Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola dropped a potential bombshell in the publication’s pre-draft issue.
For those of you who are not familiar with the Steelers Digest, (and judging on the clicks that links to the Digest draw, that’s a lot of you) it was founded in the late 80’s by the Steelers and Curtis Publishing. During the pre-internet years it served as a crucial life line to Steelers Nation.
Today, much of what it publishes is easily found on the internet but, as it is the Steelers only in-house publication, it also serves as a vital source of inside information that makes the light of day nowhere else. (And that’s the reason I still am a paying customer.)
Tucked into the end of assessment of the Steelers draft needs visa-vi wide receiver, Labriola lauded Hines Ward’s records, contribution, and legacy, and then offered this:
The idea of Ward retiring after the 2009 season is something the Steelers should be considering seriously.
- Everyone knows that Hines Ward is in the final year of his contract
- Everyone knows Ward just turned 33
- Everyone remembers Ward’s hold out and tense stand off with the Steelers before the 2005 season
And everyone “knows” that the Steelers do not pay big money to players who are their 30’s (while there is some truth to this, it is funny to see how this little pearl of conventional wisdom is now regarded as incontrovertible, “fact” despite the multi-year, multi-million dollar deals that the Steelers awarded to James Farrior and James Harrison in the span of less than 8 months.)
So the fact that 2009 might be Hines Ward’s last year with the Steelers is no shock to Steelers Nation.
But to retire?
What (if anything) is Labriola Trying to Tell Us?
This is where consideration of the source comes in. For whatever the Digest might lack in objectivity (although it is pretty objective), Bob Labriola is the one journalist with unfettered access to the Steelers brain trust. Which means the retirement comment could mean:
- Ward is quietly talking about retirement with either players or management
- The Steelers might be planning to try to coax Ward into retirement, ala Franco Harris
There’s also a chance the Labriola is just speculating.
Historically, his predraft speculations are hit or miss. In 1995, he discounted the possibility of the Steelers taking a quarterback, save for that “the Steelers might have some interest in Kordell Stewart in late rounds if he is still available.”
- The Steelers drafted Stewart in the second.
He also discounted the possibility of the Steelers drafting a quarterback in 2008, and they took Dennis Dixon
What the Steelers Need to Do with Hines Ward
Since we don’t know the source or motive of Labiorla’s comments, it goes without saying that what follows here is pure speculation.
If Ward decides to hang it up it will be a surprise. As Mike Tomlin says, Hines Ward is a football player first, and a wide receiver second. But as Chuck Noll advised, “if you’re thinking of retiring, you probably should.” So if Hines is ready to begin “life’s work,” then Steelers Nation should lament his loss but wish 86 well.
However, the second possibility is much, much more troubling. The Steelers are a class organization from top to bottom. But for all of that class, they are seldom overly sentimental about letting players go when it is time. In terms of football, they usually make the right decision.
But the way they carry out those decisions has sometimes left something to be desired.
- The Franco Harris situation was a disaster for all involved
- Likewise, the Steelers really mishandled Rod Woodson’s departure (although to be fair, they’d made him a very generous offer the summer before he hit the open market)
- Unexcuseably, Levon Kirkland had to find out from the press that the Steelers were planning on cutting him
This must not happen with Hines Ward.
Hines Ward means too much to the Steelers. He hustles on every play. He leads by example, and his bone crunching style sets the tone on the field. Off the field he is both a leader and a mentor.
Unless he shows serious signs of slowing in 2009 and/or is hobbled by injuries, then the Steelers must do with Ward what they did with Jerome Bettis – make all reasonable attempts to keep him with the team.
There must be something funny in the water that runs in the South Side during March and April. Last year, the Watch Tower pointed out that the Steelers Digest made two rather obvious errors when referring to Steelers draft history.
They’ve done something similar this year. On page 18, in the “Fast Fact” section states: “The Steelers never have signed an unrestricted free agent to be a starting tackle…” and goes on to explain that they have done that at guard and center.
But its wrong.
The Steelers signed Wayne Gandy in 1999 to be their starting left tackle. Gandy’s play ranged from horrendous to OK, but he did start for four straight seasons at left tackle. They also signed Anthony Brown in that same year, who ended up starting a number of games at right tackle.
Thanks for visiting. Count on Steel Curtain Rising to provide hard hitting analysis as the NFL draft approaches.