Cook: It's time to realize Steelers owe Ward nothing
Share with others:
If it has been said once, it has been said hundreds of times. The Steelers owe Hines Ward. They owe him a job. They owe him an immediate answer about his future. They owe him respect, as if they always haven't given it to him.
I can't say this strongly enough.
The Steelers owe Ward nothing.
Ward gave the team 14 terrific years, a Hall of Fame career that guarantees him a prominent spot in Steelers lore. The team paid him countless millions. Neither side owes the other anything.
You might not like reading this, but it's true:
There is no room in pro sports for sentimentality or loyalty, not when so much money is at stake and the pressure to win is so great.
Unfortunately, Ward's inevitable parting from the Steelers looks as if it will be awkward with hurt feelings for Ward. It happens fairly often in sports. An aging star player thinks he has game left and wants to come back for one more season. The team thinks the player is finished and wants to go in a different direction. How can that story not have an awkward ending?
Ward hasn't helped the situation by being so public about his hopes of playing with the Steelers next season. Most recently, he used his Facebook page Saturday to say he would do just about anything for one more year here, including restructuring his contract and, presumably, taking minimum pay for a veteran player. There is nothing wrong with sharing those thoughts with management, which Ward did after the season with Steelers president Art Rooney II and coach Mike Tomlin. But to do it publicly? It's just so unseemly. It makes Ward look as if he's begging for a job. That's sad.
If Ward thinks he can turn up the pressure on management to bring him back, he's badly mistaken.
The Steelers can't and won't be dissuaded by public sentiment, which figures to be mostly on Ward's side because of his significant contributions to the team over the years. If they bring him back, it will be because they think he still can help them, not because of media and fan pressure. No sports management team should ever make a decision based on such pressure. It has to do what's right for its organization even if the decision is unpopular. If the Steelers decide Ward no longer can play, they have to release him. It won't be personal. It will be business.
Ward has been around long enough to know the difference. He held out of training camp in 2005 to get a new contract. That, also, wasn't personal. It was business.
It works both ways in sports.
Of course, that doesn't mean Ward's ego won't be bruised if the Steelers sever ties with him in the next few days or weeks.
The NFL Network reported over the weekend that Ward won't be back next season. Steelers sources told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette that a final decision about Ward's future hasn't been made, a position that general manager Kevin Colbert reiterated Monday. I believe both reports. The team still is looking at its roster makeup with an open mind, but Ward almost certainly won't be back.
Based on the limited number of plays the Steelers gave Ward during the second half of last season, it's apparent Tomlin doesn't think he still can play at a high level. It was all the team could do to get Ward his 1,000th catch. He needed 10 with four regular-season games left and still needed five in the final game against the Cleveland Browns. No. 1,000 finally came on a fourth-quarter shovel pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger that lost 3 yards.
And some actually are saying the Steelers haven't shown Ward the proper respect? Getting him that 1,000th catch even when it wasn't strategically prudent in a 13-9 win is the ultimate sign of respect. The team fulfilled its final obligation to him that day.
That shovel pass made Ward just the eighth player in NFL history with 1,000 catches. Put that magical number with just about every major receiving record in Steelers history, his ability as one of the greatest blocking wide receivers of all time and his three appearances in Super Bowls, which resulted in two wins for his team and the MVP award of Super Bowl XL. That's Hall of Fame-worthy, no doubt about it. All of us have been lucky to watch him.
But we're talking about today, not the past. The Steelers are committed to their three young wide receivers -- Mike Wallace, team MVP Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Ward will be no better than No. 4 on the depth chart if the team somehow decides to bring him back. The fourth wide receiver has to be able to play special teams. Ward isn't going to do that.
But, clearly, Ward wants to keep playing. If the Steelers cut him, he isn't likely to retire unless no other team wants him. You might not like seeing him in another uniform -- just as you didn't like seeing Hall of Famers Franco Harris and Mike Webster in other uniforms -- but so what? It's not your career. It's Ward's. He has to do what is right for him if he's released.
Just as the Steelers have to do what is right for the team.
First Published February 14, 2012 12:00 am