Full disclosure: I am a HUGE Hines Ward fan. He is one of my all-time favorite players. He is the leader in almost every important category that the Pittsburgh Steelers could have for receivers. That is saying a lot with Hall of Fame names like Lynn Swann and John Stalworth having their names under his in the record books.
Truth be told, I wish Hines Ward could play forever.
But that is just not realistic.
(For those of you that hate to look at reality, please stop reading here. There are some things that are going to be said that you probably are not going to like!)
Hines Ward just celebrated his 34th birthday last week. He is reaching the age that most receivers start to break down. Over the last couple of years, Ward has had numerous injuries.
Not questioning the man's toughness. Against the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII, Ward played with an injury he suffered against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game just two weeks earlier that would have kept most people out of action for 4-6 weeks.
But the injuries ARE starting to take effect on the man, and it is just a matter of time before he decides to hang up his cleats and call it a career. I, for one, hope he gets to ride off in the sunset with another Super Bowl, but that is for another article.
The Steelers, being a team that prepares for the inevitable, spent early draft picks in the last two years looking for the eventual replacement for the Steelers' greatest receiver of all time.
In 2008, they used a second-round pick on a Plaxico Burress look-alike in Limas Sweed, who was the polar opposite to Plaxico. Never got into trouble off the field, but had no where near the production on it.
Then in 2009, they invested a third-round pick on the speedster from Ole Miss, Mike Wallace.
Wallace had an amazing rookie year, from a Steelers rookie stand point, with 39 receptions for 756 yards (average of 19.4), and six scores. That is unheard of for a rookie, especially one playing for the Steelers.
Wallace has now proved that he is not going to be the Steelers No. 3 for very long. He has big play ability, good hands, and amazing speed. He is too good of a player to be sitting on the bench when the Steelers deploy a two receiver set.
Hines Ward has never been a man that people were afraid of for his speed. It is his sure hands and tough as nails mentality that have made him a success in Pittsburgh.
If you are being honest with yourself, Hines is better suited to be playing in the slot than he is to be lining up out wide. Unless he is going to motion in and block a defensive end on a running play (which I love to watch him do), he just doesn't belong out wide.
Regardless of what the Steelers depth chart says, Santonio Holmes has earned the right to have his name at the top of it. He has developed into the role of the top receiver, and has not only great speed (it was amazing, until Wallace joined the team), but he makes big plays in all the big games. Not only the Super Bowl, with the exception of his first game against the Ravens his rookie season, he has scored in every game against them.
Now, I am sure when the Steelers kick off the 2010 season, Hines Ward will be lined up as the starter, but it is just a matter of time before the performance of Wallace relegates Hines to the three receiver set. If you want to have the best performers on the field, Wallace is more of a threat than Hines.
Not only that, it will help prolong the aging body of Ward, who will take less hits if not on the field every play.
Enter Antwaan Randle El.
There are a lot of questions as to the reason the Steelers signed Randle El to a three-year contract. Many people believe it was a mistake. Many think it was a waste of money. Some even say that he won't make the regular season roster.
Randle El brings something to the Steelers that a lot of people don't know about. Remember when Randle El used to play for the Steelers? You could tell, by the way he was playing, that he was turning into a Hines Ward clone—with speed.
Randle El was getting the attitude that Ward has, cracking people down the field, making vicious blocks, and not being afraid to take on a player considerably bigger than him.
Don't believe me? Check out "America's Team" from 2006. The Steelers are playing the Vikings, Roethlisberger scrambles to the left and Randle El blasts big Pat Williams at the goal line as the key block to the score.
The reason that Randle El returned to Pittsburgh was to be insurance for Ward making it through the season, and to replace him as the third receiver next year when Ward retires.
The day that Hines Ward retires is going to be a sad day in Steeler Nation, but the reality is, that day is not very far off.
We can all either close our eyes to the reality that it is going to happen, or we can prepare for when it does. The Steelers have been preparing for this for two years, and when Ward does decide to call it a career, the Steelers are going to be ready for it to happen.
It is not being heartless, just realistic.