The new year has arrived, and with it, a new list of finalists for the Hall of Fame. And once again, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, an eternally popular figure in the region, did not make that list of 15 finalists. Steelers fans likely ought to brace for a repetitive future.
As we move ahead further and further into the future of the game, it is becoming increasingly obvious that, in little time, the numbers that Ward put up over the course of his career will pale in comparison to those who come after, and those who cast the votes for enshrinement will not particularly care about appeals to era and scheme.
Sure, Ward, with his career beginning in the late 1990s, didn’t always benefit from many of the rules under which the wide receivers play under in today’s game. And yes, for much of his career—roughly the first half, if not more—featured a Steelers offense that was still driven by large running backs—one of which, by the way, is in the Hall of Fame. You probably know who I’m talking about. If you don’t, you might as well leave.
As we sit here today, Ward’s career 12,083 receiving yards ranks 25th all-time in NFL history. Only about seven or eight of those ahead of him on the list are not yet eligible to get into the Hall of Fame, yet only six of the remainder have already gone in.
Surely, more from that list will inevitably make their appearance at a future date. Some obvious eventuals include Terrell Owens, Larry Fitzgerald, Randy Moss, Isaac Bruce, and Tony Gonzalez, who represent all but one of the top 10 in receiving yardage all-time who are not yet enshrined.
I will never outright make the argument that Hines Ward is not deserving of the Hall of Fame. He offered so much to the Steelers, and to football more broadly, serving as an ambassador and exemplar of what the sport is all about.
But I can readily understand why it is that he might never receive the enshrinement into Canton that many Steelers fans even today still regard as assured. Perhaps, one day, he may—it may even come after his eligibility as a modern-day candidate passes—but, at best, he figures to have a long wait.
The nature of the game’s evolution is such that the pass-catchers and the pass-throwers are the primary feature, and so it is inevitable that these are the positions that will produce the gaudy numbers and attract the attention.
Before long, the 1000 receptions, 12,083 receiving yards, and 85 receiving touchdowns will look pedestrian, and not Canton material. And he only last played in 2011. It’s not as though we are talking about the 1980s and comparing across decades.
He found the soft spots in zones. He was a heavy target even in a run-heavy offense. He blocked better than just about anybody else at his position during his career. He did many things very well, and he is well-loved for it.
But that doesn’t guarantee that his iconic smile will ever be immortalized as a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.