Hines Ward Portrait of a Pittsburgh Steeler, 1998-2011

It happens, apparently, about once a generation.

So it was with Franco Harris.

So it was with Rod Woodson.

And so it is apparently with Hines Ward.

The Pittsburgh Steelers today announced that they will release Hines Ward. Another Steeler Hall of Famer will finish his career elsewhere.

Who knows what fate awaits Ward with his new team?

Franco finished his career with the Seattle Seahawks, and looked every bit the washed up running back doing it.

Rod Woodson first went to San Francisco, which confirmed that his days as a shutdown corner were over. But San Fran was only the first stop, as he moved to Baltimore where he made the switch and played All-Pro Caliber football as a safety. He would later finish his career with the Raiders, we he also played at a high-level.

It is fitting perhaps that this move comes on February 29th, a day that is only repeated once every four years.

Any use a team would be lucky to draft a player of Ward’s caliber and quality once every four years.

From Afterthought to the Mainstay of an Offense

The Steelers drafted Hines Ward with their third 3rd round pick of the 1998 draft. They apparently thought that Chris Conrad (an OT who blossomed into a total bust) was better than Ward.

On the day he was drafted ESPN commentators immediately speculated that he was to become the next “Slash” due to his experience playing quarterback, running back, and wide receiver in Georgia.

Ward saw no such action with the Steelers, although his first claim to national fame came as a rookie on Monday Night when he completed a pass to Kordell Stewart.

Absent Yancy Thingpen and with Charles Johnson’s development waning, wide receiver became a glaring need for the Steelers in 1998.

  • Few fans, professionals, or even coaches realized that the Steelers had their answer already on the roster.

Hines Ward only caught 15 passes as a rookie, nothing special to the untrained eye. But the astute observer could see that Ward not only led the team in yards-per-catch but also in special teams tackles.

The Steelers nonetheless used their next two first round draft picks on wide receivers. But it was Ward who would survive to lead the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL where he won MVP honors.

Linebacker in an Wideout’s Body

Mike Tomlin said on more than one occasion that Hines Ward was sort of line a linebacker trapped in a wide receiver’s body. That’s because Ward gave everything he had on every play.

  • No one was spared his punishing blocks,
  • No errant ball flew uncontested,
  • No extra yardage was sacrificed to the safety of the sideline

Absent the athletic gifts that Lynn Swann or John Stallworth had, but Hines Ward made up for with his dedication, preparation, and hustle. Hines Ward was also a leader and a play maker. Whether the quarterback was Kordell Stewart, Mike Tomzack, Tommy Maddox, Charlie Batch, Dennis Dixon, Byron Leftwich or Ben Roethlisberger, when the game was on the line and a catch simply had to be made, Ward was likely the intended target.

Georgia Bulldog in Winter

One of the sad truths about sports is that time eventually robs a player of his skills. And, for the past several summers in Latrobe, some reporter would always say, “This is the summer that Hines Ward began to slow a step.”

Ward proved them wrong year-in-and-year-out. Even during the 2010 season, when his production dipped, Ward continued to make catches that counted, and had the Steelers won Super Bowl XLV, Ward most certainly would have been the team MVP.

Alas, father time caught up with Hines Ward in 2011. He continued to start in spite of Anthony Brown’s rise, and while he was still catching balls, Ward wasn’t quite the same. (For an in depth look at Hine’s Ward 2011 season, click here to read Georgia Bulldog in Winter.)

An injury during the Ravens game was followed by a benching, and by his ultimately successful quest to reach the 1000 catch mark with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Bitter, but Necessary Medicine

The Steelers decision to part ways with Hines Ward is a bitter one but ultimately a necessary one. During the latter part of the 2011 season, Ward did not look the same. He had difficulty getting open and worse yet, seemed to have even more difficulty catching the ball with any degree of consistency.

As Dejan Kovacevic of the Tribune Review noted, Ward’s final regular season carry, a 5 yard loss on a shovel pass, seemed to punctuate just how deep into decline Ward had slipped.

Yes, perhaps with an off season of rest and a finer understanding of his new role Ward could have come back and contributed in 2012.

But the Steelers are barely at or under the salary cap, and they perhaps are already mortgaging their future. They simply can’t afford to reserve precious salary cap and roster space that might allow them to secure Mike Wallace’s or Jerricho Cotchery’s future with the team.

Teams never easily “replace” leaders like Hines Ward.

Hines Ward’s absence will create a void on the field, in the huddle, and in the locker room that could take season’s to fill.

Following the Emperor Instead of The Bus

On the day he retired, Chuck Noll observed that it would have been great to win the Super Bowl and call it a day with a tremendous hurrah! But it didn’t happen that way.

Moments like these make you appreciate just how lucky Jerome Bettis was to go out on top.

Unfortunately for Ward, he follows the path trod by The Emperor instead of The Bus.

Hines Ward’s exit is necessary in a football sense, but nonetheless bitter medicine indeed because Hines is every bit the portrait of a prototypical Pittsburgh Steeler.

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