Is a Ward-Roethlisberger Divide Causing Steelers' Downfall?

Marky BillsonContributor IDecember 10, 2009

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 01:  Wide receiver Hines Ward #86 of of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks towards quarterback Ben Roethlisberger #7 against the Arizona Cardinals during Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Hines Ward thinks Ben Roethlisberger should play hurt.

Roethlisberger isn’t making as demonstrative comments, but is making slight digs at Ward. Earlier this week, when asked if he thought Ward might play tonight at Cleveland with a hamstring injury, he told reporters “Hines will do whatever is best for Hines."

Disagreements between the two aren’t anything new. Following the 2007 season Roethlisberger commented he hoped the Steelers would acquire a tall receiver.

Ward, listed at 6-0 but commonly believed to be an inch or two shorter (I have been measured at anywhere from 6-0 to 5-10 ½ tall and when I have stood next to Ward as a credentialed reporter in the Steelers locker room always felt slightly taller), felt slighted by this comment and said so publicly.

“We won a Super Bowl, we didn't have a tall receiver then,” Ward told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in a Jan. 25, 2008 article. “I don't see Tom Brady caring about whose tall or not.”

The whole Ward-Roethlisberger feud seems petty, but it demands a bit of background.

Back in 2003 when I was covering the Steelers for the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat , Ward was often savaged by opposing defenders during an unspectacular 6-10 season.

While playing hurt is commonplace in the NFL, Ward was taking a beating that was more and more evident to those around him throughout the season.

On one occasion, at his Heinz Field locker following a loss, he was asked how he felt and he told reporters that he was in a daze.

Impressed by his ability to handle questions intelligently and with an even temper under such circumstances, I later asked Ward if, since the Steelers were going nowhere and he was a primary component of the team, if he would consider taking himself out of the lineup to heal. No sense in risking a severe injury that could end his career so Pittsburgh could go 6-10 instead of 5-11.

Ward would have none of it. The code of being a pro-football player is that if you can, you play. Otherwise, your mettle is questioned by your teammates and your starting position might be in jeopardy.

This provides some insight into Ward’s comments to Bob Costas prior to the Steelers’ 20-17 overtime loss at Baltimore Nov. 29.

Truthfully, both players are overreacting. Roethlisberger saying he wished he had a receiver he could lob easy touchdown passes to, a la Weegie Thompson. This is not necessarily a slight on Ward, though it is a wish that could hamper the veteran receiver’s statistics.

And Ward’s now infamous, "it's almost like a 50-50 toss-up in the locker room: Should he play? Shouldn't he play? It's really hard to say. I've been out there dinged up" comment could be attributed to Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin’s failure to fully communicate the medical reasoning Roethlisberger did not play against Baltimore to the rest of the team.

Or the confusion upon seeing Roethlisberger suit up as the third quarterback rather than being made inactive and Tomlin telling, say Ward, a quarterback in college and high school, he’d be the last resort against the Ravens.

But it also shows how the Steelers locker room is split. When Jerome Bettis retired following the 2005 season, he left the question of who the team leader would be.

Roethlisberger’s brash and blunt personality certainly helped kick the Steelers in gear during their 15-1 2004 campaign, but it also reportedly rubbed some veterans the wrong way.

He was the quarterback, a position that demands leadership by design. But he also was the sort of guy who seemed to be too cocky at times, be it by nearly losing his life by riding a motorcycle without a helmet or telling reporters to their face that “we laugh at you,” for suggesting the Steelers’ offense passed too much.

Ward, meanwhile, was the veteran leader; an undersized third-round pick who had beat out players drafted in higher rounds and more physical ability with his work ethic to become not just a starter, but a Hall of Fame candidate. He not only was the sort of player teammates admired, but he often trained in the offseason with them, most notably fellow 1998 draft choice Deshea Townsend.

That 50-50 toss up could easily go down the lines of who the Steelers’ feel is their leader.

What’s lost in this divide is the cavalier attitude Ward is taking toward head injuries.

Just a month after Jeanne Marie Laskas wrote in GQ how former Steelers Mike Webster, Terry Long, and Justin Strzelczyk died young with dementia, following brain injuries suffered by playing football, Ward reportedly theorizes his quarterback should play concussion or not, because, after all, I’ve played “dinged up!”

It’s an attitude prevalent in NFL locker rooms that needs to be retired.

I don’t necessarily look to Ward as the bad guy in this divide. He is, after all, only giving the Steelers the total loyalty the NFL demands from their players having risked his own health for the sake of the team.

And there is no evidence that Roethlisberger would not do the same, rightly or wrongly. He has often played hurt, even when, in hindsight, he probably shouldn’t have.

But in trying to figure out why the Steelers are on the longest losing streak a defending Super Bowl champion has ever had, save for the 1987 New York Giants, who lost three of five with a replacement team during a players strike; the question must be asked:

Could it have something to do with a locker room divide?