This time, it will be for Hines
A strange thing occurred on the Steelers voyage from St. Vincent College to the cusp of the 2011 Regular Season. This franchise, for so long the charter member of the “Smash Mouth” football club, has amassed quite possibly the best Wide Receiver collection in the entire National Football league.
The very thought of the Steelers playing “gunslinger” football harkens back to the Tommy Maddux experiment of 2002-2003. Maddux, a journeyman back-up QB who had spent time away from the game, emerged as a savior to Steelers fans after an injury to incumbent starter Kordell Stewart early in the 2002 season, “Tommy Gun” immediately began to sling the pigskin around Heinz Field at a level Steelers fans had not seen in over a decade. While the Maddux reign was cut short by the beginning of the “Big Ben” era in Pittsburgh, it was the 2 seasons that Maddux was behind center that re-introduced Steeler Nation to a legit passing offense. Since that point, Ben Roethlisberger has taken the franchise to the next level, becoming the youngest QB to win 2 Super Bowls, all while controlling offenses that relied more on the passing game than Steelers fans have seen since Terry Bradshaw was still carving up the AFC in the late 70’s.
The one constant of the Maddux and Roethlisberger (and Stewart for that matter) Steelers passing offenses has been the steady hands of prolific WR Hines Ward. Hines is - for better or worse - the face of this franchise. Universally loved by all Steelers fans, and universally hated by all fans of teams he has wrecked havoc on throughout his Hall of Fame career. Ward is an enigma, a gentleman off the field and one of the toughest men between the lines. His popularity within the fan base and the respect he has earned with his teammates all make up part of who Hines Ward is. His charity work and his public persona add to the legend of the greatest WR in Steelers history. Very few players have ever transcended the level of individual popularity that Hines Ward has during his 14-year NFL career. He is the Steelers All-time record holder in every receiving category, a 4-time Pro Bowler, and the MVP of Super Bowl XL. There is no doubt that Hines Ward will be a player that this generation of Steeler Nation tell their grandchildren about, just like our fathers and grandfathers reviled us with tales of Swann and Stallworth. Ward defines this era of Steelers football, from Cowher to Tomlin, and all the championship games in between.
It is a career that will never be forgotten, but could very well be at its end.
Flashback to January 2005, post-game after the New England Patriots ended the Steelers season with a brutal AFC Championship Game at Heinz Field. It was Ward who allowed his emotions to show in a postgame interview, distraught over the loss, Ward shed tears over the team’s inability to get Jerome Bettis his deserved Super Bowl ring. It was a sight that broke the hearts of Steeler Nation. One year later, in Detroit, it was Ward that had the game of his life to secure that ring for “The Bus”. Much was made of the promise Ben Roethlisberger made to Bettis to get him his championship, but it was Ward who truly made it happen.
Now, the time is here for the 2011 Steelers to do the same for their leader.
The Steelers have spent the past three years assembling a WR corps that rivals any in the game. Fantastic drafting by Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have secured the future of the position for the Steelers. WR Mike Wallace has become a legitimate superstar. The “Young Money” tandem of WR Antonio Brown and WR Emmanuel Sanders were both integral in the Steelers match to Super Bowl XLV last winter, and Brown has become a certified “future star” with his performance during this preseason. The Steelers signed veteran WR Jerricho Cotchery, a player who could be started on several NFL teams, as insurance for 2011. The pieces are in place for one of the greatest seasons ever by a single teams receiving corps.
Hines Ward is the inspirational and mental leader of this group, even as he can see the lights dimming on his career. The young WR group is the future of the Steelers, and Ward knows that. Hines Ward will finish his career in the black and gold of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and what better way to do so than to do it while standing on the podium in Lucas Oil Stadium on February 5, 2012 holding his third Vince Lombardi trophy? It is the ending that Hines Ward deserves, and the ending that would most fit his storied career.
Many do not believe that Ward would retire, even if Super Bowl XLVI becomes “Seven Heaven” for the Pittsburgh Steelers. I believe that he will, fully knowing that the franchise is in good hands for the future. That is what matters most to #86, that his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers are ready to move on without his guidance. He will walk off into the sunset, as a hero to all of Steeler Nation.
It would be a proper ending to a career that has defined a franchise for over a decade, through ups and downs, championship runs, and only the second coaching change for the Steelers in the past 40 years. Hines Ward has been the constant, the defining individual. The time has come to give this Steelers legend his proper sendoff.
The 2011 Steelers are primed to make a run at Super Bowl XLVI, and they will do it for their leader.
This time, this one is for Hines.