Hines Ward is, plain and simple, a Pittsburgh icon. Since being drafted by the Steelers in the 3rd round of the 1998 draft, the South Korea native has broken every meaningful team receiving record, including career touchdowns, receiving yards and receptions. He has also undoubtedly secured his place among other Steeler legends, such as Jack Lambert, Terry Bradshaw, Jerome Bettis, and many other titans of the Steel City.
However, it looks as though Ward's time as a member of the Steelers family have come to an end.
The NFL Network reported, citing unnamed sources, that the Steelers don't plan on bringing the 14-year veteran back to Pittsburgh next season. The decision is partly financial—the Steelers are at least $20 million over the cap—and partly production-related—last year was Ward's worst statistical season since his rookie campaign.
While the prevailing wisdom seems to be that sending Ward on his way is the "right" decision, here are four arguments that lobby for the retention of one of the most beloved players in Steelers' history.
The NFL is, above all else, a business, and therefore money will almost always take precedent over intangible, apparently "less important" things, such as sentiment and loyalty. I get that. And, in all honesty, there's much to recommend that cold, profit-driven style of thinking. Tough decisions are made aerodynamic when they can be broken down into simple terms of monetary loss or gain.
But there will always that youthful, idealistic side of me that yearns for a purer sport. A sport where positive character traits, such as loyalty, do factor in to a team's decision to bring a player back. In an age of flakiness and individualism, Ward has been a dedicated member of the Steelers' family since he first suited up for the black and gold way back in 1998.
His dependability on the field helped make Big Ben's transition to the NFL a near-seamless endeavor. His wisdom, in football and in life, has been soaked up by a long list of understudies, most notably Emmanuel Sanders and Mike Wallace.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, he's as loved by Steelers' nation as any player in franchise history. His burning, full-toothed grin will be forever ingrained into the collective consciousness of Steelers' fans across the nation.
As cliché as it may sound, Ward really has come to symbolize the Pittsburgh ideal of hard work and dedication. However, even if he does decide to suit up for another team next fall, there's no doubt that he will forever be remembered as a Pittsburgh Steeler.
But, like Joe Montana, Joe Namath and countless other players, he just won't look right in another team's uniform, dang it.
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, it was Bruce Arians, the Steelers offensive coordinator from 2007 to 2011, that recommended Hines Ward demotion to fourth string during the 2012 season. However, Arians split from Pittsburgh after he caught wind of a vacancy in the Colts' offensive coordinator position.
Former Kansas City Chiefs head coach Todd Haley has been brought in as Arians' replacement and has made it clear that he intends to start with a "clean slate" once training camp rolls around. That includes revamping the entire offense and possibly reconfiguring the depth chart at each position.
If the Steelers' would have kept Ward around, he would have had the chance to prove his value to a fresh set of eyes. Haley may have seen something in Ward that Arians was simply overlooking. Even though Ward is 36 years old, it's rumored that he's still in fantastic physical shape, and far from incompetent on the field. Maybe Haley could have found a way to maximize Hines Ward's remaining productivity by placing him in the slot and hitting him on shorter crossing routes.
It's all speculation, of course, and sadly, and it looks as though Hines Ward may never get a chance to work his way into a starting role under Haley's new offensive scheme.
Over the last decade or so, Ward's role as a mentor to some of Pittsburgh's less-experienced receivers has been highly publicized. In fact, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an article in January of last year highlighting Ward's leadership skills and the impact he has had on the younger members of Pittsburgh's receiving core, such as Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders.
In the article, Sanders recalls his first interaction with the veteran receiver—a phone call, initiated by Ward, mere hours after Sanders' was drafted 82nd overall out of SMU.
"Hines called me right after I got drafted. He told me 'All right, you have to come up here and work, you have to be willing to block, that's the Pittsburgh way.' I told him I'll do whatever I can to get on the field and help the team win."
Sanders continued: "You're talking about a 13-year vet, one of the toughest receivers in the game—ever in my eyes. Not only that, he's smart. He understands the defenses, he understands what the defensive back is thinking, what the linebacker is thinking."
Sanders isn't the only Steelers receiver who has been influenced by Ward's presence. Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace, Pittsburgh's two leading receivers from last season, were also quick to sing the praises of the 13-year veteran.
”He sets the tone in the room," Brown said of Ward. "We definitely want to help a guy like him win."
Ward may no longer possess the elite physical skills that allowed him to become the top receiver in Steelers' history, but on-field performance shouldn't be the only barometer for determining a player's worth. His experience carries value, as well. He's the Wise Old Man of the Steelers' youthful receiving corps (average age: 24)—he gives them tips on how to improve their game, helps iron out growing pangs, and does his best to keep them in line on and off the field.
The Steelers' apparent decision to part ways with Ward came down to—what else—money. The Steelers are apparently at least $20 million over the cap, so the decision to cut Ward, a bottom-of-the-depth chart receiver who was set to make $4 million in 2012, seems like an obvious one from a financial standpoint.
However, Ward has stated publicly that he is willing to take a pay cut to remain within the Steelers' family.
"I don’t normally like to respond to rumors," he said, regarding the musings that the Steelers have made the decision not to bring him back, "but as I’ve said all along, I want to finish my career with the Pittsburgh Steelers."
It's unclear how much of a cut Ward would be willing to take, but it would likely be fairly substantial, given his apparent determination to finish his career with the black-and-gold.
"I'm telling you I want to be here," he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "I'm telling you I'm willing to do that. And I understand the ramifications—we have the cap number and stuff, but I want to be here."
The Steelers only have four receivers (including Ward) under contract for the 2012 season—Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace, and Emmanuel Sanders. Jericho Cotchery, the team's other veteran presence in the receiving corps, may depart as an unrestricted free agent.