By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — No one will admit it, but Hines Ward’s Hall-of-Fame career with the Pittsburgh Steelers is winding down.
Sure, there are six games remaining for the Steelers (7-3), as they practice Tuesday and Wednesday before getting four straight days off — as per the new CBA — in this bye week. The club’s next game is Nov. 27 at Kansas City, and there’s no telling how much Ward will be involved.
If the past three games are an indication, not much. Ward sat out the New England game with an ankle injury, played a little bit against Baltimore and had to leave early after absorbing a head shot by Ray Lewis. He did not have a catch. For what is believed to be the first time since his rookie season in 1998, the Steelers started a game with two wideouts and one was not Ward.
Mike Wallace, the clear-cut No. 1 receiver, and second-year player Antonio Brown started ahead of 14-year veteran Ward.
“We had two different packages with two different receivers, me and Mike and A.B. and Mike,” Ward said. “So, they were in on that first package. But it’s just a matter of those were the plays that were called. It’s not about me. It’s about the team. The stories can be written about anything, but we’re 7-3 going into the bye week, and we’re in first place. And that’s all that matters.
So, I’m going to continue to be positive and keep going and keep working my butt off. It’s different for me, a different role, but I’m still going to be the biggest cheerleader on the team, because I want to win. And whatever I can do to help this team win ball games, whether it’s giving these guys advice or make a play when the ball’s thrown my way. I’ll just continue to do that and continue to have a positive attitude.”
Ward noted that he never goes into a season with any definitive expectations, but surely he couldn’t have foreseen a complete drop-off. Ward is far and away the Steelers’ all-time leading receiver, holding the top spot in 15 different pass-receiving categories, but there are two milestones he still can reach.
With 981 receptions for 11,970 yards, Ward needs 19 catches for 1,000 in his career and just 30 yards for 12,000 total. He has 85 career touchdowns, but since 2002 he has 50 scores from the red zone which ranks second in the NFL to San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates with 53.
“I pray and hope so, and I’m working my butt off to reach those goals,” Ward said. “But at the end of the day, it’s more about winning, more than anything. We’re 7-3 going into our bye week, and we have a chance to get a lot of guys healthy coming back to make a push during these final six games. It doesn’t matter what I think (about playing time). It’s a coach’s decision.
“They make the game plan, so it is what it is. I just have to keep moving forward. I’m not going to be angry toward it. I’m just going to keep being the player that I am and continue being a leader on this team. My confidence is high. I still believe in myself, probably more than most people do, but there’s nothing I can really do about it at this point. I was in for a couple plays, and the one play that came my way I caught the pass and got 10 yards with it.
“So, I have to continue to remain positive and continue to work hard, but these questions are to be asked of the coaches,” Ward added. “I just have to keep working my butt off. I’m healthy, but I’ve never made excuses about injuries. I practiced (last) Wednesday and Thursday. I wouldn’t have done that if I wasn’t healthy, so I’ll keep doing that and keep trying to help this team win ball games. It’s bigger than me. It’s all about the team and for us to win ball games.”
When talking with Wallace and Brown and even Jerricho Cotchery, a new Steelers player this year, they all praise Ward for what he’s done to help them. Ward said that he has never been told that his role is diminished nor do the coaches owe him an explanation, he’ll just keep working with the younger guys and doing his best when his number is called.
“That’s what I expect from Hines,” Wallace said. “He’s always been there for me, but … it’s a little different, for sure, to start the game without him. “But it’s just the way it is right now. I’m not sure how much that will continue, but as soon as I come to the sideline he’s the first one there telling me what I did wrong or what I did right. So, it’s just like he was on the field in that regard.
“It is a little different breaking the huddle without him out there. (But) he’s always been a big help to me since I got here. There was never anything negative with Hines. He just takes things as they come, and he gives us everything he’s got at all times. Hines leads by example, and even though he hasn’t played much lately he’s been as big a part of this team as anybody.”
A nagging hamstring injury hampered Cotchery almost from the minute he signed a free-agent contract with the Steelers this summer, but their faith in him has paid off lately. With Ward tallying just one catch for 10 yards the past three weeks and Emmanuel Sanders out several weeks with a knee injury, Cotchery has stepped up. He has six catches for 83 yards and a touchdown.
“It’s going good so far, but I’m just trying to improve from week to week,” Cotchery said. “I’m getting more comfortable, so it felt good to be able to go out there and make a couple plays. It feels good, my chemistry with Ben, but it all starts with him. He’s constantly communicating with me and telling me what he expects from me in certain routes. So, we’ve been able to grow each week.
“But it’s constant communication with Ben. It was tough to watch guys go to work with me on the sideline. You put in work all week and go out and have fun on Sundays, but I couldn’t do either things. I spent most of my time rehabbing, so it was tough watching from the sideline. But the guys in this locker room have been supportive, and they all encouraged me to get my body right and hopefully help out as much as possible after that.
“So, that’s what I did, and as we get into the second half this season I hope I’ve become another option for Ben to go to when he needs someone to make a play,” Cotchery added. “He can extend plays almost every time, and it takes some time to get a feel for that. Ben’s a baller, he can make the throws from the pocket or out of the pocket, and you have to get used to that. You know that you’ll get more opportunities there. So, it’s nice to have that option.”
Cotchery didn’t know where he fit in on the Steelers depth chart, but he was just thankful for the opportunities that he’s had in recent weeks. And if those are an indication, he should get many more in the future.