By Scott Kacsmar
Football Nation 2011 Writer of the Year
What would once be thought of as sacrilege, the Pittsburgh Steelers have released 14-year veteran wide receiver Hines Ward.
This is not the time to discuss Ward’s merits for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as the 35-year-old (36 in a week) receiver, who dominates the franchise’s record book for receiving, still plans to play football for another season. However, this is the time to look at why the move was an obvious
business decision, both for the short-term and long-term, for the cap-strapped Steelers as they move ahead.
There was once a little-known emotional hardcore band from Canada in the late 1990’s called Wrought: Ironsmile
. Their name reminded this fan of Hines Ward today. “Wrought” is an archaic way of saying “worked," which would describe Ward after 14 seasons during which he caught 1,000 passes in the regular season and was the league’s premiere blocking receiver. He also took on the role of mentor to Pittsburgh’s young receivers.
Ward kept his trademark smile intact. But it had to be obvious to him in 2011 that the Steelers planned to move on without him. The 2010 season was inconsistent in terms of Ward’s workload in the offense, but it was expected that he would still be a starter and significant contributor in 2011.
But it only took half a season for Ward to lose his starting job and he played only a small percentage of snaps down the stretch. By season’s end, Ward was the fifth most used wide receiver on the team, and any
snaps were hard to come by. His quest for 1,000 career catches resulted in a lot of forced screen passes to reach the milestone.
That is why the Steelers had almost no choice but to release the veteran, saving about $3.4 million in cap space in the process. Ward has battled through a lot of adversity in his career, stepping up as a third-round pick who had to beat out multiple firs-round picks to be the team’s leading receiver. But no receiver, except maybe Jerry Rice
, can beat Father Time.
In the last nine games of the 2011 season* Hines Ward participated in just 21.6% of the Steelers’ offensive snaps, and caught 20 passes for 123 yards (6.15 YPC).
*includes playoff loss to Denver. Snap data from ProFootballFocus.com
Hines Ward: 2011 in Review
Here’s a detailed look at Ward’s 2011 season and why it was his last in Pittsburgh.
First Half of 2011
In the season opener, which was a 35-7 disaster in Baltimore, Hines Ward played all 64 snaps for the Steelers’ offense. That would be the last time he’s done that in his career. As the weeks went by, Mike Wallace was in full control of the No. 1 position at wide receiver, and second-year player Antonio Brown was coming along strong.
Still, in the first six games of the season Ward did participate in 83.5% of the Steelers’ offensive snaps.
It was in the sixth game, against Jacksonville, where Ward did not get the start for the first time in 2011. He had 23 catches for 237 yards and 2 touchdowns. In 2010, even without Ben Roethlisberger for the start of the season, Ward had a similar 24 catches, but for a more productive 350 yards and 3 touchdowns.
The Turning Point
In a Week 7 game at Arizona, Ward suffered an ankle injury and had to be carted off the field in the third quarter. It would be a season changer, or in Ward’s case, a career changer.
Antonio Brown had his first 100-yard receiving effort of the season in Arizona, after previously having 18 catches for 262 yards in the first six games of 2011. Roethlisberger would pass for 330+ yards in three consecutive games with Ward playing very little of the time.
Ward did not play at all against New England in Week 8. The Steelers showed a high-volume passing game without him, with Roethlisberger competing 36 of 50 passes for 365 yards. Wallace, Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders each had at least 5 receptions and 67 yards in the game.
When Ward returned a week later, it was as if the torch had already been passed; his flame extinguished. Twenty catches away from 1,000, Ward’s role in the offense was about to be severely limited.
Week 9 vs. Baltimore (1 Target, 0 Catches, 1 Drop)
Ward returned for what would be his final chapter in the rivalry with the Ravens, but it was a brief one. After catching a short pass over the middle early in the second quarter, Ward was knocked out with a concussion after a hit by Ray Lewis and would not return.
The Ravens challenged the play, and it was deemed an incomplete pass as Ward lost control of the ball due to the hit. It was strikingly similar to the events that took place a season earlier when Ward was concussed, again at home on Sunday Night Football, against New England. That time it was late in the first quarter, and a Ward catch was challenged by Bill Belichick and ruled incomplete after Ward lost control from the hit.
The overturned play in 2010 snapped Ward’s streak of 186 consecutive games with a reception. Because of the early concussion in 2011’s game, Ward played just two offensive snaps against the Ravens.
Week 10 at Cincinnati (1 Target, 1 Catch for 10 Yards)
Ward returned a week later for the game in Cincinnati, but he would only get one target, while playing just 9 out of 70 snaps. It’s not uncommon for a team to be careful with a player coming off a concussion, but the low number of snaps for Ward would prove to be the new norm rather than a one-game oddity.
Catch 981 – screen right for 10 yards.
Week 12 at Kansas City (4 Targets, 4 Catches for 21 Yards)
Against the Chiefs in primetime, Ward played 17 of the team’s 66 offensive snaps.
Catch 982 – screen left for no gain after Ward goes down to a knee for the catch.
Catch 983 – lined up as an H-back, Ward comes out of the backfield for a 5-yard catch; tackled by a linebacker.
Catch 984 – Ward comes out of the middle of a bunch formation to make a 14-yard catch over the middle.
Catch 985 – screen right for 2 yards.
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Week 13 vs. Cincinnati (6 Targets, 5 Catches for 30 Yards)
Ward played 20 of the team’s 63 offensive snaps.
Catch 986 – screen right for 5 yards.
Catch 987 – trailing out of a bunch formation, Ward comes open over the middle for a 12-yard catch, tackled by a linebacker.
3rd target incomplete
– after Roethlisberger avoided a sack, his deep pass was too long for Ward who could not catch up to the ball down the field.
Catch 988 – a quick pass to the right for a gain of 11; tackled by a linebacker.
Catch 989 – similar to the second catch against Kansas City, Ward eventually caught a short pass from Roethlisberger for 2 yards in the flat.
Catch 990– screen right for no gain.
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Week 14 vs. Cleveland (1 Target, 1 Catch for 6 Yards, 1 Lost Fumble)
Ward played 18/60 snaps, but a big mistake early led to just one target all night.
Catch 991 - lone target of the night was a screen to the left that he gained 6 yards on, but in an attempt to fight for more the ball slipped out of his hands and Cleveland recovered the fumble.
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Week 15 at San Francisco (0 Targets)
Only playing 9 out of 73 snaps in the game, Ward had no targets. Even with the Steelers trailing 20-3 late in the game and the starters still in, they never even considered throwing Ward a few easy passes to get him closer to 1,000 career catches. He was a complete non-factor for this big game in San Francisco.
Week 16 vs. St. Louis Rams (4 Targets, 4 Catches for 32 Yards)
Playing with Charlie Batch at quarterback this time, Ward played 17 out of 54 snaps.
Catch 992 – shovel pass for 2 yards.
Catch 993 – 19-yard gain on a catch over the middle.
Catch 994 – screen left for 4 yards.
Catch 995 – working out of the right slot, a 7-yard gain over the middle with two linebackers in coverage.
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Week 17 at Cleveland (7 Targets, 5 Catches for 24 Yards, 1 Drop)
Needing five catches for 1,000, Ward played 27/83 snaps and got 7 targets to make sure he reached the milestone. The first snap of the game for the Steelers saw Ward lined up as H-back again, but he would drop the dump-off pass
Catch 996 – caught a short pass over the middle for 5 yards.
Catch 997 – in the no-huddle offense before halftime, Ward was open for a 7-yard gain.
4th target incomplete
– trying a pass similar to the touchdown they scored on in Super Bowl XLV together, Roethlisberger’s pass was overthrown in the end zone
Catch 998 – pretending to block inside, Ward caught a screen in the middle and tried to do a hurdle for a 9-yard gain.
Catch 999 – in the left slot, Ward did a short curl for a 6-yard gain.
Catch 1000 – with Mike Tomlin probably thinking “get this over with”, the Steelers go with a shovel pass in the backfield for a 3-yard loss, but getting the 1,000th
catch in the books.
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AFC Wild Card at Denver (2 Targets, 0 Catches)
If there was ever a sign it was over for Ward, it was when he didn’t register a catch in the playoffs, where he has been very prolific in his career (88 catches, 1,181 yards, 10 TD). He was in for just 11 of the 73 offensive snaps.
In the first quarter the Steelers put Ward at the back of a bunch formation, faked a screen to him, then tried a slant, but it was well defended by safety David Bruton.
Late in the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger went down field to Ward, but Champ Bailey was able to tip the ball away. That would be the last snap for Ward in 2011.
That would be Ward’s last snap with the Steelers.
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Pittsburgh Made the Only Choice They Could
After participating in 83.5% of Pittsburgh’s offensive snaps before he was injured in Arizona, Ward’s snap rate fell to 23.6% when he returned after the concussion against Baltimore.
Twenty catches short of 1,000, Ward saw 24 targets in the last eight games of the regular season. That means he did catch 20 of his last 23 targets with one drop, but it was the way he got those catches that drives the decision to release him now.
Of the 24 targets, 8 were screen passes, two were shovel passes, and two more were screen-esque passes in the flat. Those are half the targets right there. Several of the other plays were matched up with linebackers on short passes over the middle. Only five of the completions gained at least 10 yards (long: 19).
In 2011 Ward finished with 46 catches for 381 yards. His 8.28 YPC is the 6th lowest
for a WR with at least 30 catches in a season. Interesting to note Dexter McCluster’s 2011 season comes in at the top (46 catches for 328 yards, 7.13 YPC). McCluster is more of a RB, but the NFL lists him as a WR. Still, former Kansas City coach and new Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley probably wasn’t looking forward to feeding another receiver the all-time short stuff in 2012.
Finding a receiver to contribute at age 36
is difficult. It’s also difficult to find one that can be your team’s leading receiver for over a decade. That’s what Hines Ward was to Pittsburgh. Keyword “was,” of course. Like all players, great or mediocre, there comes a point where it’s time to retire, and that’s where Ward is at right now in his career.
It would be a shame if he tried to hang on for one more season with a different team. Does anyone remember Tim Brown with the Buccaneers in 2004 (24 catches for 200 yards)? How about Art Monk with the 1995 Eagles (6 catches for 114 yards)? Cris Carter with the 2002 Dolphins (8 catches for 66 yards)? What about Andre Reed with the 2000 Redskins (10 catches for 103 yards)?
No? Neither do we.
Hopefully Ward will come to realize it all, as the Pittsburgh Steelers have realized it with the move to part ways with him now. Hopefully fans can remember Ward for the player he was, and not the player he may think he still can be.
Scott Kacsmar is a football researcher/writer who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. He’s still a Hines Ward fan, but it’s about past memories rather than current offerings. You can send any questions or comments to Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.