Wilson: Defending Hines

Welcome to Mars. Blogger Ryan Wilson never thought he'd see the day when he'd have to defend Hines Ward to Steelers fans. Well, that day is here.

Thank god for Sports Illustrated. Before I found out about the Hines Ward story, I was all set to write 2,000 words on why Barrett Brooks and Lee Mays are the two most underrated members of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Instead, I can now respond not only to the SI article, but to various ancillary Ward-related topics that emerged as a consequence.

Even before reading the piece, I could recite Ward's upbringing from memory: His dad was an African-American serviceman stationed in South Korea. He married a Korean woman, whose family shunned her as a result. They had a son (Hines), moved to the United States, split up, and after living with his father, Ward moved in with his mother. Initially, Ward was embarrassed by his Asian roots, but eventually grew to embrace them. He was a high school football phenom, and played well enough at the University of Georgia to be considered a legitimate NFL prospect. He wasn't drafted until the third round because he (a) didn't have one true position in college, and (b) didn't have any knee ligaments (or so the story goes). In Pittsburgh, Ward excelled on special teams, and through hard work and stick-to-it-iveness, he eventually became the team's all-time leading receiver despite having to fight for his job virtually every year. In 2006 Ward won the Super Bowl MVP, returned to his homeland a hero and everyone lived happily ever after. Or something like that.

Writer Karl Taro Greenfeld basically follows this outline in the SI piece save two little paragraphs:

And while it would seem that the hard-nosed Ward would be the ideal Bill Cowher guy -- tough, physical, intense -- the wideout says he's never had a warm relationship with him. "I don't have anything to say to him," he says. "After what he did to me, after how he treated me, no. The numbers I put up? The seasons I had, for them to keep on bringing in guys...?

Cowher denies having anything but respect for Ward. "Our decision to draft other wide receivers was not a reflection on Hines Ward," he says. "We had lost a couple of our top veterans, and we were just trying to strengthen that position."

So let me get this straight: Hines Ward doesn't have a warm relationship with his boss.

Okay, this is bad ... really bad.

First, somebody call Geraldo. He'll know what to do. Next, we'll need to get the terror threat thingy bumped up a couple of colors because this is serious. Finally, Jesse Jackson will need to organize a protest march through downtown Pittsburgh and demand Cowher's resignation.

Or maybe we can all take a deep breath and relax.

What exactly did Ward say that was so outrageous? That he wasn't close to the head coach? Big whoop. Raise your hand if you're close to your boss. (Put your hand down Tony Micelli.)

Ward's comments about feeling disrespected after Troy Edwards and Plaxico Burress were back-to-back first-rounders in 1999 and 2000 are revealing. They reveal that he's a very competitive person who uses such things as motivation. Fans may view this as whining or complaining, but I see it as a means for Ward to prove his doubters (perceived or otherwise) wrong.

Look, we all can agree the front office reached on the Edwards pick. Nobody thought it was a great pick on draft day, and as time passed our initial doubts were only reinforced. But anyone who thinks the Steelers didn't have a need at wideout is kidding themselves. In 1998, Ward's rookie season, these were the team's top pass-catchers:

Name              Rec    Yds   TD
Charles Johnson    65    815    7
Courtney Hawkins   66    751    1
Will Blackwell     32    297    1
Hines Ward         15    246    0

Yeah, a real Who's Who among future Hall of Fame wide receivers. Not even Carnac could've predicted Ward's future success, so for the Steelers to try and upgrade this group seems perfectly logical. Now one can question the team's judgment on who could best fill that need, but with hindsight being 20/20 and all, it looks like there wasn't much to work with. Edwards was the third wideout off the board (13th overall) after Torry Holt and David "Barryoids" Boston, and the picks that followed were just dreadful. There were two second-rounders: Kevin Johnson and Peerless Price, and the rest were third-rounders whose career peaked on draft day: D'Wayne Bates, Marty Booker, Karsten Bailey and Travis McGriff. After Holt, there isn't a decent receiver in the bunch until you get to the seventh round, when the Packers selected Donald Driver.

In Ward's second season, he posted very similar numbers to Edwards:

Name              Rec    Yds   TD
Hines Ward         61    638    7
Troy Edwards       61    714    5

I don't know if the coaches realized early on that Edwards wasn't the long-term answer (his rookie season numbers certainly didn't indicate he would be the next Marcus Nash), or if the idea of having six-foot-five Burress as the deep threat while Ward and Edwards manned the underneath stuff seemed too good to, ahem, pass up. Whatever the case, the Steelers took Burress with the 8th overall pick in the 2000 draft.

You know, by this point it's easy to see why Ward might've felt slighted by the organization. One first-round receiver is one thing; two in two years is something else entirely. The Steelers couldn't have been less conspicuous if they sent Ward and his teammates the following memo:

Our current collection of wide receivers is awful. Ryan Leaf awful. "Major League: Back in the Minors" awful. The Pittsburgh Steelers will make every effort to improve the position, which means that no job is safe. And yes, we're looking right at you Hines Ward.

- Management

Obviously, things didn't happen like this, but I can see how Ward might use the arrival of Edwards, and then Burress as motivation. Sure, Ward was a third-round pick and had one good season under his belt, so he probably was in no real position to complain. And here's the thing: He didn't. We know now, six years later, that he wasn't crazy about the whole deal, but at the time we didn't hear a peep. Instead, Ward went out and posted another 600-plus receiving season to go along with 48 catches and four TDs. Burress and Edwards combined to catch 41 passes for 488 yards and zero TDs.

Here's what the Post-Gazette's Ron Cook wrote in November 2000 after the Steelers spanked the Bengals 48-28 during a Week 13 game:

"… It's no coincidence that happened about the time Cowher started playing Ward, Hawkins and Shaw more and Edwards and Burress less. He had been rotating Edwards with Ward and Burress with Hawkins in the regular offense, but he used Ward and Hawkins almost exclusively Sunday.… In a sense, it can't be easy for Cowher to sit Edwards and Burress -- and not just because of their salaries. They figure to be the team's future long after Hawkins, for instance, is gone. They aren't getting better on the bench.

But it might end up benefiting the Steelers as much in the long run as the short run. Maybe it will make Edwards and Burress work harder to get better. Maybe it will make them realize they have to -- quoting Cowher -- "seize the opportunities that come along."

There's an idea: working harder to get better and seizing opportunities that come along. Sounds a lot like Hines Ward. Burress or Edwards? Not so much.

And I don't mean to dump on Burress (I actually liked the guy when he was in Pittsburgh), but the fact that Pittsburgh traded Edwards before the 2002 season for a sixth-round pick, and let Burress walk after the 2004 season says a lot about how they felt about Ward.

And then there was last summer, when Ward staged a mini-holdout while he angled for a new deal. The Steelers, as they are wont to do, didn't budge. The organization made it clear that if Ward wanted to re-negotiate his contract, he'd first have to show up for training camp. Ward eventually relented, showed up, and the two sides reached an agreement.

During the whole ordeal there were predictably those fans who called Ward selfish or greedy, and said he symbolized all that was wrong with the modern-day athlete. These are probably the same people who boo Santa Claus and think Carrot Top is funny.

Look, heading into training camp last year, Ward was coming off his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl, but his salary cap hit ranked 37th among NFL wide receivers. Thirty-seventh! I think it's okay if the guy asks for a raise. And once he and Cowher had a chance to talk, Ward showed up -- still without a new deal -- and prepared for the regular season like he'd done in every previous season.

And this last sentence leads me to wonder the context of Ward's comments when referring to Cowher in SI piece. When Hines finally reported to training camp last summer, here's what he said:

"For me, I needed to hear that from my head coach, this support -- that's all a player can ask for. If your coach doesn't have confidence in you as a ballplayer, maybe you need to part ways," Ward said before the game. "It's been a long time since we had a conversation like that. ... That's why I'm here, showing good faith, because I want to retire a Steeler."

That sounds more like the Hines Ward I know. But even if he meant exactly what he said in Sports Illustrated, so what? If Ward has to create straw men scenarios Hulk Hogan style to get himself psyched up, more power to him. I'm guessing there won't be any complaints once the season starts ... just like last year.

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