FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- In one year, Hines Ward has gone from the Super Bowl to the Dog Bowl, and it's as much reality as it is a state of mind for him.
The Steelers' standout wide receiver agreed to judge Dog Bowl 2010 Thursday in Miami along with a radio "personality" named DJ Eddie-E and a dog trainer. They were to pick the MVP (Most Valuable Pooch) from the 75 dogs demonstrating a range of football tricks including a touchdown celebration dance.
Ward gave his best why-did-I-do-this response to the difference from one year to the next.
"Oh, man, it definitely stinks, to be honest," Ward said in a low tone.
He does not even own a dog, but these are dog days for him and his teammates who failed to make the NFL playoffs to defend their Super Bowl XLIII title. Instead, Ward and friends gathered in South Beach the other night, and their long faces might have given them away.
Linebacker James Farrior has a place on South Beach, as does former teammate Jerome Bettis. Ex-Steeler Joey Porter lives in South Florida as well. The popular yet disturbing topic among them was the team's five-game losing streak.
"It was discouraging to lose to Cleveland, Oakland and Kansas City," Ward said. "That leaves you scratching your head. The other day at dinner, we reflected on that and everyone was scratching their heads: How in the world did we lose those games?"
Ward, who lives in Atlanta, said he left Pittsburgh right after the season because he had to get away from football, and even said he "heard" there were some changes on the coaching staff.
"I got as far away as I could from Pittsburgh," he said. "It's been a long year. We started off 6-2 and I just knew we had our chances. It's still upsetting to me."
He said he did not know what went into any of the coaching changes, but he was not surprised at reports that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went to bat for Bruce Arians to help save his job as offensive coordinator.
"You know, it's Ben's team," Ward said. "I think he has some insight into who he wants to have and if he felt comfortable with B.A. ... You have to build your team around him; I don't think you want a disgruntled quarterback who is not comfortable in the system. B.A.'s going to be there; he'll call the plays and we have to perform."
Experiencing the Super Bowl hoopla this time of year -- a good stretch of South Beach was closed off for a big party Tuesday night -- reminded Ward just how much he misses it.
"Being that it was a year ago, I understand how great it is." the 12-year veteran said. "I've been blessed to win two Super Bowls. For me, chances are very slim now to get many more because I'm in the latter part of my career. I'd love to make another run at it and come back and take part in another Super Bowl."
Did the Steelers move further away from returning after last season?
"Know what? I don't think so," said Ward. "We were close and then went through that five-game losing streak. I think we learned a lot about each other individually and as a team. We have to stay the course and not overreact. We finished strong in the last three games. We were a playoff team, we just were not playing good football. We beat Green Bay, Baltimore and Minnesota; that's something you can take from it."
However, they have players such as nose tackle Casey Hampton, safety Ryan Clark, kicker Jeff Reed, running back Willie Parker and defensive back Deshea Townsend who will become unrestricted free agents next month, as will others such as backup quarterback Charlie Batch and defensive end Travis Kirschke.
"I don't know who we'll bring back," said Ward. "There are a lot of veteran guys with great leadership in the locker room who might not be there next year. You wonder where guys will end up."
Ward hopes the Steelers find a way to keep their prime free agents, Hampton, Clark and Reed.
"Those guys are locker room favorites. Everyone likes them," said Ward. "I'd like to see them all come back. In this business, guys come and go and try to get as much money as they can. You can't knock them for that. That's the business side of the profession in the offseason.
"Those are three quality guys. Ryan is an emotional guy, Casey's the heart and soul of our defense and Jeff Reed is one of our captains and there are not many kickers as efficient as Jeff."
Ward also did not take linebacker James Harrison's comment that some players were selfish in 2009 as necessarily a bad thing.
"I know we had guys coming out on contract years who wanted to finish strong," said Ward. "Maybe James was talking in that sense, guys playing for contracts next year. Actually, I like guys coming up on their last year. It makes them do what they can to have a great year to have leverage going in."
With that, Ward begged off the interview. He had to get back to the dogs.