It has to be talked about. I can't ignore it any more. Of course, I'm referring to the grand debate of who's wrong: Hines Ward or Ben Roethlisberger. And my verdict is in: they're both guilty.
We'll start with Hines Ward, or as Mr. Madden, Super Genius calls him, Whines Hard. Hines was a college quarterback and wide receiver at the University of Georgia and was drafted as a receiver by the Steelers in the 3rd round of the 1998 draft. Hardly the "no one ever gave me a chance" sob story that he would want you to believe. Sorry Hines, but third-rounders actually have a pretty good chance to make the squad. A guy like the undrafted Willie Parker didn't have a chance, and then he ultimately did have a chance anyway. So we can put that long-standing Hines storyline to bed.
Another card played often by #86 is the D-card. And by D, I mean "disrespect". As I researched this story on Pro Football Reference, I was greeted with the header, "4-time Pro Bowler & 3-time All-Pro". He was voted by his teammates as the Steeler MVP or co-MVP in 2002, 2003, and 2005. And he also was awarded the MVP award in a rather big game on February 5, 2006 in Detroit.
As I dug back to his college days, I found that Hines was All-SEC at Georgia. He was co-MVP of the 1995 Peach Bowl and a Bulldog Team Captain in 1997. And high school? Hines scored All-American honors from Super Prep, Blue Chip Illustrated and USA Today, as well as All-State and Super Southern Top 100 honors. Heck, he was even a two-time Clayton County Offensive Player of the Year.
This is a man who's gotten nothing but respect ever since he put on a pair of cleats. An example of no respect, other than Ben Roethlisberger and Rodney Dangerfield, is Jacksonville running back Fred Taylor. Sure, his nickname is Fragile Fred, but the guy's run for over 10,000 yards, 17th all-time and second among active players. How many trips to Hawaii has he made? One, on the NFL's dime. And that will be this year. That's disrespect.
Hines has bellyached every time the Steelers used a high pick on a wide receiver. There was Troy Edwards in 1999. There was Plaxico Burress in 2000. There was Santonio Holmes in 2006. You get the drift. He takes each pick as a personal slap in the face, even though he's outlasted two of the three receivers mentioned in the Steeler black and gold.
And as he just proved, Hines continues to take offense at any comment remotely directed in the direction of his position. The reality is that he shouldn't. He's the Steelers' all-time leader in catches, receiving yards, and touchdowns. He's taken home all of the above honors, such as the Pro Bowls, the All-Pros, and the Super Bowl MVP. In college, his 3,870 all-purpose yards are second only to Herschel Walker in Bulldogs history. In the 1998 Outback Bowl, he set a bowl record for receptions and yardage with 12 catches for 122 yards. He was in the culturally significant Super Bowl Disney World commercial. He went on a goodwill trip to South Korea. He has his own TV show. He's John Madden's wide receiver equivalent of Brett Favre. And he's even been on boxes of Franco's donuts. This is not a person who should be so angry at the world. This is the resume of a future Hall of Famer.
After the Steelers' playoff loss to Jacksonville, I had this to say about the receivers, and in particular, Hines:
Hines Ward and Heath Miller were inspirational to say the least. Their play in the second half was simply unreal, especially Ward, who I haven't seen so irritated by an opponent in some time. 10 catches for 135 yards in the playoffs is a big-time effort. For the record, the great Terrell Owens (2002 vs. Giants) and Randy Moss (1999 vs. St. Louis) have only amassed more than 135 yards in a playoff game once time each. It's also the third time that Ward has acheived 10 catches in a postseason game, a feat neither Moss nor Owens has ever accomplished. So for the people who say the Steelers have no receivers, look elsewhere for your sacrificial lamb.
And I still stand behind those words. Contrary to popular belief, the ticket to the Super Bowl is not always punched with a hulking receiver lining up on your squad. Consider the leading receivers on Super Bowl teams since 2000:
2000 - Ravens - Qadry Ismail - 655 yards
2001 - Pats - David Patten - 1199 yards
2002 - Bucs - Keyshawn Johnson - 1088 yards
2003 - Pats - Deion Branch - 803 yards
2004 - Pats - David Givens - 874 yards
2005 - Steelers- Hines Ward - 975 yards
2006 - Colts - Marvin Harrison - 1366 yards
I wouldn't exactly call that a list of superstars. In fact, the average of these seasons comes in at 994 yards. And this is not a new phenomenon. Of the top 10 leaders in career receiving yards, only three of the 10 men own Super Bowl rings: (1) Jerry Rice, (3) Isaac Bruce, and (5) Marvin Harrison.
Look, the Steelers' season did not end early because of their receivers. It ended because of a horrible offensive line and a defense that bent, bent, bent, and then broke at the most unfortunate times. No one was pointing the finger at Hines Ward. Yet when Ben Roethlisberger was recently asked for his offseason wish list, a "tall wide receiver" came in alongside a new contract, as well as a new contract for Alan Faneca.
Could the Steelers use a tall wide receiver? Absolutely. But should Roethilsberger have made the comment? That's questionable.
The comment itself was innocent. But Roethlisberger should have considered the reaction from his thin-skinned teammate.
If Ward has proven anything, it's that he uses the aforementioned d-card as motivation. At any perceived slight, Ward vows vengeance on whoever he believes wronged him, usually an opponent or the media. This is what's made him such a great player. But it's a double-edged sword with Hines. What makes him great also makes him difficult. And if Roethlisberger didn't realize that his comments might come back to bite him, considering who might take exception to his words, then I find some fault with him.
As a team leader on the field, you can't ask for any more out of Roethlisberger. He gives his all, he plays hurt, and he takes full blame when things go wrong. I wouldn't trade him for any QB in the league. I believe with the right mix of help, he's every bit as good as anyone else.
But there's a stink lingering in Steeler Land. It first reared its head with the team MVP vote, when James Harrison somehow took home the honor from his teammates, who conveniently disregarded the team record for touchdown passes and a QB rating second only to Tom Brady's.
People have debated the impact of this mini-war of words ad nauseam, but it must be said that this is not a good thing, in any way, shape or form. If anything, it's another piece of evidence towards a possible down season in 2008, alongside a killer schedule, key players having to return from injury, and the probable loss of a future HOF lineman.
Mike Tomlin made a lot of good moves in his first season as coach. But he also made some mistakes. Here's hoping that he gets everyone on the same page...and fast. If not, it could be a looooooong season in 2008.