They may even fear him a little.
That’s because Ward is really the perfect Steeler, a player who best embodies the team's gritty attitude and personifies its toughness. And with another big game on Sunday, Ward may also cement his legacy as a Pro Football Hall of Famer.
Ward as a Hall of Famer might be a tough sell. He’s never led the league in catches or receiving yards or receiving touchdowns, and only made the Top 5 in those categories a few times. His career numbers — 954 catches, 11,702 yards, 83 touchdowns — are all good, but not as good as those of Cris Carter and Tim Brown, both of whom have been considered for Hall of Fame selection and voted down. It wasn’t that long ago that Ward’s numbers would have been considered phenomenal (he already has more catches than Steelers Hall of Fame receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth combined), but Jerry Rice so thoroughly re-wrote the receiving section of the NFL record book that almost every modern receiver looks wanting in comparison.
And yet Ward is great in just about every aspect of football that isn’t quantified by statistics. Blocking? Ward is generally regarded as the best blocking receiver in the league. Stepping up his play in the big games? Ward has two rings and a Super Bowl MVP Award and has been a major contributor in 12 Pittsburgh postseason victories.
Leadership? Just listen to those hushed tones his teammates use.
Also impossible to measure with statistics: Toughness. Ward may be the toughest receiver ever to play the game.
We ask whether some receivers are tough enough to go over the middle. With Ward, we ask whether opposing linebackers are tough enough to withstand his devastating hits. (You could also make a case, of course, that Ward takes his tough play too far, considering that he won in a landslide when Sports Illustrated took a poll of NFL players to identify the league's dirtiest player.)
All of Ward’s hits take a toll, and not just on the guys on the receiving end. Although Ward has stayed remarkably healthy (missing just six games in his 13-year career), that toll may be why Ward has talked about retirement a few times in the last year. Specifically, Ward has said that if he wins another Super Bowl, he might make that his final game and retire, as his teammate Jerome Bettis did five years ago, as a champion.
But fear not, Steelers fans — Ward confirmed this week that his talk of retirement had been more idle musing than a serious consideration of walking away from football.
The Steelers coach will surely want Ward’s services for a few more years. And with a few more years will come a couple hundred more catches and a couple thousand more yards, so the case for Ward in the Hall of Fame should only get stronger.
There’s one way Ward can make his case for enshrinement in the Hall of Fame a lock on Sunday: Win another Super Bowl MVP.
The four players who have won multiple Super Bowl MVP awards — Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana and Tom Brady — are all in the Hall of Fame or certain to make it some day. If Ward joins that elite group, he’ll have his ticket punched to Canton.
But even if he isn’t Sunday’s MVP, he’s the most important member of this core group of Steelers who are playing for their third ring on Sunday.
He’s the perfect Steeler.
Rosenthal: Sometimes the Super Bowl isn’t won on the big touchdown pass. Sometimes it’s won on a third-and-10 in your own territory, with your defense falling apart, your lineman struggling to hold up, and your receivers dropping passes. And Aaron Rodgers did just that.
PFT: Aaron Rodgers tells a sold-out crowd of 56,000 fans in freezing weather that Green Bay will repeat.
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