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Why Hines Ward belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Spelling out the argument for why Hines Ward is a Hall of Fame player.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh Steelers
Aug 26, 2017; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward throws the ball with fans before the Pittsburgh Steelers play the Indianapolis Colts at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports
Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Hines Ward was recently rejected again for the Hall of Fame, and it didn’t draw much attention. Hines Ward is frequently viewed as a good but not great WR who was never in the top tier of WRs during his career. It is easy to follow that line of thought, with Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Marvin Harrison, Steve Smith, Torry Holt, Reggie Wayne, Derrick Mason, Chad Johnson, Keyshawn Johnson all being players that entered the NFL withing 3 years of Hines’ 1998 Draft class. Hines ranks 8th in receiving yards among players drafted between 1995 and 2001, and 5th in TDs. That is the end of the debate for most people, and likely the reason Hines isn’t even a finalist this year. But raw stats don’t tell the whole story.

Looking deeper at the stats

Hines Ward played on the Pittsburgh Steelers, and from 1998-2011, the only teams that threw fewer passes than Ward’s Steelers were the Browns and Texans, who weren’t teams for the entire 14 year span of Hines Ward’s career. Both averaged more passes per season than the Steelers in their time as NFL teams. With his team passing less than any other team, Hines had less opportunity than other receivers of his era. When you account for that, and you look at Hines Ward’s prime years, he actually measures up extremely well.

For this comparison I’m going to use a simple metric that I started using a few years ago and really like, MVR.

**If you don’t want to read about the metric I’m about to use, or are familiar with MVR from times I’ve used it before, feel free to skip the block quote section**

A few years ago I sat down to think about creating a metric to account for receivers being on teams that passed more or less than NFL average, as well as other factors in order to create a tool that would help evaluate WRs from different offenses and time periods. I ended up with a really simple formula I call MVR (Most Valuable Receiver). I had originally computed it as catch rate * yards per target * percentage of team targets + percentage of team TDs, but I would come to realize that what I was ending up with was the same as Receiving yards / Team attempts + percentage of team TDs.

I only bring that up because I worked hard at the original formula to make sure I wasn’t double counting any particular variable and wasn’t leaving anything important out, and yards per team attempt does that perfectly. A popular stat right now is yards per route run, but I don’t think rewarding players for not being on the field is a great way to measure the most valuable receiver, so I’d rather count all attempts.

MVR is not a one-stat-to-rule-them-all, no stat or metric ever is. It is a tool that points out how effective a player was in the offense they were in. The Saints threw almost 20% more passes than the Steelers did from 1998-2011, you could reasonably expect their WRs to have roughly 20% more production than the Steelers WRs. MVR will help adjust for that.

The one thing MVR doesn’t adjust for is the effectiveness in Yards Per Attempt of the offense, it adjusts for frequency of passes, not overall team effectiveness. That matters, because being on a team with a dominant run game or a HoF QB or an incredible offensive system affects a WRs yards per target the same way a terrible QB, lack of surrounding talent or a Freddy Kitchens level offense can affect it. I counter this with an additional metric, MVR2, which adds in a modifier that normalizes team YPA to the league average for that time period. It maintains a players difference between their own production and the rest of their team, but resets team production to an average. The difference between MVR and MVR2 for any player is a great way to see how effective a team’s passing game is. MVR2 is a great tool for comparing star WRs from different eras, or comparing a WR on a great offense to a WR on an awful offense.

MVR for the top 23 WRs from 2001-2005

Players with asterisks are already in the Hall of Fame.

Hines Ward comes in second to only Marvin Harrison in this list, and not by much at all. When MVR2 accounts for the difference between having Peyton Manning (4 pro bowls, 3 first team All-Pro) for these years and having Kordell Stewart (pro bowl in 2001, part of 2002), Tommy Maddox (2002, 2003, part of 2004) and the first 2 seasons of Ben Roethlisberger at QB (2004-2005), Hines Ward ranks #1 in this metric.

I’ll repeat, this isn’t intended to be a conclusive metric, no stat or metric ever should be, but it does show that when you factor in the number of passes thrown and the quality of the offense they were in, Hines Ward accounts for more of his team’s production than other receivers did.

Hines Ward with just raw stats is a WR just outside the bubble of the Hall of Fame, when you look at MVR, he is elite. The truth is somewhere in-between (although if you watch film of Hines in his prime I’d argue the truth is much closer to the MVR results than the raw numbers).

The point is that while raw stats tell you Hines was never one of the top WRs in the NFL during his career, that is more because of the offense he was in than his own ability and production within the limits of that offense.

I hope that helps people get over Ward’s regular season statistics being lower than other receivers, but even if we take the MVR as evidence that Hines Ward was better than his stats, it still doesn’t make it an egregious omission, he’s another Donnie Shell or LC Greenwood at that point, guys that probably should be in, but may never make it in without some kind of special class, and that brings us to the second part of the argument for Hines.

Playoff production

Hines Ward wasn’t just good in the regular season, he consistently stepped up in the playoffs and the success of his team in the playoffs was improved because of it.

Here’s the stats and MVR for all receivers with at least 20 playoff receptions between 2001-2005

Hines Ward led the NFL in playoff targets, receptions, yards and TDs from 2001-2005. In MVR he ranks 3rd behind Rod Smith’s 4 games and Steve Smith’s (who also belongs in the Hall) ridiculous early 2000’s production. The big thing to look at is where Hines Ward ranks compared to Terrell Owens and Marvin Harrison, the only contemporaries of Ward on this list. Hines Ward is above his HoF level contemporaries in playoff production both in raw stats and in production per pass attempt.

But even more than just his playoff stats and MVR, Hines Ward’s performance in the 2004 and 2005 playoffs, and even more his stats in Super Bowl XL stand out among the all-time greats.

Here’s a comparison of the Steelers passing game, passes to Hines Ward and passes to all other Steelers combined for the 2004 and 2005 playoff runs.

Hines Ward accounted for 39.3% of the Steelers passing yards, 45.5% of passing TDs and only 12.5% of interceptions over the 6 playoff games in 2004 and 2005. When Ben Roethlisberger was a young QB frequently struggling against NFL playoff defenses, Hines Ward was still dominating.

In Super Bowl XL that would reach a new level as Hines Ward would match his QB’s passing yards in receiving yards. Ben Roethlisberger would pass for 123 yards and 2 interceptions, while Hines would record 123 receiving yards and the only receiving TD of the day. Antwaan Randle El’s 43 yard TD pass to Hines Ward offset Ben’s 43 passing yards to all Steelers not named Hines Ward that day. Ward’s 6.59 MVR for that Super Bowl is the second best Super Bowl MVR since the merger. The top three being:

SB X: Lynn Swann, 8.97 MVR
SB XL: Hines Ward, 6.59 MVR
SB XXIII: Jerry Rice, 6.47 MVR

Those are the best MVRs in Super Bowl history, and all three won MVP honors for the game. The other receivers to win MVP rank as follows:

SB XLIII: Santonio Holmes, 5.37 MVR
SB XI: Fred Biletnikoff, 4.16 MVR
SB XXXIX: Deion Branch, 4.03 MVR
SB LIII: Julian Edelman, 4.03 MVR

In similar fashion to how Lynn Swann carried the 1975 Steelers offense to a 21-17 victory over the Cowboys, Hines Ward carried the 2005 Steelers offense in their 21-10 victory over the Seahawks.

In the 2008 playoffs Hines Ward injured his knee in the first half of the AFC Conference Championship game against the Baltimore Ravens, yet after that game the 32 year old Ward led all Steelers in receiving with 125 yards. With Ward limited in the Super Bowl Santonio Holmes would win his own SB MVP award, but in the games leading up to the Super Bowl, it was still Hines Ward leading the passing game. In 2010, at the age of 34 and a shadow of his former self Hines Ward would catch 12 of his 17 targets for 7 first downs in the Steelers unsuccessful bid for a seventh Super Bowl. While the Steelers offense would be a much bigger strength in the years following Hines Ward’s retirement, the Steelers would never advance beyond the AFC Conference Championship game. Hines Ward played in 5 Conference Championships, won 3 of them and won 2 Super Bowls. Lynn Swann and John Stallworth played in 6 (Stallworth 7), winning 4 and also winning 4 Super Bowls. Outside of that the Steelers have played in 4 Conference Championships, won 1 and lost in the ensuing Super Bowl. Ben Roethlisberger won 3 of the 4 conference Championships he went to with Ward, and 2 of the Super Bowls. He has been to one Championship game since, and lost.

If you look at total playoff receiving yards, only 6 players have more than Hines Ward, three are in the Hall of Fame (Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin, Andre Reed), one is a finalist this year in his first year of eligibility (Reggie Wayne), and one isn’t eligible (Julian Edelman). Only Cliff Branch is eligible and not in the Hall of Fame, and he never put up an MVR close to Hines in the playoffs, nor was he at Ward’s level of production, raw or MVR, in the regular season. For receiving TDs Hines ranks 4th, behind Jerry Rice, Rob Gronkowski and John Stallworth, only Gronkowski is not in the Hall, and he isn’t eligible yet.

The Hines Ward rule

The final part of the argument for Hines Ward making the Hall of Fame is his blocking and hitting, his unique status among WRs for the physicality he brought in support of the run game, and intimidating opposing defenders. This area of his game is viewed more negatively now than it was before the 2009 rule changes, as his hits are ones that are now so out of place as to be somewhat shocking.

During Hines Ward’s career, he was frequently put forth as a dirty player for his blindside hits to the head of opposing players, and that seems to be the most common take-away from his play, that he was a dirty player. But to fall into this trap negates one of the biggest impacts Ward had on the game. In 2009 the NFL introduced the “Hines Ward rule” that protected defenders from blindside blocks to the head area, but it also introduced a similar rule that protected defenseless receivers from hits to their head or neck area. A rule protecting receivers had been brought up numerous times before then, but was always shot down by the argument that it was part of the game, and if they don’t want to take those hits they should be more aware of their surroundings or stop playing WR.

Hines Ward changed that argument. When line backers and safeties started asking the league to protect them from Hines Ward, the argument that players who didn’t want to get hit in the head should keep their head on a swivel or stop playing fell through. It is hard to make a logical argument for protection for yourself while also arguing that same protection shouldn’t be afforded to the players you are facing. It was even more effective when you had 250 lb. line backers asking for protection from a sub 200 lb. wide receiver.

Hines Ward isn’t just responsible for the adoption of the rule protecting defenders, but because of his hits, he cleared the way for WRs to be protected as well. Wide receivers like Antonio Brown entered a league where the same hits Hines Ward would bounce up from with his trademark smile would now draw a 15 yard penalty for the offense and a fine or even a suspension for the defender responsible.

As to whether Hines Ward was a dirty player, I would put forth the evidence that Hines Ward’s last personal foul was in the 2008 playoffs. After the rules changed and protected both receivers and defenders, Hines Ward never committed another personal foul, not for the now-illegal hits which he completely removed from his game, nor for the fights he often got into with opposing defenders knows for delivering similar hits to receivers. Hines Ward dealt the decisive blow(s) in NFL receiver’s fight for protection from dangerous hits, and he did it by being more dangerous to defenders than they were to him.

Hines Ward deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, the only argument against him is that he played on a team that didn’t throw the ball enough, and that’s a pretty lousy argument when you look at what he did inside of that offense, what he did on the NFL’s biggest stage, and how he impacted the game we see today.