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Hines Ward No More: Steelers Say Goodbye to a Legend
Hines Ward caught more passes for more yards and more touchdowns than anyone in Steelers history and he introduced the devastating wide receiver block to the modern NFL, almost always with a smile on his face.
Today, the Steelers delivered the toughest body-blow to Ward’s 14-year career when they announced their plans to release him, without ever asking him to take a pay cut.
Ward saw this possibly coming after the coaches demoted him from his 13-year run as a starter on Nov. 13 in Cincinnati, then used him sparingly over the final seven games. They did frantically and successfully manage to help him become only the eighth player in NFL history to catch 1,000 passes, targeting him enough times in the final two games for him to hit that number on the nose with five receptions in the finale at Cleveland.
It became almost apparent then that this may have been their final gift to the tough, little receiver from Georgia, a third-round draft choice in 1998 who played his entire career with the Steelers.
That ended today, at least his decorated career with the Steelers. Ward said often that he planned to play in 2012 somewhere, even if the Steelers did not want him back, and he made those intentions known again clearly in a statement today.
“This isn’t how I wanted this chapter of my career to end,” Ward said in a statement released through his lawyer and manager, Andy Ree. “I did everything in my power to remain a Steeler and finish what I started here 14 years ago.
“I want to thank the organization, my teammates and coaches and everyone who made my run as a Steeler the best years of my life. To Mr. Rooney, thank you for allowing me to play for one of the greatest organizations in the world. To my fans and in particular, Steeler Nation, thank you for your support and all the great memories.
” I gave my heart and soul for you every down and I will always bleed black and gold. I do feel that I still have more football left in me and I am looking forward to playing in the NFL, again, this upcoming season.”
Ward, who had two years left on his contract at a $4 million annual salary, was never offered a chance to take a pay cut, a source close to Ward told the Post-Gazette. That would indicate the Steelers’ decision was based purely on their assessment of him as a player.
Ward opened the 2011 season as a starter along with Mike Wallace, but he finished it with his lowest production since his rookie season. He caught 46 passes for 381 yards and two touchdowns, missing one game against New England with an ankle injury.
The Steelers elevated second-year receiver Antonio Brown as a starter over Ward, and Brown had a spectacular second-half of the season, finishing with 69 receptions and 1,108 yards. Jerricho Cotchery, a veteran signed last year to a one-year contract, and Emmanuel Sanders also passed Ward by on the depth chart at various points in 2011.
Steelers president Art Rooney, who along with Kevin Colbert had tip-toed around the Ward issue since the end of the season, said he talked to Ward today and told him he would be released by March 13, the start of free agency and the 2012 NFL year.
“Hines has been an integral part of our success since we drafted him in 1998 and we will forever be grateful for what he has helped us achieve,” Rooney said on Steelers.com. “He has meant so much to this organization, both on and off the field, and we appreciate his efforts over the past 14 years. Hines’ accomplishments are numerous, and he will always be thought of as one of the all-time great Steelers. We wish him nothing but the best.”
Ward had 1,000 receptions for 12,083 yards and 85 touchdowns, all Steelers records. He was MVP of Super Bowl XL and made the Pro Bowl four times, more than any receiver in team history. As soon as he is released, he will be free to sign with any team in the NFL.