Hines Ward jokes with Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin during the final afternoon summer camp workout at St. Vincent College. Ward would like to see the NFL lighten the players' workout load.
By Ed Bouchette Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Steelers' first teams will get their most extensive look tonight when they play the Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis. That's fine with Hines Ward, but he thinks somewhere along the line the NFL should reduce the amount of football its players must endure, either in the preseason or the offseason.
"It's long, monotonous, especially with OTAs," said Ward, entering his 11th NFL season. "You do all those OTAs, why not cut back on the preseason games?"
Organized team activities, or OTAs for short, are those voluntary practices and meetings each NFL team now conducts throughout the spring, usually from late April through early June. Each team is permitted 14 OTAs, plus a five-practice required minicamp spread over three days.
With all the spring workouts, Ward believes the players no longer need four preseason games to get ready for the regular season. He says three would be perfect.
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"Either cut back on the preseason games or cut back on OTAs," Ward suggested.
Ward is aware that in order to reduce the number of preseason games, the owners would need to make up the revenue some other way. Since he does not advocate lengthening the season from its current 16 games, he says the alternative is to scale back what the players do in the spring.
"They say the OTAs are voluntary," Ward said. "But, really, they're mandatory. You can say it's voluntary if you want, but it doesn't look good when you're not here. So many big people make a big deal if a guy's not here. If you make such a big deal about it, it's ... voluntary! It should be every guy's choice if he wants to come back."
It was pointed out to Ward that both Troy Polamalu and Casey Hampton skipped the spring drills except for the required minicamp.
"Yeah, but if Troy, Casey, myself, Ben, Willie all stay away, now it becomes a problem," Ward said. "To me, it's mandatory. The preseason starts in April or May and goes all the way to now. Now it gets kind of monotonous; you see the same old plays, you run the same offense. I get tired going against Deshea. I've been going against Deshea for 11 years from May on out."
When Ward and cornerback Deshea Townsend joined the Steelers as draft picks in 1998, there wasn't so much football.
"You didn't have as many OTAs,'' Ward said. "When I was a rookie, we had a rookie minicamp and a smaller minicamp. You didn't see the veteran guys until the first week of June for a four-five-day camp. That's the way it used to be."
Having said that, Ward believes coach Mike Tomlin takes care of his older veterans better than do some other coaches, including Cleveland's Romeo Crennel. Defensive end Orpheus Roye, signed by the Steelers last week after he was released early this year by the Browns, told Ward that Tomlin goes easier on his veterans.
"He said their coach beat them up in training camp and, by time they got to the season, in the fourth quarters they were beat up, physically and mentally drained," Ward said. "Coach Tomlin has been good about it.
"Camp was good. He didn't really cut back, but some of the veteran guys he let off some days. He's been looking out for, I guess, those 30 and above. It's the same football. Myself, Potsie [James Farrior], James [Harrison], Deshea -- we've been running the same plays since day one, there's no need to grind through it. We've been in this league so long, I think we know what it takes to be mentally tough. It's the young guys, those are the guys he really pushes."
Ward said he is looking forward to the extended play he and his fellow first-teams will see tonight in Minnesota.
"It's probably the best preparation we're going to get before the regular season. You want to get the guys going on a 10- or 12 play drive. If I have my clothes on, I'm ready to play. I don't want to come out of the game. But you have to be smart about it."
By that he meant not pushing the first-teamers to the extent they are exposed to injury more than necessary. The Steelers saw what can occur in the preseason when backup quarterback Charlie Batch's right collarbone was broken in the first preseason game.
"Charlie's a quality backup who has been around. That could easily have been me or Ben or anybody who plays a vital role on this team.
"If two starting guys get hurt on your team, that can cause a different outcome for your season. Imagine if we lose Ben or Troy in the preseason, the state of the Steelers probably would go a little crazy. So you have to be smart in situations. You do have to take precautions. You don't want to overwork your guys in games that don't really count."