Hines Ward began his 14th season this year with hopes of continuing his climb towards history – both with the Steelers franchise and the NFL. Ward is currently 8th on the ‘All-time’ list with 981 receptions and 19th with 11,970 yards – and quickly closing in on #18-15. At least he WAS quickly closing in.
The Steelers, since the 2009 draft, have acquired some talented youth at the receiver position, which is right around the same time the franchise decided to (though not formally announced) put less focus on the running game and more on the passing game. Young speedy receivers like Wallace, Brown and Sanders have quickly matured over the past two seasons and worked their way up the depth chart. Each has developed their own identity: Wallace the deep threat, Brown elusive across the middle and Sanders (at least for now) a go to guy on third down as a strong route runner. Newly acquired Jerricho Cotchery is beginning to make the impact that many of us had hoped for. When healthy, Cotch is a consistent route runner and is not afraid to blaze across the middle of the field. He only has six catches thus far this season, but has been plagued by injury for much of the season. Looking at this past week’s game I think we are starting to really see what he will do for the Steelers offense. So what does this all mean for Hines Ward? Well if what Tomlin said has any indication, Ward’s time here in Pittsburgh could end much shorter than Steelers Nation would like to see it.
Ward suffered a concussion early in the contest against Baltimore two weeks ago. Heinz was cleared to practice most of the week and was ‘ok’d’ to play on Sunday against the Bengals. Ward did not start that game, only played a few series and caught one pass for ten yards. When asked about Ward’s playing time on Sunday, Tomlin replied that it had nothing to do with Ward’s previous injury and that each week will be an evaluation of if he starts and how much time he plays. Ouch. I don’t know about you, but that seems a pretty clear indication that Ward has lost a bit of favor with Arians and Tomlin in the offense. This could be a more permanent change than we think.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Ward has gone from great to bad in just one half of a season. Clearly, his age and years in this league are starting to show through. He appears a bit slower and unable to get himself open like he used to. Hines is still Hines – intense, physical and an emotional leader. But, one can’t deny that his production has fallen off. The bright spot we can take from that is it isn’t all on him. In fact, I would say the majority falls on the rising talent of the young crew and Cotch. If Brown or Sanders haven’t progressed like they have and if Cotch never joined the team then there is no question that Ward sits in the #2 slot (even though he’s still officially listed as WR1 on the Steelers depth chart online). Therefore, he would get more throws, more receptions and the spotlight. The Steelers would also be sitting probably at 6-4 or 5-5 going into the bye week. Again, not because Hines is not a good receiver – it’s just that the Steelers have been propelled forward as a better team due to these receivers. Cotchery proved this past Sunday that he does indeed have what it takes to step up in this role as ‘utility’ receiver. Ben targeted him numerous times the past three weeks, and there’s a good vibe starting to hang around this guy. I guess five’s company and six is a crowd….
So, it appears that Tomlin (and maybe along with Arians) has made the executive decision to pull back on Hines’ playing time. It pains my heart to say it, think it and to see it on game day. But I can’t help but think that this is the way Steelers football will move on – less and less Hines Ward. He’s one of the best blocking receivers this league will ever see, but with the decline of the running game, those talents are no longer deemed as a priority for this football team. He’s uncanny at getting open beyond the sticks after a 4-5 step drop by Ben, and his hands are very dependable… just not enough these days I guess… and well… just not enough for this ‘new’ offense.
Ward will get his 1,000th reception and reach that exclusive club. He may even make his way up the charts to be #18 or #17 on the all time yards list. And he will do all he can to get this team back to another Super Bowl and with another Lombardi Trophy. But it’s hard to say where he will go from here after this season. It would be absurd to think the Steelers would trade him before his contract is up. He will without a doubt retire a Pittsburgh Steeler. But, more than likely it will be in a much quieter fashion and very un-Super Bowl MVP-like. It kind of sucks to think of it that way. Hines has been one of my favorite players since 2002. He is a staple of this team. He has helped it become one of the most successful franchises this decade in sports. Seeing even the slightest decline in this guys epic career is sad to think about. But, I think for the betterment of the team and the chances it has getting to the playoffs and Super Bowl this year (and the next couple of years), Tomlin might be making one of the hardest decisions in his short coaching career by keeping #86 off the field.
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