Hines Ward: A Unique Receiver Who The NFL, Not Just The Steelers, Will Struggle To Replace

By Cian Fahey

If you have previously read my work throughout my writing career, you will understand that I rarely state the obvious for the fear of patronizing my readers as well as not wanting to run the risk of boring them. Generally, I go against the grain from what the majority think.

I\’m not a contrarian.

Contrarians think differently for the sake of thinking differently. I think differently generally because it\’s what I believe, whether I\’m right or wrong, and I\’ll stick by it. For that reason, it generally takes a lot for me to write an article where I feel that I am pointing out the obvious, however as a Steelers fan, or at least someone who\’s heart is invested in the team to some degree, today is a day to simply go with the flow and not question anything.

Today, is a day when everyone can understand and agree on the same thing. The only contrarians you will find today are contrarians who swim against the tide simply to show off that they can swim against the tide. Forget them though, they\’ll eventually drown trying to argue this point.

Today, the NFL has lost a receiver…scratch that…

Today, the NFL has lost a football player who defined an NFL franchise for over a decade. Not just any NFL franchise at that but the most successful franchise in the Super Bowl era.

Today, one of the most dynamic players to ever play the position has hung up his cleats. If you want to argue that, check the definition of dynamic first. There is nothing more dynamic than a football player playing wide receiver opposed to a receiver playing wide receiver.

Today, is a day to reflect and appreciate one of the all-time greats who has never received his due nationally despite the proclamations of those most closely following his career.

Today, is a sad day.

Today…Hines Ward has retired.

If there were rafters at Heinz Field, the Steelers would have to consider hanging up #86 despite their history of not retiring numbers. Ward may play for a franchise which has had more hall-of-fame candidates and stars than probably any other, but that shouldn\’t understate his worth to the organization over the past decade or so.

Ward has defined this franchise and encapsulated everything that is good about the Steelers\’ organization. With a history of defensive dominance preceding his arrival to Pittsburgh, Ward has established himself as the single most important football player for the Steelers since he was drafted.

Ward was drafted in the third round of the 1998 draft before becoming the leading receiver in franchise history. Even though the Steelers are a run first team traditionally, he still finishes his career ahead of two hall of famers in Lynn Swann and John Stallworth with 1,000 receptions and 12,083 receiving yards.

Unlike most receivers however, Ward\’s statistics don\’t tell the whole story.

Stats in the NFL are important, more so for receivers than anyone else because catching the ball is essentially their only job. For that reason, referring to Hines Ward as a wide receiver opposed to a football player is doing him a disservice.

When you look at the prototypical wide receiver at the professional level, more often than not you look to a guy like Randy Moss, Jerry Rice or Terrell Owens as stencils, or in more recent times a guy like Wes Welker.

Ward had very little in common with Moss, Rice or Owens and played the game very differently to Welker despite some similarities. In fact, realistically, Ward resembles more running backs than he does receivers with his build.

Moss, Rice and Owens are all at least 6-2 while Ward played in their shadows at 6-0 without a comparable wing-span. Ward was never the receiver towering over cornerbacks or beating them in jump-ball situations, at least not consistently.

Nor did he ever really possess the speed to simply out run defenders. He was never too slow, reportedly running a 4.47 at one time around the time he was drafted, but also never overwhelmed anyone with his straight-line speed.

Instead, Ward relied on the less flashy aspects of professional football to carve out his career as an individual. The very same two aspects of football which are the foundations beneath the Pittsburgh Steelers\’ six steeples of Super Bowl successes.

Intelligence and Toughness.

Intelligence and toughness can get you a long way in everyday life, but in the NFL, often times it is under-appreciated in favor of talent and charisma. Not that Ward never had any talent, or charisma for that matter, but from a sheer physical point of view, he could never compete with a Rice or Owens and had no chance of even momentarily touching the heights Moss\’ physical talent propels him to.

Ward never let that hold him back however. Unlike Moss, Rice and to a lesser extent Owens, Who all had significant success on offense during their rookie seasonsWard began to build his reputation once he entered the league on special teams.

He made 28 tackles as a rookie on special teams while contributing just 15 receptions on offense. Those 15 receptions were a notable first few in a career that would ultimately land him in the top 10, a high of eighth, as well as being in the top 20 all-time in yardage.

Some will argue Ward\’s statistics are inflated because of his longevity and the fact he played in a generation when it is easier for receivers than it was for those he has surpassed statistically. That argument has some glaring flaws.

Firstly, he should be commended for lasting 14 seasons in a league which punishes receivers who are willing to go over the middle. Ward\’s longevity isn\’t something that can be used to undermine his stats.

Secondly, no receiver had a tougher situation in which to flourish than Ward did. He may have been catching passes from Ben Roethlisberger in the second half of his career, but he was largely the only receiving threat in Pittsburgh throughout his career. Not to mention the fact that he played on a team which ran the ball more than anyone.

During a career which spanned over a decade, Ward won two Super Bowls, featured in a third and was the MVP of the big dance after the 2005 season. It is no coincidence that the Steelers were so successful during his spell leading the team.

Ward\’s blocking and aggressive approach on the field, coupled with his outstanding route running and awareness of defenses, made him a great receiver. His attitude and leadership made him a great teammate.

In 2005, Ward won the MVP of the Super Bowl catching the game clinching touchdown reception from Antwaan Randle El. In 2008, Santonio Holmes won the MVP and caught the game winning touchdown in the final minute.

For Ward, watching Holmes catch the ball was just as sweet as catching it himself. Holmes was tutored by Ward when he was initially drafted after the 2005 season. As Holmes\’ mentor, Holmes became an elite weapon on the field, even if a little misguided off of it.

That understanding of the way this organization works allowed Ward to become an idol for all the younger players on the Steelers roster. Even though they were the ones who made him expendable to the offense, Ward has been referenced by each of Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown as a great mentor in teaching them the game from an experienced receiver\’s point of view.

Wallace, Brown and to a lesser extent Sanders all came out of college as very talented athletes but unpolished and raw as receivers. While the team\’s coaching staff, and in particular Bruce Arians, must take a lot of credit for their development, there is no doubt that Ward\’s role was vital also.

Unlike many diva receivers, Ward never took his place in the organization for granted. Even into his veteran years, he often put a sticker with his name on top of his helmet because he saw himself as a rookie trying to earn a job each year.

Almost every fan will remember his tears after the 2004 AFC Championship game when he felt that he let down his teammate and friend Jerome Bettis, while Ward\’s ever-present smile and enthusiasm on the field couldn\’t do anything but permeate through the whole roster.

I couldn\’t care less if Hines Ward goes into the hall of fame or not. Hopefully he does because he will likely appreciate it, however it doesn\’t matter to me if nobody outside of Pittsburgh realizes how good Ward is. The Steelers are used to appreciating things/people whom others cannot. It\’s a big part of their success as a franchise and organization.

It may be pointing out the obvious to you, but Hines Ward must go down as one of the great receivers. Not only in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but also in the history of the National Football League.

It didn\’t really bother me too much when the Steelers released Ward, it was obviously his time to move on. It does really bother me that I will never get to see him play football again no matter what jersey he would have had to wear.

One thing is for certain, I pity who ever gets that #86 jersey next.

You can follow Cian on Twitter at @Cianaf

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