The timing of re-emerging speculation about the future of Steelers WR Hines Ward is curious, to say the least.
NFL Network reporter Jason La Canfora recently told the network's "NFL Total Access" show that Ward will not be back in Pittsburgh next season, according to his sources.
Ward won't be back for the $4 million he's currently owed for 2012, that much is true. However, Ward has said that he'd be amenable to a pay cut, and while he'd be "devastated" if he didn't play in Pittsburgh, he still wants to play football.
Amid several Steelers restructuring their contracts to alleviate certain salary cap doom this season, it makes sense to think the Steelers simply haven't gotten to Ward yet. His $4 million salary is certainly out of the team's range, but it would make sense if he were to take a reduction to stay as - at worst - the team's fourth receiver going into mini-camp (based on who else is currently under contract).
Rumors that Ward won't be back at all paints a different picture than just salary, though. A team that currently has four receivers under contract - Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Ward - would seem to want to bring more guys in, not get rid of any. If Ward is willing to drop his price (he isn't likely to get much more than the veteran minimum with a new contract anywhere else), then it seems both sides would be getting what they need.
If the Steelers simply don't want Ward back in 2012, then some of the cap room they're trying to create could presumably be used on Jerricho Cotchery - who was scooped up during training camp right before the season and taking Ward's minutes as a flanker on passing downs by the end of the year.
But Cotchery is not the same asset in the running game that Ward is: Ward has been utilized in motion, oftentimes as a lead-blocker on designed running plays. It's possible that new Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley and Head Coach Mike Tomlin no longer wish to use a receiver in this relatively unusual capacity - even though Ward is arguably one of the best blocking receivers in the history of the game - and as such, it would make the rarer assets of Ward's skill-set more expendable.
The team does not exactly have the luxury of time before having to make their decision: there is reportedly a clause in Ward's contract that says the team must guarantee him his job by March 1 (not March 13, the actual start of the league's 2012 year), or release him.
Regardless of what Ward's situation is with fitting/not fitting into our offensive plans, the likely reality is that there is still work out there for a two-time Super Bowl champion and a former Super Bowl MVP. Ward could almost certainly find himself a new jersey if he was determined to keep playing. Whether or not he could realize a level of success and satisfaction is still difficult to project though.