Ol' Yeller Won't Die

Most call him Old School. His own coach calls him Ol' Yeller. But Hines Ward can now call himself the NFL's No. 10 all-time leading receiver. It seems reports of his demise have been greatly exaggerated.

PITTSBURGH – Rex Ryan used to be the defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens and now he's the head coach of the swashbuckling New York Jets. So you know he loves his old-school, slobber-knocker football.

And you figure he loves Hines Ward.

"Oh, I appreciated him. No question," Ryan said during a conference call Wednesday to discuss the upcoming game between the Jets and Steelers. "We tried to knock his head off and he was trying to knock our head off. So that is who he is and that is who he will always be.

"He got somebody last week," Ryan continued. "I thought he knocked somebody out, but the kid popped up. Oh, I have seen it a million times. I remember Samari Rolle tried to tackle him once and he knocked him out. It was like, wow. He is a tough ass and I love him."

It's got to be true love.

Contrast that with how Ward's own coach, Mike Tomlin, greeted Ward at the front door of the locker room following Ward's 115-yard game last Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.

"Come on Ol' Yeller," Tomlin said. "I ain't gonna take you out back and shoot you today; maybe tomorrow."

Now, there's some tough love.

"He likes to mess with me," said Ward. "But I'm not even the oldest guy on the team."

Perhaps the 34-year-old Ward doth protest too much. Perhaps Tomlin's dig bugged him a bit.

"It don't bug me," Ward said. "It's just perception. People think that you get older and you start to fall off, which is naturally the case. I guess it's something he uses to motivate me. But I have self-motivation already."

Don't let Ward fool you. He admitted to getting at least a little nervous after a 1-catch, 13-yard performance two weeks ago against the Ravens. After 12 games he had 41 catches. At the same point last year, Ward had 72 on his way to 95.

"To come back and have the game like I did against Cincinnati, it proved there's still a lot of football left," he said of his 8-catch day. "I needed that. It does start to creep in. You start to wonder. You start questioning whether you're losing a step. You need a game like that to reassure."

The game not only reassured Ward, it moved him into 10th place on the NFL's all-time receiving list. He displaced Art Monk with a 21-yard catch that gave the Steelers a first down at the Cincinnati 9. Ward's next catch converted a third-and-1, and the catch after that went for 29 yards on 2nd-and-30.

None of those catches, though, rank as high on Ward's personal highlight reel as the one Ryan mentioned. After taking a screen pass behind two tight ends, Ward lowered his head, initiated helmet-to-helmet contact with Roy Williams, and cast the safety back and to the side as if he were a rag doll.

Go ahead. Make another new rule.

"That's just want-to," Ward said. "When I leave this game, I want to be judged as a good football player. I don't want to be compared to anybody because I don't want anybody, really, to be compared to me. I like to think of myself as a different breed. I'm just someone who does whatever it takes to win. If it takes me ducking my head and running over somebody and trying to fight for extra yards, that's what I'm going to do."

How many years does he have left?

Or better: Would he call it a day if he were to win a ring in February?

"I have no idea," he said. "If that were to happen, I'd have to ask myself if I want to practice and go through training camp again. But right now I'm just playing game by game, year by year, and I'm blessed to be able to leave this game when I want to leave. If I want to leave right now, I've over-exceeded any expectation by anyone, even myself."

If he were to leave now, he'd leave as the team leader in catches for the 12th consecutive season. He now has 49 for the season, three ahead of Mike Wallace.

"The coaches still have faith in me to go out there and get it done," Ward said. "Coach Tomlin calls me Ol' Yeller, like Mr. Dependable, but I don't like that one because in the end Ol' Yeller dies."

Ward laughed out loud, as if he'd just scored on the Ravens.

"To be able to still get open, still make plays, still make some spectacular catches in year 13, I'm blessed" he said. "I'm blessed to be where I'm at."


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