Every Steelers fan remembers Jerome Bettis' final years with the team. He was no longer the featured back, as guys like Duce Staley and Willie Parker were the starters in 2004 and 2005 respectively, but Bettis was still able to contribute significantly to the offense mainly as a short-yardage and goal line specialist. And in Bettis' final year with the Steelers, he became a source of inspiration for his teammates, who desperately wanted to get him back to his hometown of Detroit for Super Bowl XL.
Not only did the Steelers ride the Bus back to Detroit, they won Super Bowl XL and Bettis was able to announce his retirement with Lombardi trophy in hand on the game's biggest stage in front of the whole world.
Other than maybe scoring the winning touchdown in the final seconds, Jerome couldn't have scripted a better ending to his incredible career.
Every player should get to go out that way. Unfortunately, that's just not the reality in the majority of cases.
Just yesterday, my boss and I were discussing Hines Ward's release by the Steelers, and how it was sad that he didn't get the kind of send-off befitting a player of his stature.
The only problem is that businesses don't give employees huge send-offs whenever they lay them off, and in a sense, that's what happens to a football player whenever he's released.
If Ward would have decided to hang up his cleats and call it a career, the Steelers would most certainly have had the huge send-off for Hines, complete with the press conference, tears and many wonderful tributes for one of the greatest Steelers ever. But if Ward still thinks he can play, the Steelers had no choice but to release him if they feel he no longer fits into their plans.
And, the reality is that Hines Ward wasn't going to have a huge role with the team next season. Assuming Wallace is re-signed, Hines would have been, at best, the number 4 receiver on the team. And if Jerricho Cotchery is brought back, that would make Ward the 5th guy on the depth chart.
The fourth and fifth receivers are expected to play special teams. Obviously, Hines wasn't going to do that, nor should he.
Some say that Hines could still be useful as a mentor to the Young Money trio of Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, but he already did a wonderful job bringing those guys along because they're arguably the best young receiving corps in the NFL. Besides, Wallace will be entering his fourth season, and Brown and Sanders are entering their third; those guys are ready to be leaders in their own right. If they're half the team leaders that Ward was in his time in Pittsburgh, the organization will have few worries in that regard.
It's different for Hines than it was for Bettis. Bettis was able to carve out a niche for himself in the latter stages of his career because his unique size for his position worked to his advantage when it came to short-yardage situations. Hines was never a speed guy, and once his shiftiness and ability to get open started to diminish last season, the handwriting was on the wall.
I felt for Hines as his role decreased late last season. It became pretty obvious that the other receivers had passed him by significantly. There was no way for him to carve out a niche and play any kind of meaningful role, not on the Steelers, anyway.
Should Hines retire as a Steeler? That's his call. If Ward still wants to try and play, I can't blame him. He only has himself to answer to, and once he retires, that's it. It's better for him to find out if he still has something left in the tank than to look back years from now and wonder, "what if?"
As a huge fan of Ward's, I think it would have been tougher to see him fade into the background on the Steelers bench in his final years than it will be to possibly see him in another uniform.
Besides, as I wrote a couple of weeks back, no matter where Hines Ward finishes his career, he'll always be a Steeler to me.
As far as the huge send-off and tributes? Well, the tributes started pouring in by the thousands once Steelers fans found out about Ward's impending release Wednesday night.
I know the Steelers will officially honor Hines someday in the future--they know how to treat their legends--but for right now, it is a business, and the Steelers have to do what they have to do, and Hines Ward has to do what he has to do.