isn’t watching sports, he enjoys working out, fishing, and traveling. You can find more of his writing at The Chestnut Hill Local and The Temple News. You can follow him on Twitter at @dave_hunt44.



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