There have been few Steelers more popular than Hines Ward over the course of his career. His legacy is pretty much etched in stone no matter what he does for the remainder of his legendary run with the Steelers organization.
The football gods broke the mold when they made number 86. He is about as tough as any receiver who has ever played in the NFL. But to describe Hines Ward as simply a receiver doesn't really do the man justice. He's an all-around football player who just happens to play wide receiver. On any given Sunday, he can be seen making a critical reception on 3rd and long one minute and a crushing block on a helpless defensive back the next.
Ward came into the NFL as a 3rd round draft choice in 1998. A former collegiate quarterback at Georgia, Ward honed his receiving skills while paying his dues on special teams early in his career. In time, almost through sheer will and determination, Ward turned himself into a number one receiver in the NFL. This despite the Steelers using first round picks on players at Ward's position in back-to-back seasons just as he was trying to establish himself in the league.
It goes without saying Ward is the most accomplished receiver in team history. His 954 career receptions and Super Bowl XL mvp are just two of many impressive accomplishments on his lengthy resume.
Having said all that, however, is it time for Ward to take a step back and a decreased role in the Steelers offense?
Antonio Brown was the story of the preseason for the Pittsburgh Steelers. I personally witnessed him put on a show during a trip to training camp earlier this summer.
His performance against the Atlanta Falcons in last week's preseason game at Heinz Field had Steeler Nation buzzing the entire week.
In only his second season, it has been said that Brown is still pretty raw and a bit undisciplined despite his habit of making huge splash plays. Maybe another year playing behind Ward and Wallace will make Brown a more polished receiver, but man, he already has the speed and explosiveness that you cannot coach. And, to quote coach Tomlin, he's shown that "the moment isn't too big for him" with his clutch receptions late in playoff victories over the Ravens and Jets in last year's Super Bowl run.
Hines is 35 years old, and even though Ward's game was never about speed, it's obvious that he's not the player he used to be. Who is, right? Mean Joe Greene said by Super Bowl XIII, he didn't have the same quickness and power that he did early in his career. His mind knew where to go and what to do, but the body just couldn't get there as fast as before. Greene was an all-time Steeler so there is no shame in a legend losing a step or two.
And a Steelers legend losing his starting job near the end of his career wouldn't be unprecedented.
During the 2003 preseason, Bill Cowher went with his gut and named Amos Zereoue the starting tailback ahead of long-time starter Jerome Bettis. And even though Bettis would occasionally resume his role as starter from time-to-time, he would remain a back-up the last three years of his career.
Despite his pride no doubt taking a hit, Bettis accepted his back-up role and was still a key member of the team and an inspirational leader. Bettis was one of the driving forces for Pittsburgh's Super Bowl XL triumph.
Even as a number three receiver, Ward would still be valuable to the passing game. In today's NFL, the number three receiver in an offense is almost like being a starter with so much emphasis being placed on the passing game. Can you picture Ward lined up opposite the opponent's nickelback and working the guy for a key 3rd down reception? It would be like taking candy from a baby.
Ward would still get his catches and be an important cog in the offense as the team makes a transition into a tandem of "young money" receivers.
And a 2nd year receiver assuming a starting role wouldn't be unprecedented. In 2009, Mike Wallace was the 3rd receiver for the Steelers. In his second season, he took advantage of the departure of Santonio Holmes to become the team's number one receiver and one of the most dangerous deep-threats in the game. It appears that Brown has that same raw ability of a Mike Wallace, and it would be interesting to see what would happen if they were both unleashed on a secondary for an entire game.
As popular as Ward has been with the Steelers in his career, the Bus was probably equally as popular in his heyday. Hines Ward looked up to Bettis during his time with the Steelers, and if the Bus could accept a back up role in the twilight of his legendary career, I see no reason why Hines Ward can't do the same.
Antonio Brown may be inexperienced, but he's a hungry young lion, and sometimes you just have to let a young lion roar.
What do you think? Should Hines take a step back at this stage of his career, or are his intangibles and role as a team leader too valuable and important for him to be a back-up?