It would be lovely if professional sports wasn’t also a business, and tough business decisions that favor financial realities far more than the human element weren’t required. Generally fans understand the business aspect, although it’s still never easy to watch as a long-time player and fan favorite like Hines Ward is ruthlessly sent out to pasture.
The likelihood of this happening with Ward at some point this offseason is high, but it’s not happening yet, despite reports from respected sources over the weekend.
Ed Bouchette shot those rumor mongers down earlier today.
So Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert has confirmed that nothing has been confirmed on the Ward front, despite what Jason La Canfora says, and the overall cluster of confusion that percolated from Friday until Monday morning.
This is the statement and company line being pushed right now on Monday afternoon as I write this. And five minutes from now it could change. It should change.
We like Ward, and we especially liked him while he was dancing with women who are both curvy, and capable of curving. But despite his advanced samba skills, and an unmatched enjoyment of blocking downfield, it’s difficult to envision Ward smiling underneath a Steelers helmet for another season.
Money is a motivating factor, as it always is, and Ward has a pricey but still reasonably affordable salary. He’ll haul in $4 million over each of the next two seasons.
But while money’s a factor, it’s not the only factor. In fact, it might not even be the primary factor, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Gerry Dulac is one of many who believe that Ward simply can’t perform at a high level anymore.
Even if Ward volunteers to play for free in 2012, there is no guarantee he will be on the Steelers roster.
The decision for the Steelers will come down to this:
Do they think Ward, at age 36, can play one more season?
And, do they want to give him a roster spot at the expense of not keeping or developing a younger player?
To me, the answer in each instance is no.
Ward only had 381 receiving yards last year, and it was the first season in his 13-year career that his yards per catch dipped into the single digits (8.3). That 2011 receiving yardage is a 786-yard cliff dive from his total just two years ago (1,167), showing the speed of Ward’s fade, and his increasingly diminished role in Pittsburgh’s passing game.
Mike Wallace is the clear primary target for Ben Roethlisberger, but beyond him there’s Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. All three of those receivers are 25 years old or younger, and at least a decade fresher than Ward.
Speed is the emphasis with Wallace, Brown, and Sanders, so the argument still exists that Ward could continue to find his niche as a possession/slot receiver. That’s a feeble and easily countered defense of Ward’s value following the addition of Jericho Cotchery after his release from New York in August.
Cotchery is a pending free agent, but he was only 144 receiving yards behind Ward despite catching 30 fewer passes. He played under the veteran minimum of $810,000 last year, and may be due for a small raise under a new contract, but he’d still be valued at far less than Ward, and he’s seven years younger.
Ward may have leadership skills, but the financial structure of the NFL doesn’t encourage retaining veterans who have been reduced to aging cheerleaders, even if he’s willing to restructure his contract. That’s especially true on a team that’s cutting costs to meet the salary cap, trimming $14 million over the past week.
He’s diminished too much to occupy valuable roster real estate and be part of an otherwise young and developing receiving core. So soon Ward will go the way of Randy Moss and Terrell Owens, but he’ll do it with far more dignity.