The question is not: Is Hines Ward finished as a player? He most certainly is not. Did you see him leap over safety Michael Griffin to score his second touchdown against the Tennessee Titans last Sunday?
The question is: Will Ward be content all season to play a lesser role for the Steelers? That one is harder to answer. It's always difficult for a future Hall of Famer to step aside. It's especially difficult for a player with Ward's pride.
"I don't want to be a cancer on this team," he said last week.
I believe him. I believed him when he added, "It's not about Hines Ward. It's about the Pittsburgh Steelers winning ballgames." He mentioned the great Larry Fitzgerald, an All-Pro wide receiver with the Arizona Cardinals and a former Pitt All-American. "He has 10 times more ability than me, but what has he won?" Ward asked. "I've talked to him about it. He told me he would trade it all to have one of my Super Bowl rings."
There's no doubt Ward -- at least in his mind -- is sincere when he says those things.
But I also know what his personal stats mean to him. I will bet you anything that he knows the exact numbers: 974 catches for 11,892 yards and 85 touchdowns. He's a lot like Pete Rose, who likely still remembers every one of his 4,256 base hits.
You, too, would be proud if you had those numbers next to your name.
But a player's staggering individual success, which, in Ward's case, has contributed mightily to great team success, can lead to an awkward situation as the player nears the end of his career. We might be getting close to that point with Ward. He said he feels as if he has lost nothing and plans on returning next season. But what if the Steelers don't want him back?
I repeat: Awkward.
Ward promised no one will have to tell him when it's time to quit. "I'll know when I can't get open consistently against a cornerback I know I should beat." But a lot of players say that and don't know when it's time or don't want to face the truth. What if that's Ward?
One more time: Awkward.
The situation already is a bit uncomfortable. Clearly, Ward no longer is the preferred target for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. "Mike [Wallace] is a rising superstar and Antonio [Brown] has a great rapport with Ben," Ward acknowledged. But it came across as a tough admission.
This next Ward quote did nothing to change that perception:
"My numbers might be down, but I can't control where the ball goes."
A lot of people took that as meaning there is an issue between Ward and Roethlisberger. It's no secret the two don't have a warm and fuzzy relationship, the low point coming when Ward publicly called out Roethlisberger for not playing against the Baltimore Ravens in 2009 after a concussion. But I don't believe that's what prompted Ward's observation about who controls the ball. He and Roethlisberger never have been anything less than true professionals and never have taken their feelings toward one another onto the field. Every quarterback and receiver should have such a lousy relationship if it means the kind of success Roethlisberger and Ward have shared. The two hooked up seven times on underneath passes for 54 yards and the two touchdowns against the Titans, the result, all agreed, of the Titans playing double coverage deep to take away the home-run ball to Wallace.
It's much more likely that Ward was speaking out of frustration and anger. Not anger toward Roethlisberger. Anger toward those who are saying he is washed up. And -- don't underestimate this -- anger toward the clock that keeps ticking unalterably toward the end of his wondrous career.
"I know it's an easy story to write that I'm 35 and I'm done," Ward said. "I'm no writer and I could write that one ...
"I feel like I'm still getting to my spots. I still think of myself as being a playmaker."
Ward mentioned his leap over Griffin. Few receivers have fought their way into the end zone with the zeal that he has during his 14 years in the NFL. This was his 50th red-zone touchdown catch since 2002. Only San Diego tight end Antonio Gates (51) has more during that period.
Yes, in case you're wondering, Ward knows he trails only Gates.
"I knew I still could jump over [Griffin]," he said. "But after I landed, I thought to myself, 'I can't believe I just did that.' Griffin is a pretty good safety in the league. He even told me, 'Man, that was a pretty good play.' I think he was surprised."
Chances are Ward has a few more good plays left in him. But how many? Who knows?
That ticking clock ...
I saw the same anger in Ward last week that I saw in Arnold Palmer after he played his final U.S. Open round at Oakmont Country Club in 1994. When Palmer was finished, it was as if he couldn't believe his amazing run in golf was over. It hacked him off.
Ward's time is coming, maybe after this season, maybe after next. He knows it. I truly hope his departure isn't awkward. That would be such a sad ending to an amazing success story.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.