Hines Ward, Super Bowl XL MVP, 14 year veteran, future Hall of Famer, and the most decorated wide receiver in Steelers history caught one pass in the Steelers recent victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
That fact in-and-of-itself, is not remarkable. Ward’s production has been down this year, and his missed some time due to injury.
But against the Bengals he missed time for another reason – the coaches chose to play not only Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown ahead of him, but also Jericho Crotchety. However, Ward had injured his ankle earlier in the year and suffered concussion like symptoms vs. the Ravens the week before.
During the Bengals game most fans figured that coaches were merely protecting Ward against further injury.
That, however, was not the case.
After the game Ward confirmed that he was fine, and could have played a full game. He also revealed that neither Mike Tomlin nor Bruce Arians had discussed his demotion with him before or after the game.
Beating the “Not For Long” System
Longevity is a virtue, and a rarity in the NFL.
The average career is less the four years. You can safely assume that anyone who makes it past the four year mark either has some semblance of serviceable skills and/or has simply avoided injury.
80% of life might be just showing up for most mortals, but it does not work that way in the NFL. The NFL is a young man’s game whose motto is "what have you done for me lately." If you can’t cut the mustard, or if the coaches see a younger man who can do it as well as you and has a greater upside and/or can do it for less of a salary cap hit, you’re history.
In a similar vein one successful season in the NFL, be it as a role player or as a starter, means next to nothing. Think about it:
- How long did the Tommy Gun phenomenon last?
- Gary Russell scored the first TD of Super Bowl XLIII and seemed to have found his niche as a short-yardage specialist – where is he now?
- In 2001, a rookie sensation at inside linebacker promised to make people forget Levon Kirkand; today everyone struggles to remember Kendrell Bell
- No one would ever confuse Darnell Stapleton with Alan Fanaca, but he did start for a Super Bowl team and that was his last game in the NFL
And that is one of the things that make Hines Ward so special. He’s been a Steeler for 14 years and for 12 of those he’s been the go-to guy when Pittsburgh had to have a completion.
- During Ward’s tenure three 1st round picks came, and three 1st round picks went. Ward remained. Ward delivered.
Ward epitomized Steelers Football. Work hard in practice. Dive into film study. Hit hard. Team first. Gut it out when the game is on the line.
Georgia Bull Dog in Winter
Steelers Nation knew the day would come. It was inevitable. It happens to everyone.
Sometimes injuries grind players down (see Aaron Smith.) Sometimes players “get old fast” (see Willie Parker.) Sometimes a once consistent performer will lose “it” without age or injury as an apparent factor (see Levon Kirkland.)
The fortunate ones age gracefully.
Ward falls into this category, although it doesn’t make his decline any easier to swallow.
You could see this coming last year. Wards number were down a little, but he was still making clutch catches.
Ward’s production in 2011 has been down more so, and while he’s had a few drops, he’s still make catches that counted.
But the truth is the Steelers best two wide receivers now are Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. Emmanuel Sanders isn’t far behind. Jericho Crotchety’s injury has healed and made the most of his opportunity.
- Someone has to be the odd man out, and that sadly someone is Hines Ward.
Ward, as prideful of a player as you can find, has to be hit hard by this. But he’s handled his demotion by following his own example putting the team first.
Where Ward’s Wrong
Hines Ward has gone on the record as saying that the Steelers owe him nothing. These are no idle words from a player within striking distance of Hall of Fame assuring milestones in receptions, yards receiving, and touchdowns.
As said above, that’s simply Ward being Ward.
Ward is both right and wrong. Right in that Mike Tomlin owes it to Hines to do all he can to get him a third Super Bowl ring, even if that means benching him.
- But Hines is wrong and the Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette is right that Ward deserves more.
If Ward’s demotion is to be permanent and not simply a product week-by-week game planning, then the Steelers coaches owed it to Ward to break the news to him face to face.
As a franchise, the Pittsburgh Steelers yield to no one when it comes to great players.
Men like Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Jack's Ham and Lambert, Ernie Stautner, Andy Russell, Rockey Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Rod Woodson, Dermonti Dawson, Greg Lloyd and Jerome Bettis were legends who litterally helped make the game what is today.
In 14 years, Hines Ward has earned his place as a peer among this elite group.
If the Steelers were to opt to chisel their own version of Mt. Rushmore into the face of Mount Washington or on rock faces that under hang the bluffs of Duquesne we’d all have a hard time which four players belonged.
- You’d have an even more difficult time arguing that Ward did not belong.
Hines Ward is at least owed a quick sit down with Mike Tomlin or Bruce Arians over his new found role with the team.
Ward Waiting to Hear His Number Called
Accustomed to starting since 1999, Hines Ward now must wait for his number to be called. Who knows when or how often that will be?
But one thing is certain. When the coaches call number 86, Hines Ward will be ready. And Hines Ward will deliver.
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