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Harris: Ward carves out remarkable career

| Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2009

Of the 12 wide receivers selected before Hines Ward in the 1998 NFL Draft, only one still plays in the NFL. Randy Moss, a certain Hall of Famer, was drafted in the first round that year — 71 picks ahead of Ward, a third-rounder and the 92nd player taken overall.

The draft that delivered wide receiver washouts Kevin Dyson, Marcus Nash, Jacquez Green, Patrick Johnson, Brian Alford, E.G. Green and Larry Shannon could ultimately become the second draft to produce two Hall of Fame receivers in Ward and Moss, now with New England. Another possibility could be Michael Irvin and Tim Brown, both drafted in 1988. Irvin is in the Hall of Fame; Brown isn't ... yet. Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were the first wide receivers from the same draft class to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

That Irvin is in the Hall of Fame with fewer receptions and touchdown catches than Ward only speaks to Ward's greatness. That Ward, at age 33, is enjoying a campaign that players 10 years his junior would be proud to claim has captured respect from some of his most esteemed peers.

"I don't like to get into too many conversations about the Hall of Fame because I don't really know what a Hall of Famer is now. But I don't feel like you can tell the story of the history of wide receivers in the NFL without including Hines Ward," said ESPN analyst Cris Carter, who trails only Jerry Rice on the all-time list for total receptions and touchdown catches but wasn't inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility last year.

Ward's career total of 842 receptions ranked sixth among active players. He's eighth in receiving yards (10,382) and fifth in touchdown receptions (74). He leads the Steelers in all three categories.

"Hines does a lot of things," Carter said. "He might not be the fastest. He's not the biggest, not the cleverest. But he's very, very effective. He's the leading receiver in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He's a winner. That's what people always say the criteria for the Hall of Fame is: 'You've got to win.' Everyone's not a winner."

Ward has played for two Super Bowl championships teams. He was MVP of Super Bowl XL, with five receptions for a game-high 123 yards in the Steelers' 21-10 win over Seattle.

This season, Ward leads the Steelers with 42 receptions for 602 yards. He has three 100-yard receiving games. He's fifth in the league in receiving yards, and his 14.3 yards per catch average is the highest since his rookie season, when he had 15 receptions for a 16.4-yard average.

Ward is tied with three players for the most receptions of 20 yards or more with 10. He's tied with Dallas' Miles Austin as the only players with at least 10 catches of 20 yards or more and three catches of 40 yards or more.

So much for Ward being typecast as a possession receiver because of his so-called lack of blazing speed.

"You have to be careful how you label a guy: 'He's not fast, he can't run.' The measurables don't mean anything when it comes to Hines," said ESPN analyst Keyshawn Johnson, who amassed 814 career receptions for 10,571 yards and 64 touchdowns. "He's gotten those 800 catches and 10,000 yards in a special way.

Height, speed — all those things you look for in a receiver, he doesn't fit that mold. I played 11 years and I went deep a bunch — caught a lot of long passes — in my career. Hines — same thing. He went deep on a bunch of guys."

Carter said there are several reasons for Ward's resurgence in the Steelers' deep passing game.

"Hines is successful late in his career because of the evolution of the offense around him, and having someone like Ben (Roethlisberger). He gets more opportunities than he got earlier in his career," Carter said. "Another reason he can be successful is Santonio Holmes. If you look at Santonio's big-play capability, teams are trying to roll the coverage up on him a lot. Hines is not getting doubled as much as he was earlier in his career because of Santonio's development.

"Hines can also get open like that because coaches know what you can do, they put you in the right spot. They get a feeling for your skills."

Ward's all-around receiving skills place him in a special category, said Johnson, who respects Ward's game because it resembles his own.

"Hines can do it all," Johnson said. "He can go inside, outside. He can go around you, he can go deep. He can block.

"You think (Oakland Raiders rookie wide receiver) Darrius Heyward-Bey is going to block somebody• Please. Hines Ward is better than Heyward-Bey on one leg. And Heyward-Bey will outrun Hines backward. But Heyward-Bey isn't the football player that Hines is, and probably will never be."

Heyward-Bey was a first-round draft pick, No. 7 overall. He has five receptions for 74 yards in his first eight NFL games.

Few people gave Ward much of a chance as a third-round pick 11 years ago.

"The people that do the drafting don't pick football players," Johnson said. "They pick statistics."

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