By Dejan Kovacevic, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Monday, February 13, 2012
Just to get this on the record: I won't complain if the Steelers release Hines Ward, given his performance last season, the three young receivers ahead of him and that he'll turn 36 next month. I also won't complain if the Steelers keep Ward by securing a huge pay cut from the $4 million he's due in 2012.
These aren't easy calls for the front office, but either would be the right call from the football standpoint.
If only someone can find the fortitude to make it.
And make it The Steelers Way.
Goes something like this ...
Player X — let's call him Franco Harris, Greg Lloyd, Levon Kirkland or Joey Porter — looks to have reached the finish line.
Coach Y — let's call him Chuck Noll or Bill Cowher — addresses that player respectfully but forthrightly: Thanks for everything. It's time to part ways.
Team Z elsewhere might give that player a chance, or the player might choose to retire. Either way, the Steelers move on. And, just as important, they maintain their reputation for being first-class in these affairs.
So how to explain the classless way they're treating Ward?
The day after the playoff loss in Denver, Mike Tomlin declined to address the Ward topic, unless you count, "We love Hines." There was no commitment nor a timetable to establish one. And that's no stunner. When I asked Tomlin about Ward's demotion in November, Tomlin abruptly ended the interview. He's been hypersensitive to this for months.
Team president Art Rooney II did address Ward in his end-of-season meeting with reporters, saying, "You want it to end the right way whenever it ends, but it's a two-party decision. We'll evaluate how we feel about it over the next few weeks."
That at least was something, if only a hint that the Steelers might take Ward back if he takes that huge pay cut.
So why, according to Ward's representatives, has there been no formal contact from the team in the month and change since season's end?
And, way, way above that, who from the Steelers could have had the audacity to leak word to NFL Network — with the news broken Friday night by veteran reporter Jason La Canfora — that they don't want Ward back for 2012?
Whoever it was, that person or persons should look Ward in the eye and apologize.
I'm not getting into guessing the source of the leak. Only a handful in the Steelers' upper hierarchy would have hard knowledge of Ward's future, but there's still no way to narrow it down. Or, for that matter, to know if the leak was aimed at pressuring Ward to drop his price to rock bottom.
Again, if that's the goal, fine. The Steelers have big-time cap issues.
But to do it like this?
It wouldn't be the first time for such a tactic: In 2009, La Canfora wrote in an NFL.com chat that the Steelers were considering cutting Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton. That didn't happen, of course. But Hampton was aware of the report and, unlike the previous year, he showed up for training camp in good shape.
If the mission was to motivate Hampton, it was accomplished.
This is different, though. It's not about calories or contracts or other tales that have navigated this particular pipeline.
This is Hines Ward.
This is the franchise's most accomplished receiver, a two-time Super Bowl champion, a heart-and-soul contributor on and off the field. This is someone who, even when reduced to responding to this report through his Facebook account, wrote that he'll accept less money to "make sure" he stays with the Steelers.
He deserves some respect.
If Ward isn't done, if he can still help the receiving corps, if pending free agent Jerricho Cotchery is as unlikely as it appears to re-sign for more duty as a No. 4, then tell Ward as much. Work something out promptly.
If Ward is done, then tell him that sometime soon. Face to face. Man to man.
Used to be The Steelers Way.