There are lots of reasons to shrug your shoulders at Saturday afternoon’s contest against the St. Louis Rams. The Steelers are already guaranteed a playoff spot and odds are they will enter the playoffs as the AFC’s 5th seed. Plus, the Rams are awful, Roethlisberger likely isn’t playing and it is Christmas Eve.
But there is one storyline flying a little under the radar that makes the game a must-watch: there’s a good chance it is Hines Ward’s last go around in front of the home fans.
Ward, 35, is under contract for next season, but there is good reason to believe that he won’t be back. He has slowed down a lot this season and is now the Steelers 5th wide receiver (behind Wallace, Brown, Sanders and Cotchery). After posting 755 yards receiving last year and grabbing 5 touchdowns, Ward only has 325 yards so far in 2011 and is only seeing the field in a couple of formations.
It’s possible Ward could hang it up after this season and call it a career. But as somebody who has made a career off of proving people wrong, my gut says he thinks he can still play the game even at his advanced age. The Steelers might not believe so, given how little he has been used and the $4 million cap hit he’ll carry. There’s a good chance that Ward will be on a different roster in 2012.
It is ironic that the end of Ward’s career has brought so much controversy. Fans debate over his playing time. People flip out on Twitter every time he’s on the field. The bubble screen has turned into a running joke. In a lot of ways, it’s a microcosm of his career. Ward has always been at the center of debate. Lots of people think he is a dirty player. Many think he was overrated throughout his career. Lots of fans, of course, will say the opposite is true.
Even after he retires, Ward’s Hall of Fame candidacy is going to be a hot topic. SI’s Peter King — a voter — has already written about it a few times and seems to think Ward’s blocking and Super Bowl MVP will put him over the edge and into Canton. But others vehemently disagree. Bloguin’s resident Colts expert Nate at 18to88, who I respect a ton, says no way.
For one game, though, it would be nice to see everybody in Pittsburgh get behind Ward. He’s got a decent chance of seeing the field quite a bit, especially if the game gets out of hand. While he is slow and not very fun to watch in 2011, few athletes have meant more to Steeler fans and the city of Pittsburgh. Ward’s legacy is going to be right up there with any of the Steeler legends of the 70s. He is (of course) arguably the greatest receiver ever to play in Pittsburgh. I grew up watching old clips of Swann and Stallworth, marveling at their ability. My kids will grow up doing the same with Ward.
Whether it was him laying a devasting block against the Ravens, skipping into the endzone during Super Bowl XL or getting up with a smile after a rare pass drop, I have really, really enjoyed watching Hines Ward play football the last 14 seasons. You might only see him for a few more plays at home. Soak it in.