I thought it would be appropriate to pay homage to the greatest Pittsburgh Steeler in franchise history, and quite possibly the greatest slot receiver in NFL history, the great No. 86 Hines Ward. Not exactly blessed with the athletic abilities of the prototypical receiver, Hines managed to put up Hall-of-Fame like numbers playing the Steeler way; through hard work, dedication to his craft, will, and straight up balls. Hines Ward epitomized what it meant to be a team player in the ultimate team game for one of the most historic franchises in league history. Ward was a part of two of the Steelers NFL leading six Super Bowl Championships, being named the Super Bowl MVP in the 2005-2006 season, catching 5 passes for 123 yards and a deflating touchdown as the Steelers beat the Seahawks for the franchise's fifth title. It was at that point in his career that Hines Ward really emerged as the true leader of the Steelers organization. Jerome Bettis was retiring, Roethlisberger was young and immature, as was Santonio Holmes. Hines Ward was the veteran guiding presence for the Steelers offense during their two Super Bowl victories. In the past two seasons he has adopted this role even more so, mentoring the like of Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders, all emerging young talents. He showed leadership by the way he played every down, smiled on every play, and got up after every hit. It is a FACT that Hines Ward is the best blocking wide receiver in NFL history, something that won't show up in the stat books and appears even more impressive when you consider how run heavy the Steeler's offense was with the Bus. Here is one of many clips that show what I am talking about. Hines Ward is a Pittsburgh Steeler, and for a few years, the Pittsburgh Steelers were Hines Ward.
Aside from all the football intangibles, the little things that Ward brought to the table, Hines had amazing numbers for a small, average athlete at receiver who basically played in the slot most of his career. Playing in conjunction with outside options such as Plaxico Burress, Santonio Holmes, and Mike Wallace, Ward put up 1,000 catches in his 14 years with the Steelers. That is 664 more receptions than fellow Steeler wide receiver Lynn Swann who's sitting in the Hall of Fame. Continuing to compare Ward to Swann, Hines has one more pro-bowl (4) over his career than Swann; 34 more receiving touchdowns than Swann; 6,621 more receiving yards than Swann. Granted Hines has played 14 seasons compared to Swann's nine with the Steelers. But isn't that a testament to Hines Ward and his durability, especially considering the way he plays? I am a die hard Steeler fan, been to countless games and watch as many as I can on TV; I have never seen Hines Ward run out of bounds to avoid a hit, he always fights for that extra blade of grass. Many people argue that you can not compare the two receivers, that they played in different eras, in different systems that skew statistics. If one looks a little deeper, the comparison is fair. If you look at the quarterbacks and running backs that each receiver played with, one can see that that the Steelers offensive scheme and production related to the rest of the NFL hasn't changed, they are pretty much the same team. The Steelers of the 70's were run heavy as were the Steelers of the late 90's and early 2000's. One can argue that the Steelers were actually more run heavy with Jerome Bettis than they were Franso Harris. Bettis is sixth all-time in the NFL in rushing yards with 13,662 and 4th all time in rushing attempts with 3,479. Franco is behind Bettis in all these categories. The point is, Hines played in just a rush heavy offense as did Swann and put up ridiculous numbers. In his first nine seasons, Ward made all four of his pro-bowls and had four 1,000 yard receiving seasons, something Swann never did. Ward had 58 touchdowns in his first nine seasons compared to Swann's 51 career. Not to rain on Swann's parade, its just a point of comparison.
When comparing Ward to receivers from across the league, he fares pretty well too, being 8th all-time in the NFL for recptions, and second among active receivers. He is also second among active receivers in receiving yards and touchdowns, ranking 18th in yards and 13th in touchdowns for a career. Hall-of-famers such as Art Monk, Steve Largent, Michael Irvin, James Lofton, and Charlie Joiner all have less career receptions, and Irvin ranks below Ward in career receiving yards. There are many receivers who are ahead of Ward in these statistical categories as well, men such as Cris Carter, Tim Brown, Isaac Bruce, and Andre Reed who have yet to hear their names called to the Hall, but how many of those guys played as hard and as physical as Hines Ward. Also, it is an overlooked fact that Hines Ward may be the best slot receiver in NFL history. Looking at this list one can see that most if not all of these receiver (with the exception of the tight ends listed) are outside the hash wideouts. Hines Ward was never a wideout, he ran his routes down the middle, through traffic, among the linebackers. Imagine the first Wes Welker, obviously not as polished and refined, but the first of something never is.
Hines Ward will never be forgotten to Pittsburgh Steeler fans, and if the Hall-of-Fame rewards true football greatness, than Hines will surely have his place in the collective memory of football as one of the greatest players and hardest hitters this game has ever seen. I know that he says he wishes to continue his career in the NFL, but when you have such a career as Hines Ward has had with the Steelers, he will only be remembered for what was done in that Pittsburgh uniform, no matter what he accomplishes with another team. Number 86 will truly be missed and will go down in my book as the greatest Pittsburgh Steeler of all time.