Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens

Though he denies it, Terrell Owens recent knee injury could well spell the end of his turbulent, but highly productive career.  This seems like a good opportunity to compare his career with that of retired Indianapolis Colts legend Marvin Harrison

Owens career is one marked by remarkable production but also lockerroom turbulence. By the numbers, however, he is clearly one of the great wideouts in NFL history.

Career Numbers

A look at the career numbers of Harrison and Owens show that advantage Owens has had by playing more years than Harrison

G Yards Rec Y/R TD Pro Bowls All Pro
Harrison 190 14580 1102 13.2 128 8 3
Owens 219 15934 1078 14.8 153 6 5

On a per game basis, their numbers look like this:

Y/G Rec/G TD/G
Harrison 76.7 5.8 0.67
Owens 72.6 4.9 0.70

Owens and Harrison’s raw numbers stack up very similarly. Harrison caught more passes; Owens had a better yards/reception number and their touchdown rates were nearly identical. Owens clearly deserves credit, however, for having a longer career.  Essentially, he’s played two extra seasons at a quality level that Harrison didn’t have. Those seasons have value and push his raw numbers past those of Harrison.

Peaks and Valleys

Raw career numbers only tell part of the story. It’s also important too look at the peaks of a player’s career to determine his level of dominance.

Marvin Harrison had 8 peak seasons from 1999-2006. Terrell Owens had 11 peak seasons from 1997-1998, 2000-2004 and 2006-2008 and 2010. That’s an incredibly long peak for Owens, so I’ll also included his 8 best seasons to have an apples to apples comparison with Harrison.

Comparing their average ‘peak’ season looks like this:

Yards Rec TD YPR
Harrison 1402.4 103.3 12.6 13.6
Owens 1188.0 80.1 12.2 14.8
Owens (8 Best) 1255.9 83.6 13.5 15.0

It’s also useful to look at the wideouts in their absolute primes.  Here are the five best seasons for each player.

Rec Yards TD YPR
Harrison 112.8 1537.6 12.8 13.6
Owens 89.6 1346.6 14.2 15.0

These numbers paint an interesting picture of the two widouts. At their best, Owens clearly more of a downfield threat than Harrison, often using his superior size and strength to wrack up extra yards. Owens was often sighted for not having the best hands, however. As a result, Harrison caught far more passes and wracked up more yards, but Owens had a slight edge in touchdowns and yards per reception.

Neither player had many valley years, but to Owens’ credit, even his down years were productive. Harrison had three years in which his career ramped up, and two where it slowed down. Owens had four total ‘valley’ seasons.

G Rec Yards TD YPR
Harrison 12.8 55.2 672.2 5.4 12.2
Owens 11.8 46.3 716.5 4.8 14.5

Their ‘valley’ seasons were remarkably similar as well. Harrison caught more passes and scored more touchdowns, but Owens had more yard and more yards per reception.

Advanced Metrics

Advanced Metrics are a way of analyzing how efficient players areThe Football Outsiders employ various statistics to try and paint a more complete picture of the value that players bring.  At times, normal statistics can inflate or obscure the true value a player brings to his team. This study will use the following measures of receiver efficiency:

DYAR: Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement. This is a cumulative value of how much better a player was than league average expressed in terms of yards.

DVOA: Defense-adjusted Value Over Average.  The superiority of one player over league average expressed as a percent.  This is a rate stat, not a volume stat.

Catch Rate:  The percentage of balls thrown to the wideout that were caught by the wideout.


DYAR is a stat that will be difficult for some fans to comprehend.  There are several ways we can compare Harrison and Carter using this stat. The first is by league ranking year to year. This allows us to see just how well players performed in this metric relative to other players.

Harrison: Three times he lead the NFL in DYAR (2006, 2002, 2001). Three other seasons he ranked in the top 10. 10 times he ranked among the 25 best wideouts in the game, including his first two seasons in the league BEFORE Peyton Manning arrived in Indianapolis.  His cumulative DYAR for his 8 prime seasons was 3065.  He ranked no lower than 14th in the NFL in any of his prime seasons. His total career DYAR comes to 3611.

Owens: He finished in the top ten in DYAR 6 times (1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2006, 2007). He had 8 total top 25 seasons.  His career total DYAR comes to 3432, lower than Harrison despite playing two more seasons.


DVOA expresses efficiency as a percent.  What percent better than league average was a wide receiver.  This stat can often hurt high volume wideouts, and tends to wear better on secondary receivers (think Austin Collie or Anthony Gonzalez).

HarrisonMarvin Harrison was rated at least 10% better than league average 9 times in his career (including 1997). He posted only two negative value seasons (1998 and 2008).  For the record, he was above league average in both seasons BEFORE Peyton Manning arrived. He ranked in the top 20 in DVOA seven times in his career. His entire prime was spent between 10% and 30.3% above league average. Harrison had two top 10 DVOA seasons.

Owens: Owens was rated at least 10% better than league average 8 times in his career. He posted five negative value seasons (1999, 2003, 2008-2010). He ranked in the top 20 in DVOA seven times in his career.  Three of Owens’ prime seasons were negatives by DVOA (2003, 2008, 2010). He did have four top 10 DVOA seasons. 

Catch Rate:

Catch Rate is a stat that is most useful for comparing similar kinds of players.  A player who has a high yards per reception can’t be expected to catch the percentage of passes as a player with a low number. Short passes are more likely to be completed than deep balls.  Unfortunately, Owens and Harrison were not comparable wideouts. Owens had a much higher yards per catch, which means we can expect a lower catch rate from him. Catch rate can be affected by quarterback accuracy as well.

Harrison: He caught at least 60% of passes thrown his way 10 times, with a high of 70% in his remarkable 2002 season.  For his career his catch rate was 61.6% with 13.2 yards per catch.

Owens: He caught at least 60% of passes thrown his way 7 times, with a high of 67% in 2000. For his career, his catch rate was 57.8% but with a yards per catch 14.8.


Neither player played particuarly well in the playoffs. Owens had an incredible Super Bowl, and would have been the MVP if the Eagles had won, but also under 75 yards receiving in 8 of his 11 games, and under 50 yards in 6 of his 11. He had three 100 yard games, but two of those were in losses.

Harrison was no better, with only one 100 yard game.  He finished under 75 yards in 14 of 16 games, and was under 50 yards in 8 of 16 games.

Owens gets a slight nod in this category for his memorable Super Bowl, though it is Harrison’s team that won a ring.


Harrison and Owens were clearly two of the three best wideouts of the era (along with Randy Moss). It’s difficult to directly compare them in part because of contrasting styles.  Harrison was more intesnely productive during his career and posed none of the lockerroom conflicts that Owens caused.  However, TO did have a longer career, posting excellent seasons after Harrison had already retired.

The raw numbers tend to favor Owens, while the advanced metrics liked Harrison. Owens had the advantage of playing with Rice and Young early in his career, while Harrison played with Manning and Wayne later in his.

At their absolute peak, Harrison was probably the better player, but it’s safe to say that Owens had the ‘better’ career by virtue of his longevity and ability to post strong seasons into his late 30s.