It should not be a surprise that Hines Ward’s career with the Pittsburgh Steelers has come to an end.
Deep down — or perhaps closer to the surface, depending on your level of realism — we all knew it was going to happen much sooner rather than later, and the only detail that was left to be determined was whether it was going to happen on his terms in the form of a retirement, or if it was going to happen on the Steelers terms with a roster move.
As we found out on Wednesday afternoon, the Steelers are the ones making the decision, as Ward seems to still believe he has something left in the tank to offer an NFL team in 2012.
It just won’t be the Steelers. Some fans have a problem with that. Others accept it for what it is. Either way, it’s still a little weird.
But Ward’s playing career in Pittsburgh isn’t going to end when the paperwork is filed with the league and the release becomes official. It actually ended, in a practical sense, long before that. It was Week 8 of the 2011 season, to be exact, when the New England Patriots came into Pittsburgh and Ward spent the game on the sidelines, essentially a healthy scratch, as the coaching staff determined that they did not need him, the all-time leader in just about every receiving category in team history, to beat the best team in the AFC.
And in the end, they didn’t.
For the remainder of the season — and I admit that this this will seem harsh — Ward was pretty much a charity case as the Steelers forced bubble screen after bubble screen to him an effort to reach 1,000 career receptions, almost as if they knew they had to get him that milestone before the end of the season because this was going to be it.
And I’m not afraid to admit that kind of bothered me a little bit.
Not because I didn’t want him to reach that milestone (because I absolutely did want him to get there). But because, more than anything else, I simply want the Steelers to win football games, and I knew that was much more likely to happen when the football was in the hands of players like Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Heath Miller.
Also because it seemed to go against everything that helped to make Hines Ward what he was as a player. Nothing was handed to him. Nothing was given to him. He had to fight for, and earn, everything that he received on the football field.
Passed over 91 times in the 1998 draft, Ward wasn’t selected until the very end of the third round, after 13 other wide receivers were taken off the board. It is a list that, after Randy Moss, includes a rather forgettable collection of players ranging from Kevin Dyson in the first round, to E.G. Green and Larry Shannon just before him in the third round. According to Pro-Football-Reference’s Career Approximate Value Rating, he is the sixth best player to come out of that draft, trailing only (in order) Peyton Manning, Moss, Alan Faneca (you remember him, I’m sure), Charles Woodson and Fred Taylor. He’s also tied with Andy Russell for 10th on the All-Time Steelers list between Rod Woodson and Donnie Shell, and ahead of L.C. Greenwood, Greg Lloyd, Dermontti Dawson, John Stallworth and Troy Polamalu, just to name a few.
During his rookie year he was primarily a special teams player, and there were even rumors that the Steelers flirted with the idea of making him a full-time safety, not a wide receiver (how would THAT have changed Steelers history). It almost seemed as if the Steelers were determined to do everything in their power to keep him off the field, using first-round picks over the next two years on wide receivers Troy Edwards and Plaxico Burress, and sending passes (more than they should have) in the direction of players like Bobby “Superman” Shaw and Courtney Hawkins.
In the end, Ward outlasted them all. He was better than them all. He was more valuable than them all. He was more dependable than them all.
With his ferocious (and, if you’re a fan of a rival AFC North team or a defensive player in the NFL, controversial) style of blocking he changed the way people look at the role and responsibilities of a wide receiver when the football isn’t traveling in its direction.
He re-wrote the Steelers record book for wide receivers despite playing his prime years on a team that was a run-first offense and quarterbacked by players like Kent Graham, Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox. Keep in mind, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense as we know it today didn’t come into play until Ward was already in his 30s.
You knew that on every key third down Ward was going to be the primary target, and he was going to get whatever amount of yardage he needed. For all of the talk about how great of a red zone threat the 6-feet-6 Burress was, or should have been, Ward was always the one that outperformed him inside the 20 and near the goal line.
Everybody pictures the touchdown pass from Antwaan Randle El in Super Bowl XL as perhaps his signature moment, and the play that earned him the MVP (as a quick note: there have only been six wide receiver Super Bowl MVPs, and three of them played for the Steelers — Lynn Swann, Santonio Holmes and Ward). But for me the biggest play of that game was the third-and-26 play late in the second quarter that set up the Steelers first touchdown (the one that Mike Holmgren is still complaining about today, seven years later). His best play that postseason may have been in the AFC Championship game when he tipped a pass to himself around Champ Bailey and somehow held on despite taking a crushing hit from John Lynch. That ball was inches away from being a pick-six in the other direction, a play that could have sent that game — and season — in a completely different direction.
He became the face of the franchise for the better part of a decade-and-a-half, and an argument can be made that he is the most popular Steelers player of all time. Would fans have flocked to a reality TV show and flooded the voting lines to help Jack Lambert or Terry Bradshaw win a dance contest, and then celebrate his win on said show as if it were a Steelers victory?
I can’t believe that they would. Frankly, I still can’t believe they did it for him. But they did. And that is amazing.
In 20 years, Ward jerseys will be worn to games the same way Lambert and Ham jerseys are worn today. But the same way fans that loved the Greene, Ham and Lambert Steelers learned to love the Lloyd, Woodson and Lake teams, the Hines Ward era fans will move on and love the Wallace, Brown and Sanders Steelers.
Professional sports is a brutal, tough industry. It’s not an incorrect statement to say that there is no loyalty, from the team side or the player side. And let’s face it, there shouldn’t be. There can’t be. Especially in this situation.
The Steelers entered this offseason pressed against the salary cap (actually, they were over the cap more than any other team in the NFL) and have to find a way to keep restricted free agent wide receiver Mike Wallace. The Steelers simply have better, younger players at the position that have already shown to be more valuable to the team when it comes to winning games at the present time.
Change is inevitable in this industry. The Steelers aren’t a worse team without Hines Ward. They’re a different team. But sometimes that has to happen. Embrace it.