Hines Ward joined the Pittsburgh Steelers at an interesting time. In the spring of 1998 the Steelers had had Jerome Bettis for two seasons, Kordell Stewart had just finished his first year as a starter in the Steelers offense, and the Steelers were on a 6-year streak of winning seasons going back to 1992 when Bill Cowher took over the team.
But it was also a time of change on the defense. Greg Lloyd had played his last game as a Steeler, Carnell Lake and Darren Perry would leave after his rookie season, long-time nose tackle Joel Steed would be gone after the 1999 season, and LeVon Kirkland after 2000.
In 1998 the Steelers would have their first losing season under Bill Cowher, and 1999 would be their second. The Steelers would get back to winning in the 2000 season with a 9-7 record in Hines Ward’s first year as the Steelers leading receiver. The 2001 season would see Hines Ward breakout, recording his first 1,000 yard season and the Steelers would go 13-3, stomp the defending Super Bowl Champion Ravens in the Divisional Round of the AFC Playoffs, before losing to the New England Patriots in a game where Kordell Stewart threw 3 interceptions and lost a fumble. The Steelers lost by a touchdown with a -4 turnover differential to the eventual Super Bowl Champions.
A disappointing overtime loss to the Titans in the 2002 playoffs with quarterback Tommy Maddox leading the Steelers followed by a 6-10 record brought the Steelers to the 2004 season, and gave Hines Ward his 5th starting quarterback to throw him passes in 7 seasons. But once Tommy Maddox was hurt in Week 2 of the 2004 season, Hines would only have one real starting quarterback throwing him passes, Ben Roethlisberger.
The Steelers were a run first team the previous 6 years of Hines Ward’s career, only 4 NFL teams had existed since 1998 threw fewer passes that the Steelers from 1998 to 2003. But with a young Ben Roethlisberger at the helm, the Steelers passing numbers fell drastically. While Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to have the 9th best completion percentage and 6th best passer rating in the NFL in 2004 and 2005, the Steelers ranked dead last in pass attempts, throwing 109 fewer passes than the 31st ranked team, the Atlanta Falcons, threw with Michael Vick at quarterback, an average of 3.4 fewer passes a game.
As the team’s passing numbers dropped from low to historically low, Hines Ward’s numbers didn’t drop as much. He wasn’t recording 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns like he did in 2002 when Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox split the season, but his 1,979 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2004 and 2005 represent a ridiculous 35% of team passing yards, and 36% of touchdown passes. Hines Ward’s percentage of the Pittsburgh Steeler’s offense was higher than other receivers of that time, and the only receiver to consistently put up higher percentages of team passing offense was Jerry Rice.
No game would highlight his importance more than the one at the end of the 2005 season, Super Bowl XL.
While the game would end with (spoiler warning) Hines Ward being named the MVP of the game, it wouldn’t start that way. As the Seahawks and Steelers combined for zero first downs in the first quarter, and Hines Ward’s stat line was 2 targets with 0 catches.
Ward’s first yards would come on the Steelers first possession of the 2nd quarter. After he and Ben Roethlisberger failed to connect for a third straight pass to start the game, the Steelers decided to go a different route to get the offense going.
Super Bowl XL, 2nd quarter, 10:44
Hines Ward is #86, the receiver to the bottom of the screen.
Man, look at that collapse to the line to stop Jerome Bettis on first down. Talk about respect for a run game. That’s an entire defense jumping in to try and stop a 33 year old back who was no longer a starter. Hines Ward takes the ball for an easy 18 yard run and the Steelers got their first gain of 10+ yards in the game. While that drive would end with a Ben Roethlisberger interception on the very next play, Hines Ward had awoken.
Super Bowl XL, 2nd quarter, 6:59
Hines Ward is #86, the receiver furthest to the top of the screen.
This is vintage Roethlisberger-Ward of that era. Roethlisberger escapes pressure to throw to get a semi-accurate ball to Ward who makes a tough catch and turns it into a nice gain. It’s also a third down conversion, extending the drive.
Four plays later a sack and a holding penalty on Heath Miller had the Steelers facing 3rd and 28 at the Seattle 40 yard line.
Super Bowl XL, 2nd quarter, 3:58
Hines Ward is the 2nd receiver from the bottom of the screen.
Ben was a few seasons away from being the quarterback that would have bypassed that look to the rush and put this ball in the end zone for a touchdown, but history doesn’t always line up, and you make do with this incredible 37 yard gain for a first down. Ben Roethlisberger would run the ball into the end zone himself three plays later to give the Steelers a 7-3 lead.
Super Bowl XL, 3rd quarter, 10:27
Hines Ward is the second receiver from the top of the screen.
Ward would record the next third down conversion as well. You can see the physicality Ward brings to the top of the route, with a slight shoulder check, Ward knocks the defender off of him as he cuts, and then breaks the tackle to tack on another ten yards.
In a game that saw 10 total points scored in the first half, and had more interceptions than touchdown passes, Hines Ward was a rare source of offence for the Steelers, allowing them to stay in the game with field position with key 3rd down conversions. But the best would come in the 4th quarter, with the game locked at 14-10 Steelers.
Super Bowl XL, 4th quarter, 9:04
Hines Ward is the second receiver from the top of the screen.
The Steelers had scored a touchdown against the Cleveland Browns with this play in the regular season, and it worked here again. You can again see the run focus for the Seahawks defense, and you can see the reaction to Antwaan Randle-El getting the ball, after the Steelers had picked up 18 yards with a reverse to Ward earlier. But this time it’s a pass to Hines Ward for a touchdown.
Here’s a look at Ward’s part in the play:
This looks like Ward just runs free from the start and all he has to do is catch the ball, but I think there is more to this play than meets the eye.
This angle shows the moment Ward makes the slight turn in his route to run inside the safety into the open field. You can see the fantastic timing on this play, because that cut happens as Willie Parker is handing the ball to Randle-El, that’s great execution. But consider that along with the aggressive approach from the safety, and Hines Ward’s well earned reputation as a blocker.
Until the moment the ball is handed to Randle-El, this play looks like an outside run for Willie Parker, and the initial part of Hines Ward’s route is exactly what he would be doing if his job on the play was to take out the safety. If you watch the clip of his route you can see he is approaching the safety with his eyes locked on him, and I imagine the usual Hines Ward smile on his face. The safety is attacking the run knowing he is going to have to deal with Hines Ward as a blocker in order to get up field and help defend this run. When Ward changes his angle and accelerates, it’s over.
This play, in my opinion, is a great example of how Ward’s run blocking benefitted the Steelers passing game.
But there’s something cooler about this play, something historically significant. To get to that, let’s look at the final stats for Hines Ward and Ben Roethlisberger:
Ben Roethlisberger: 9/21, 123 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT
Hines Ward: 5/11, 123 yards 1 TD.
You see it? Hines Ward had the exact same receiving yards as his quarterback had passing yards. His quarterback who played every offensive snap. In one pass from Antwaan Randle-El, Hines Ward gained the exact same number of yards that the Steelers gained from the 11 passes Ben Roethlisberger threw to any Steeler not named Hines Ward.
I don’t believe that has happened in any other NFL game in the Super Bowl era. When you add in his 18 rushing yards, Hines Ward accounted for 141 yards of offense in a game when his team gained a total of 339 yards. I mentioned above that in those two seasons Ward accounted for 35% of the Steelers passing yards, and 36% of passing touchdowns. In the Super Bowl Ward accounted for 74% of the Steelers passing yards and 100% of their passing touchdowns. But beyond that he accounted for 42% of the Steelers total offense, and 33% of their touchdowns.
If there ever was a clearer case for a Super Bowl MVP, I can’t imagine it.
Looking beyond just his Super Bowl MVP game, Hines Ward was a fantastic playoff receiver, playing in 18 playoff games in his career, gaining 1181 yards and 10 touchdowns in those games. It also stands out that the Steelers won much more in the playoffs than in the surrounding years.
Bill Cowher before Hines Ward: 5-6, one Super Bowl loss.
Bill Cowher with Hines Ward: 7-3, one Super Bowl win.
Mike Tomlin with Hines Ward: 5-3, one Super Bowl win, one loss.
Mike Tomlin after Hines Ward: 3-6, no Super Bowl appearances.
While it is always difficult to take a team game like football and say one player contributed more to a winning culture than others, I think Hines Ward’s time as a Pittsburgh Steeler really supports an argument that he was much more instrumental in the Steelers winning culture and playoff success than a lot of fans or analysts believe.