Key Questions for Hines Ward To Answer in 2009
Back in 1998, the Pittsburgh Steelers, under the direction of head coach Bill Cowher, drafted a wide receiver in the third round.
Most scouts and so-called draft experts considered the 92nd pick to be lacking breakaway speed and the necessary height to become a big-time player at his position.
But personnel evaluations can't measure intangibles like heart, will, determination and effort. By his second season, the scouts and draftniks were proven dead wrong.
The Steelers' selection became one of the biggest picks in the history of the franchise. A steal in the draft if there ever was one. The pick was Hines Ward and for the past 11 seasons the former Georgia Bulldog has been a key cog in Pittsburgh's return to Super Bowl glory.
The 6'0", 205-pound powerhouse is the best blocking receiver in the game today. His ferocious hits are the stuff of legend and plenty of SportsCenter highlight moments. He is the all-time franchise leader in receptions (800), yards (9,780) and TDs (72), ahead of names like Swann and Stallworth.
Ward, the Super Bowl XL MVP, was signed to a four-year extension by the Steelers on April 25, 2009, which will likely keep him in Pittsburgh for the remainder of his career.
As the Steelers look to defend their title here are some key questions Ward may be asked during training camp with my own thoughts added.
1. Are you worried about the team having a Super Bowl hangover?
If any team can avoid this it's Pittsburgh. The Steelers are a veteran group led by a quarterback who already has two rings to call his own. With Ben Roethlisberger, Ward, and a rugged defense, a repeat could be in the cards if they can stay healthy.
2. The receiving corps lost emerging star Nate Washington to free agency. Does Pittsburgh have enough depth to make up for the loss?
Head coach Mike Tomlin believes that Limas Sweed can take over for Washington in the slot and perform well. Veteran Shaun McDonald and rookie speedster Mike Wallace will pick up the slack in case Sweed stumbles.
3. Will the new "Hines Ward Rule" make you more cautious?
The short answer is no.
For those who don't know, the blocking rule makes illegal a block if it comes from the blocker's helmet, forearm or shoulder and lands to the head or neck area of the defender. One of the highlights the NFL competition committee used to portray such a block was the one Ward threw last season that broke the jaw of Cincinnati rookie linebacker Keith Rivers.
Ward is a physical player who loves to hit people and the new rule won't slow him down at all. Hines is all about winning and playing timid is not conducive to winning football.
4. What do you think of the Steelers offseason, with free agency and the draft?
The Steelers are in good shape for another Super Bowl run and that's reflected in the team philosophy of building through the draft. Pittsburgh has always eschewed going after over-priced free agents and this year is no different.
The franchise picked up solid role players in the draft with DE Ziggy Hood, G Kraig Urbik, CB Keenan Lewis and FB/RB Frank Summers. In free agency, the Steelers opted to re-sign their own instead of looking abroad. McDonald and CB Keiwan Ratliff were the only veteran free agents signed.
5. How much longer do you think you can play at a high level?
Ward is entering his 12th season and shows no signs of slowing down despite his physicality. His 2008 numbers bear this out. Ward finished the season with 81 receptions for 1,043 yards and seven scores. His best numbers since 2003.
Isaac Bruce and Terrell Owens showed everyone a receiver can still be productive into his late 30s. As long as Ward still has the fire burning to play the game, he'll be a solid performer for at least a few more years.
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