Unless you or your team played against them, I have a hard time understanding how anyone could not love Hines Ward and Derrick Mason. Pound-for-pound, they were the two toughest receivers of the first decade of the 21st century.

And now it appears they’re both ready to hang up the cleats.

Mason made it official on Monday, announcing his retirement after 15 seasons, most of which flew far under the radar.

And while there’s still some uncertainty surrounding Ward’s future, teammates expect him to retire as well after the Steelers were eliminated from the playoffs this weekend.

Pro-football-reference has this nifty little feature that lists players “similar” to each other. Most similar to Mason? Ward. Most similar to Ward? Mason.

That’s mainly based on the statistics, but it also goes beyond that. First, the glaringly similar facts:

Mason (98th overall pick in 1997)
172 starts, 943 REC, 12,061 YDS, 66 TD, 12.8 YPC

Ward (92nd overall pick in 1998)
190 starts, 1,000 REC, 12,083 YDS, 85 TD, 12.1 YPC

What the numbers don’t reveal is that both were sure-handed safety valves who were heavily relied upon in crunch time. They were a quarterback’s best friend. And despite a lack of size (especially in the case of Mason) they didn’t shy away from both delivering and taking big hits.

In fact, I’d argue that Ward was also the best blocking receiver in the game for much of his prime.

Mason got off to a slower start as a receiver, which is probably why he has significantly fewer starts and touchdowns than Ward (it also didn’t help that Ward played in a much more productive offense over the course of his career), but when he wasn’t delivering as a top receiving option early in his career he was one of the most productive return men in the game.

In fact, he held the NFL record for single-season all-purpose yards (2,659) for 11 years before Darren Sproles broke it by six yards this season.

Mason actually finished with more 1,000-yard seasons (eight for him, five for Ward) despite playing in four different cities and catching passes from 11 different starting quarterbacks (Ward played for only one team and had just six quarterbacks throw passes to him).

Yet while the Ward Canton debate has been raging for several years, you rarely hear Mason’s name connected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

A crowded line of receivers awaiting Hall of Fame admission probably means both players will have to wait quite a while before getting a fair look from those in position to decide their fate, but when that day comes, here’s hoping that we have distanced ourselves from the advantage of the spotlight that helped boost Ward’s rep over Mason’s. Playing for the Steelers for 14 years will do that.

Ward was also Dancing with the Stars and flashing that smile while crossing over into the mainstream, which will help. But ultimately, Ward scored more and won more. He has two rings; Mason has none.

Still Mason was an All-Pro (Ward never was) and won only three fewer playoff games than Ward.

The point is that it’s closer to a toss-up than many would believe. And in both cases, the quantifiable statistics don’t do justice to what Mason and Ward did on the football field.

There are very few players like them nowadays. And whether they make the Canton cut or not, I’ll never forget how much I enjoyed watching both play football.