As Ed Bouchette reported this morning, veteran Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward has made it clear he wants to come back in 2012 and he is willing to take a pay cut to do so. Ward seems dead set on playing next year and he also made it clear that he will do so elsewhere if the Steelers choose not to bring him back.
According to Bouchette, Ward has a clause in his contract that states they must either guarantee his job by March 1st then or release him. There are also reports he has a $1 million roster bonus due at that time, but my records do not match that report. It could be true though.
Ward played just under 500 offensive snaps this year with 362 of them coming in the first 7 games. Keep in mind that Jerricho Cotchery saw just 7 snaps through the first 6 games because of a hamstring injury suffered in the preseason. Over the course of the final 10 games, including the Wild Card game against the Denver Broncos, Ward saw 130 offensive snaps. That works out to an average of 13 a game and it might have even lower had there not been the concerted effort to get him to 1,000 catches for his career.
While Ward is nothing more now than a guy that can sit down in the soft area of a zone on 3rd downs, he still is a great run blocker. The problem with that moving forward into 2012 is that would mean he would be in on run downs and it would be an easy tip to the defense if the Steelers ran mostly when he is on the field. What he is moving forward is a 4th wide receiver at very, very best. Not only is that true should he return to the Steelers, but for any team that might sign him should be not back in Pittsburgh.
Complicating the matter is that usually a 4th or 5th wide receiver on the Steelers plays on special teams and those days are long behind Ward. The 52nd and 53rd spots on the Steelers roster coming out of training camp are tough decisions to make. With Rashard Mendenhall expected to cut it close for a week 1 return because of his knee injury, the Steelers could decide to carry 4 running backs on the 53 man roster instead of the usual 3. Even if Mendenhall starts the season on PUP, keeping 4 backs is a scenario that is plausible until Mendenhall is ready to return.
The pay cut Ward is reportedly willing to take would have to be a big one as well. He is currently under contract through 2013 and scheduled to count $4.61 against the 2012 salary cap. As strapped as the Steelers look to be at this point, $1 million would likely be the most he will get and he would be lucky to see the field for 200 offensive snaps. Should Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown or Emmanuel Sanders miss time due to injury, the Steelers would need a younger and more versatile player to step in one of those spots, not Ward.
With Cotchery now an unrestricted free agent, there are no guarantees at this point that he returns. If he does, that would slide Ward down to 5th on the depth chart and possibly 6th should they keep that many wide receivers. This could mean several weeks on the inactive list for him and basically a coach/cheerleader.
Ward wants to play, but based on everything I have laid out above, he won\’t be playing very much if he is brought back. I understand that he wants to win another Super Bowl and it must be excruciating to face the fact that his playing days might be over, but his resume is good enough to get him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame right now. His legacy as a Steeler and a wide receiver in the NFL can\’t be improved upon. It can only regress at this point and it would be disgusting should he have to put on another jersey for one last season. It would break the hearts of Steeler Nation and it would not prove any type of point.
The Steelers made sure they got him his 1,000 catches and 12,000 yards this past season and really went out of their way to do it. It was painfully obvious. Number 1,000 will always look like a number on the stats sheet, but it was the equivalent of giving a dollar to drifter on the side of the interstate.
What more do the Steelers owe Ward? Outside of not winning a Super Bowl this year, they set him up for a perfect sendoff into retirement. Ward will always be one of my favorite Steelers and nobody is booing him off the stage here, but if he forces the issue with his want to return, he will likely face quite a few rotten tomatoes until he is hooked off the stage for good. Hopefully that hook is not attached to stretcher.