Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward has a message for those who think he's washed up:
"Don't take me out to the shed and shoot me in the head just yet. I'm not ready for that. I know I'm not the 21-year-old Hines, but I'm not done playing football."
This is great news for the Steelers.
"People are doubting Hines? Good. He loves proving people wrong. He's such a gamer," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. It's not as if Ward needs extra motivation for the game today against the Baltimore Ravens. We are talking about the Ravens, right? "There's nothing like beating Baltimore," he has said many times. And it is the playoffs, isn't it? "The time of year when a player makes a name for himself." And the Steelers do think they have a legitimate shot at a seventh Lombardi, correct? "We have a great team."
But a little extra motivation never hurts. If Ward wants to have a big postseason to make up for his dreary -- at least by his high standards -- regular season, how can that be a bad thing for the Steelers?
"In the playoffs, you have the chance to make significant plays," Ward said. "I pride myself on being the guy that my teammates can lean on to make those plays."
I don't know about you, I won't be surprised if Ward has a big day, even though he did little against the Ravens in the two regular-season games. How about maybe seven catches for 115 yards and a touchdown? I learned a long time ago not to doubt him after calling him a "singles hitter" and saying he wasn't worth the really huge money that the top wide receivers were getting. That was six years, 449 catches, 5,647 receiving yards, 42 touchdowns, two Super Bowls and a Super Bowl MVP award ago. I know, one of the worst things I've written, which really is saying something.
That was powerful motivation for Ward then, just as his doubters are now. He knows they are looking at his age -- 34 -- and pointing to his statistical dropoff from 95 catches for 1,167 yards and six touchdowns last season to 59 catches for 755 yards and five touchdowns this season. But he said it's a matter of opportunities. "I'll bet I didn't have 100 balls thrown to me this season," he said. Ninety-four, actually. He said he's still getting open, but the ball, for whatever reason, isn't getting to him as much as it once did. Maybe the pass protection breaks down. Or Roethlisberger goes elsewhere. Something ÃƒÂ‚Ã‚Â…
"If you look at the top 15 plays when we've had missed opportunities, I'll bet I've been involved in 12," Ward said.
"All I know is I'm still being bracketed on second and third down and I still had [New York Jets cornerback Darrelle] Revis chasing me all over the field. That has to say something, doesn't it? That tells me I can still play this game."
The double coverage tickles Ward at this stage of his career. "Why don't they bracket Mike [Wallace]? He's our big-play guy. They should worry about him, not me." But the mere mention of his day against Revis and the Jets makes his smile disappear quickly. "I was open that day, too, but we didn't want to throw to his side." The Steelers lost that game, 22-17, despite having two plays -- both incompletions -- from the Jets' 10 in the final 9 seconds. Neither went to Ward.
"That ate me up inside," he said. "I'm known as a red-zone guy, but I didn't get the opportunity to make a play."
The only things in football that Ward treasures more than catches and touchdowns are wins and Super Bowl titles. This will be his 15th postseason game with the Steelers. Who knows how many more chances he'll have to win a championship to go along with the one from 2005 when he was MVP of Super Bowl XL against the Seattle Seahawks and '08 when the Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals?
"It's different this time. There's a different vibe. Things have changed," Ward said.
"I'm not the oldest guy on the team, but I am the oldest guy who was drafted here and I've been around here the longest. I don't have Deshea [Townsend] anymore. He's gone now. He and I came in together [in 1998]. I'm the last one left."
Ward plans on playing next season. With 954 career catches for 11,702 yards and 83 touchdowns, he has a couple of big milestones in sight. He really wants 1,000 catches. Only seven players in NFL history have reached that extraordinary number.
But it's clear Ward has thought about his football mortality. It's also clear it saddens him. I'm guessing he would play until he's 50 if he could. He said he telephoned good friend and former teammate Jerome Bettis last week to talk about how he handled the final years of his career, which, like Ward's, should get him to the Hall of Fame.
"He just said, 'Enjoy playing the game. People always are going to say something about you. They're always going to doubt you when you reach a certain age. Just play your game,' " Ward said.
The doubters, again.
"Good," Roethlisberger repeated. "Let 'em doubt Hines. Watch what happens."