The Blitz

A little over fourteen months ago, the Steelers Front Office made perhaps one of its shrewdest moves in the franchise's 70-year history. They secured the services of wide receiver Hines Ward through 2005. Ward -- a 1998 third-round pick out of the University of Georgia -- had been an afterthought to that point. The Steelers had spent consecutive first-round picks to shore-up a depleted receiving corps, showing little confidence in Ward becoming any more than a part-time contributor.

:: Hines, however, had other ideas.

:: From 1998-2001, Ward had totaled 1,556 yards and 11 touchdowns on 124 career receptions. He started 29 of the 48 games he played in, almost by default. Despite the organization's best efforts to make him a bit-player, Ward's production, effort, and attitude could not be denied.

:: As a restricted free agent playing under a $512K qualifying offer, Ward received a four-year extension valued at $9.5M and a mere $2.5M signing bonus. He is now in the second year of that contract, has not missed a single game, and has produced All-Pro, franchise-record setting numbers.

:: Compare that to the contract the Colts handed WR Marvin Harrison a year earlier -- a four-year, $24.4M deal that included an $11.5M signing bonus -- and Ward is obviously a bargain. Granted, Harrison had eclipsed Ward's 3-year career numbers with his 1999 output alone, but that was then. Ward's 2002 receiving statistics compare favorably to Harrison's, the league's leading receiver. In some instances, they are just flat-out better.

:: Harrison's 109-catch, 1,318-yard to-date performance surely surpasses that of Ward, who has 89 receptions and 1,090 yards in 12 games. Ward, however has scored 11 TDs to Harrison's 8, has a season-long reception of 72 yards compared to Harrison's 69-yarder, and enjoys a slight edge with a 12.2 yards-per-catch average to Harrison's 12.1. All this despite an under-performing running game, a merry-go-round at quarterback, and a budding superstar in third-year wideout Plaxico Burress competing for pass-catching opportunities.

:: Still, Hines Ward is taken for granted, and he knows it. He has mentored the immature, laid-back Burress, coaxing and prodding him into one of the more dynamic talents in the league. His aggressive blocking -- by far his most renowned quality -- has over-shadowed his offensive production. He even leads the league in rushing yardage by a wide receiver with 133 yards on just 9 attempts, and is a key component to offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey's creative, anything-goes offensive playbook.

:: Ward is on pace for a 119-catch, 1,453-yard, 15 TD season; numbers that would put him in line with Harrison's 105.5-reception, 1,468.5-yard, 11.5-TD average for the first two years of his contract extension, 2000 and 2001. Better still, those numbers would shatter the Steelers all-time season records for receptions (94, Ward in 2001), yardage (1,398, Yancey Thigpen in 1997) and TD catches (12, Buddy Dial in 1961 and Louis Lipps in 1985). He is a lock to lead the Steelers in scoring; the first non-kicker to do so since Franco Harris did it twice in the late-seventies. He is also a lock for a trip to Honolulu as a representative of the AFC in this year's Pro Bowl, his second in as many years.

:: All this for a mere $2.44M per season -- a bargain, for sure.

:: But, of course, Ward will always play second fiddle to the infinitely more talented Burress. And it is obvious that it bothers him. Ward is a worker, while Burress is a prima donna. Burress, much like the Vikings' overrated Randy Moss, will give less than a supreme effort if he does not see the ball early and often. Ward though, when all is said in done, will have all of the records.

:: And the last laugh. No wonder he's always smiling.

-- Blitzburgh

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