Fans, teammates say goodbye to Steelers veteran receiver Ward
The numbers are as staggering as one of his trademark blocks. The smile that came as easy as catching touchdown passes infuriated opposing players.
Both endeared Hines Ward to fans, who are forced to ponder his Steelers legacy after the team announced Wednesday it will not bring back the franchise's all-time leading receiver for a 15th season.
The Steelers' decision to release Ward by March 13 should not have come as a surprise. The former Super Bowl MVP turns 36 next week, and he had been phased out of the passing game late last season.
That didn't make the end any less jolting for Ward, who met with the Steelers on Wednesday at their South Side headquarters and later vowed to keep playing elsewhere.
The cut also may have been an unsettling one to those who watched the once unheralded Ward eclipse John Stallworth and Lynn Swann in the Steelers' record book and lead the team to its first Super Bowl wins since the 1970s.
"I hate to see him go out this way," said Howard Dewhirst, 71, of Beaver Falls. "I was hoping he would retire before it got to this."
Steelers players took to social media to offer tributes.
"Hines is 1 of the best football players not just WR I've ever seen," free safety Ryan Clark tweeted. "He is a true Steeler. To say he'll be missed is an understatement."
"Was a great mentor for me!" receiver Antonio Brown tweeted. "You define a 'Steeler.' Respect n luv!"
Brown's emergence last season signaled the beginning of the end for Ward.
Ward's 46 catches for 381 yards were his fewest in each category since his rookie year.
"Toward the end of the year he was nonexistent," said Mitch Kuntz, 58, of South Park. "The writing was on the wall."
Ward had two years left on his contract at $4 million per season. His release will put the Steelers under the projected 2012 salary cap and provide them with spending flexibility.
It also will leave the Steelers with just two receivers, Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, from last season under contract for 2012. Jerricho Cotchery is an unrestricted free agent, and Mike Wallace is a restricted free agent.
Cotchery has said he wants to return to Pittsburgh, and the Steelers are expected to make the highest, one-year tender offer allowed by the league to Wallace in hopes of later signing the Pro Bowler to a long-term contract.
Ward raised the bar for all Steelers receivers after making four consecutive Pro Bowls (2002-05) and posting statistics that may never be surpassed in Pittsburgh.
Ward caught his 1,000th career pass in the regular-season finale against Cleveland, making him one of eight players in NFL history to accomplish that feat. He has 12,083 career receiving yards — one of just 19 NFL players to achieve that milestone.
His 86 touchdowns are second in team history to Franco Harris. That total matches the only number he has worn since the Steelers took him in the third round of the 1998 draft out of Georgia.
Ward's value to the Steelers extended beyond numbers.
He is widely considered one of the best blocking receivers of all time, and he served as an offensive captain for seven seasons.
"Toughest (WR) I've seen play the game," Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor tweeted. "One thing we will all remember the most is his SMILE, SB (40) MVP. Future HOF #86 HINES WARD."
Ward won't be eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame until five years after his retirement, and he is not ready to set that clock in motion. He said he is determined to play at least one more season.
"I'd like to see him go out with style, maybe retire now, rather than go to another team like the Ravens," said Ken Miles, 59, of Hickory. "Retire with the Steelers and call it a day."
The Steelers' decision to release receiver Hines Ward before March 13 is based on money as much as his declining production.
By releasing Ward, the Steelers will save $3.37 million of his $4.61 million salary cap total for the 2012 season. Teams must be in compliance with the projected salary cap by March 13.
The 2011 salary cap was $120.375 million. It is believed the 2012 cap, expected to be announced by the NFL this week, will remain the same or decrease slightly.
Entering the offseason, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert estimated that the team was $25 million over the projected cap.
Over the past three weeks, the Steelers have cleared $32.89 million in cap space by releasing veteran players or restructuring contracts. That estimated $7.89 million in savings will be allocated toward contracts for the team's exclusive rights and restricted free agents.
For the team to sign restricted free agent Mike Wallace to a long-term contract, the Steelers likely will have to restructure more contracts or release aging veterans in addition to the 35-year-old Ward.
A look at how the team has saved salary cap money this offseason:
QB Ben Roethlisberger: Restructure/$8.15 million
LB LaMarr Woodley: Restructure/$6.56 million
LB Lawrence Timmons: Restructure/$5.14 million
WR Hines Ward: Release/$3.37 million
CB Ike Taylor: Restructure/$3.283 million
OL Willie Colon: Restructure/$2.85 million
CB Bryant McFadden: Release/$2.5 million
WR Arnaz Battle: Release/$1.037 million
Source: Tribune-Review research
Jason Mackey and Dan Stefano contributed to this report.Additional Information:
Hines Ward by the numbers
14 • Seasons with the Steelers, tying for second longest tenure in team history
15 ? Receiving records he holds with the Steelers
50 • Red-zone TD receptions since 2002, ranking second in the NFL behind Antonio Gates' 57
1,000 • Career receptions with Steelers
873 ? Career receptions - combined - for John Stallworth and Lynn Swann