State Your Case: Hines Ward
Former Super Bowl MVP should be on Canton's radar
There is a logjam at wide receiver on the doorsteps of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But it’s one log short.
Torry Holt, Andre Johnson and Reggie Wayne are finalists for the Class of 2023 … just as they were for the Class of 2022. Holt and Wayne also were finalists for the Classes of 2021 and 2020.
Hines Ward needs to be included in this discussion.
Ward has been eligible for seven years but has only advanced to the semifinals three times without ever garnering enough support to reach the finals. That needs to change.
In an era of inflated offensive statistics – with all the rules stacked in favor of the game’s passers and receivers – the Hines Ward candidacy is more than just a jumble of numbers.
Early on in his career, Ward blasted a defensive back with a block. De-cleated him. At the Monday film session of the Steelers, Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher ran the play back — over and over and over again – without saying a word. For about 10 minutes.
“It was getting kind of embarrassing,” Ward said.
Finally Cowher stopped the tape and said, “If this guy can go out there and give me that effort, I need everybody on offense to do the same.’”
Ward’s physicality at a position not known for its physicality helped set a tone for the Steelers. You could build a highlight reel of his blocks. You could build a highlight reel of just Ward’s blocks of first-ballot Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed of the Baltimore Ravens.
“Everybody considered Ed Reed to be a Hall-of-Famer, one of the best safeties in the league,” Ward said. “Well, before that (Baltimore) game is over, he’s going to know who No. 86 is.’ I gave him nightmares. Every time … and I took pride in that. Nobody went after defenders like I did.”
Reed wasn’t alone. Linebackers, cornerbacks, safeties – Ward took them all on.
“Hines Ward set the bar for blocking and being a selfless player,” Cowher said. “He was the guy in the trenches you want on your side.”
At Pittsburgh in the 2000 decade, blocking was as important to wide receivers in the Pittsburgh offense as catching. And that’s one reason Ward does not have the career receptions and yards that an Andre Johnson or Reggie Wayne bring to the table. In nine of his first 10 seasons — essentially, the prime of his 14-year career — the Steelers ranked in the Top 10 in rushing. Only twice did they finish in the Top 10 in passing.
And that’s one of the holes in Ward’s candidacy. He never made first-team all-pro. Forget the fact he was competing every year with Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens of the 49ers, Randy Moss and Cris Carter of the Vikings and Marvin Harrison of the Colts for those two spots.
“We ran the ball more than anybody in the league,” Ward said. “How are you supposed to be an all-pro when your offense is predicated on running the ball 50 percent of the time?”
Ward also didn’t play indoors like Carter, Harrison and Moss and didn’t play in the favorable West Coast weather conditions of an Owens and Rice. Ward played in the upper Midwest where nature dictated the gameplan – cold, wind, rain, sleet, snow…Welcome to the AFC Central, and later the AFC North.
“We were a run-oriented division,” Ward said. “You had Eddie George, Fred Taylor, Priest Holmes, Jamal Lewis, Corey Dillon…and we had Jerome (Bettis).”
Ward did play with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who will be on the Hall of Fame’s short list when he becomes eligible for Canton in 2027.
“But early in my career I had the young Ben,” Ward said. “I didn’t have the Ben that was throwing the ball 40-50 times a game. Look at my best statistical year. It was with Tommy Maddox, not Ben.”
All this isn’t to say Ward has a Hall of Fame resume that lacks the prerequisite statistics. Only 13 players in NFL history caught more passes than his 1,000. Ward caught more passes than Holt, 70 fewer passes than Wayne and 62 fewer than Johnson. But he scored more touchdowns – 85 – than any of them. Only 16 players in NFL history caught more TD passes than Ward.
“All those guys that are in the finals…some of those guys were watching me play in Super Bowls,” Ward said. “Do you take the stats over winning a Super Bowl? They were great players…but I don’t understand why I’m not in consideration with them. In my hey-day, I was right there neck and neck with those guys.
“But it is what it is. To be considered one of the best to ever wear the black-and-gold and having the (franchise) records, surpassing Lynn Swann and John Stallworth who are in the Hall of Fame, that’s all that really matters to me. My organization knows how important I was during the run that we had. We went to three Super Bowls in six years. I was a fixture of that offense and that organization during that time. That has to count for something.”
Ward didn’t just play in Super Bowls. The Steelers won two of them and Ward was the Super Bowl MVP in one of them. He caught five passes for 123 yards and a touchdown in a 21-10 victory over Seattle in 2006 to become the fifth of only eight wide receivers to capture MVP honors in the game’s 56-year history.
Ward is now the head coach of the XFL San Antonio Brahmas. His focus these days is forging football careers for a team of young players – not waiting on a call from Canton.
“I don’t look at it any more,” Ward said. “I’d rather be shocked when it happens if it ever happens rather than be disappointed every year.”