Monday, January 02, 2012

Ward's 1,000th catch cements elite status

Milestone is latest feat in Hall of Fame career that's winding down

Monday, January 02, 2012

Steelers receiver Hines Ward got five receptions to reach 1,000 in his career, only the eighth receiver in NFL history to do so. (Peter Diana / Post-Gazette)

CLEVELAND -- Steelers MVP Antonio Brown grasped the significance of teammate Hines Ward's 1,000th career catch Sunday almost as easily as Ward latched onto quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's shovel pass.

"Hopefully, it gets him to the Hall of Fame," Brown said. "He's a big-timer. He deserves it."

Is there anyone out there willing to argue?

Ward's milestone catch in a 13-9 win against the Cleveland Browns merely was the topper to his astonishing career. It came in rather ignominious fashion, on a first-down play from the Steelers 41 early in the fourth quarter. Ward came in motion from Roethlisberger's right and grabbed the shovel pass in full stride only to find he had no place to run. Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson threw him down for a 3-yard loss.

At first, it didn't seem quite right. Ward's 1,000th should have gone for a touchdown, right? At the very least, it should have gone for a first down.

But a 3-yard loss?

It seemed so cheap.

But that thought passed quickly.

"It was the [best] minus catch I've ever had," Ward said, grinning.

Clearly, the man wasn't in the mood to apologize. Good for him. He had no reason to apologize, not after becoming just the eighth player in NFL history to get 1,000 catches. Against the Cincinnati Bengals Dec. 4, he became the 19th wide receiver to get to 12,000 receiving yards.

"When we're talking about Hines Ward and professional football," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, "he's in the category of the small few."

Ward's numbers are phenomenal, but there is so much more to his career. He has played in three Super Bowls and will start down the path toward what he hopes is a fourth when the Steelers begin the playoff grind Sunday in Denver against the Broncos. He has been on the winning side in two Super Bowls and was the MVP of Super Bowl XL against the Seattle Seahawks. He has been named to four Pro Bowl teams. He's one of the toughest players in NFL history, certainly one of the most ferocious blocking wide receivers.

It has been some career.

A Hall of Fame career.

"Amazing," Ward said.

Still, the 1,000th catch was no lock, especially after the Steelers coaches downsized Ward's role in the offense at midseason. After getting five catches Dec. 4 in that Cincinnati game, he needed 10 in the final four games. He had just one Dec. 8 against Cleveland and didn't catch a pass Dec. 19 in San Francisco. He still needed five catches against the Browns after getting four Dec. 24 against St. Louis.

"I was nervous going into the game," Ward said.

It showed when Ward dropped a pass on the first play. But that didn't stop Roethlisberger from coming back to him. It was obvious the Steelers had two objectives: Win the game, and get Ward his five catches. His coaches and teammates had wanted him to get to 1,000 in the second half of the game against the Rams -- the Steelers won, 27-0 -- but, curiously, the Rams frequently double-covered him. The Browns used no such strategy. Seven times, Roethlisberger targeted Ward. The seventh time proved to be the money catch.

Even if it did lose 3 yards.

"Today is a double win for me, beating the Cleveland Browns on the road and getting to [a record of] 12-4 and getting 1,000 catches," Ward said. "It's an elite club to be in. I'm just ecstatic."

It's fair to wonder now if Ward will be back to add to his staggering numbers next season, which would be his 15th in the league. I don't think Tomlin and the coaches want him back even if he agrees to a big pay cut, much as his good friend, Jerome Bettis, did several years ago.

The coaches' consensus seems to be that Ward really can't play anymore. The front office could step in and force Tomlin to take him back. But now that Ward has his 1,000 catches, there's not nearly the same motivation to do that.

"I really haven't had time to reflect on that," Ward said when asked about his future. "I've been so focused on this team and helping the young guys and getting ready for the playoffs."

That's a change from what Ward had said in every interview in December. He had talked of definitely playing next season, hopefully with the Steelers but with another team if necessary.

"I'll have a long time to think about that [after the season]," Ward said. "You guys will be the first to know."

The guess here is Ward won't be back. We'll see him again in these playoffs, sure. But the next time we'll see him in a starring role will be at Canton, Ohio.

You know.

At his Hall of Fame induction.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. More articles by this author

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