By Mike Bires
Beaver County Times
December 22, 2011
PITTSBURGH -- These are trying times for Hines Ward. That's easy to tell. He's just not flashing his trademark smile as often as he's done so many times over the years.
He may be the franchise's all-time receptions leader. He may be a future Hall of Famer. But as he gets closer to his 36th birthday, he's clearly being phased out of the Steelers' offense.
So the question begs to be asked: Might Saturday's game against the St. Louis Rams mark the last time Ward plays at Heinz Field?
"It's hard to even think about," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "It's not like we go, 'Hines, is this your last year?'
"We don't know. I don't think he knows. Nobody knows. Obviously, we all know there's a chance it could be. It's tough to think about, and it's tough to talk about it. We really don't know how to feel about it yet."
The Christmas Eve game against the Rams could be the Steelers' last home game this season -- if they don't overtake the Ravens and win the AFC North. The Steelers have already clinched at least a wild-card berth, and if they remain a wild card, they'll open the playoffs on the road and figure to stay on the road unless the top four seeds lose.
Ward, who holds 13 team pass receiving records, is under contract through the 2013 season. But would he want to return next year as the fourth or fifth receiver in the rotation? Would the organization want him back in that role?
And if Ward does return next year, he would probably have to take a hefty pay cut. After all, he's due to make $4 million in base salary in 2012.
"No, I don't even think like that," Ward said when asked about Saturday possibly being his last home game in Pittsburgh. "Every year is different. I'm just glad to still be here. That thought hasn't even crossed my mind."
Ward, who turns 36 in March, began his 14th season as a starter. But in the Nov. 13 game in Cincinnati, he lost his starting job to emerging star Antonio Brown.
Along with third-year pro Mike Wallace, Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, who were both selected in last year's draft, give the Steelers a trio of young, fast and talented receivers. They're the Steelers' future at wideout.
In recent weeks, Ward has even dropped down in the pecking order behind eighth-year pro Jerricho Cotchery, who joined the Steelers in August.
In the past two games, the Steelers have thrown 67 passes. Only one was thrown to Ward. He had one catch on Dec. 8 against Cleveland but none Monday night in an Francisco.
"Anything is possible," Wallace said when asked if he thinks Ward will be back next year. "Hines has never said anything about it. No once. He just continues to show up and prepare for the next game."
When this season started, Ward needed 46 catches to become just the eighth receiver in NFL history to reach 1,000 in his career. With two games left, Ward has just 37 catches for 325 yards and just two touchdowns. He's on pace to have his worst season production-wise since he was a rookie in 1998.
And he still needs nine more receptions for the milestone.
"I'm on the cusp on 1,000, but I just want to win," he said. "The catches ... it really doesn't matter. We still have a chance to win the division. And it's always great to have a chance to win at home, especially this week with the game on Christmas Eve. This is special time of the year."
Veteran linebacker James Farrior hopes that if Saturday's game is indeed Ward's last in Pittsburgh, it will be special for the last guy who will ever wear No. 86 as a Steeler.
"To tell you the truth, we haven't really talked about it," Farrior said. "I don't know what Hines is thinking. But if this is going to be his last home game, we're going to send him out with a bang.
"He's got nine more catches to go (to reach 1,000). We've been counting them down with him all season. We've all been enjoying it. Hopefully, we can make it happen."