Steelers throw down gauntlet

LATROBE – The Steelers talked with Hines Ward yesterday but failed to reach an agreement on a contract extension. So Ward held out, as promised, and the team threw down the gauntlet.

The possibility that Ward will sit out the season has grown.

"It's always been the policy of this organization that there will be no negotiations while a player who is under contract is not in camp," said Kevin Colbert, the team's director of operations.

Colbert said the policy will be adhered to in this case, so either Ward will have to crawl back to camp without a renegotiated contract, or he misses the year.

"I don't want to get into all those what-ifs," Colbert responded.

When pressed that the two sides could be finished for the year, Colbert said, "Correct. At this point, no negotiations will occur until the player is in camp."

Ward has one year remaining on his current contract, but was told last summer that an extension would be a priority.

"We've had talks," Colbert said, "with (Ward's agents) Eugene (Parker) and Roosevelt (Barnes) throughout the spring; formal negotiations where you're exchanging proposals. We've been in contact with those guys consistently, not only about Hines but about Bryant McFadden and Trai Essex, and those guys are very good representatives; they understand this game. And again, we've had discussions. I don't really keep track of what proposal was exchanged on what date, but we've had discussions."

Ward wants a team-record signing bonus, and the Steelers made clear last week the record is not the reported $9 million bonus Ben Roethlisberger was alleged to have received, but the $8.1 million bonus given to Kordell Stewart before the 1999 season.

Ward is looking for what a source called "eight figures". If he misses the season, he will still have one year remaining on his contract.

The players are staunchly behind Ward.

"It's a disappointment not to have him in camp because he's such a leader for the team and guys rally around him," said reigning team MVP James Farrior.

"We can't win without him," said linebacker Joey Porter. "I don't know what the numbers are, but I know he's worth probably what he's asking for. He's a big piece of this team; it's obvious we need him."

Porter was asked if the rest of the team would support Ward.

"If it was me, I would hope I would have the support of my teammates so he knows he has definitely has the support he needs from me. I mean, think about what he´s done over the past few years: He's performed every year. You don't get too many paydays in this business and this is pretty much one of his last paydays so he's doing what he has to do to make sure he gets paid."

"Nothing negative will come out of Hines doing what he has to do. He's doing exactly what he has to do. I don't see nothing negative about it."

Jerome Bettis sided strongly with Ward, and even took some shots at the organization.

"He's been underpaid for a long period of time and he feels he has to rectify that," Bettis said. "They're leaving him no choice. He wants to be here; unfortunately they're not stepping up to the plate."

Bettis, of course, was asked to take a pay cut last year. He responded with an outstanding season.

"If an organization can ask you to take a pay cut, then you should be able to ask for a raise," he said. "And this myth that when a guy turns 30 he can"t play, that's a crock of bologna. Who's to say when someone does? A lot of players over 30 should've been done years ago, but it's not the case. What you have to look at are significant injuries to a player and their physical maintenance."

"In this situation, I think his worth is more than the value than he's been given in the past, so I think that needs to be rectified. He's definitely the heart and soul of this football team. He's a funny guy, laughing and joking, but on the field he gets the job done. You need playmakers out there and he's one of the guys who's a playmaker. You have to have a playmaker."

How does Bettis like Ward's chances against the front office?

"That's a tough one," he said. "This organization has been very frugal in some of the decisions they''ve made. It's not a matter of should he. It's a matter of how much."

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