Thursday, March 1, 2012

FOOTBALL FIX: The End of an Era

This is the start of a weekly feature, giving you your fix of the NFL in an unbearably long off season.

It's the end of an era, and perhaps a career.  After 14 seasons, 1,000 catches, over 12,000 receiving yards, 85 touchdowns, two Super Bowl wins, and a Super Bowl MVP, the Pittsburgh Steelers have parted ways with receiver Hines Ward.

Ward's departure wasn't a shock to many.  He will be 36 by the start of the 2012 season, his speed as declined, and young legs and hands like Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace, and Antonio Brown have easily usurped Ward's playing time.  The Steelers are up against the Cap and needed the relief from ridding themselves of over $3 million from Ward's contract.  It's a move that speaks to the Steelers desire to win and not a desire to be emotion, a key component in today's NFL.

That's not true for fans, however.

For fans the move is sad.  A player who bled for the team, a player many saw rise from the bottom of the depth chart to become a Hall of Famer, a player who drew the ire of opponents and the joy of fans.  It's a move that stings.

The release of Hines Ward is more than just the passing of a torch, or the advancement of the team.  It's the end of an era.  It's the end of the days where the Steelers were three years and a cloud of dust behind Jerome Bettis.  It's the end of a time where passing was a secondary mode of transportation for the offense.  It's the official end of the era of Bill Cowher and his ideals.

Hines Ward no longer in a Steeler uniform severs ties beyond a name.  His rough and tumble approach, always recovering with a smile, was the epitome of the Steelers of yesteryear before Mike Tomlin took over.  The Steelers were a team that left you bruised and battered, carrying the ball for the majority of the time.  Stack the line all that you want, Bettis would run you down.  Ward or some other sure handed receiver would be there to convert on third down if you needed it.

For Steelers fans the passing of Hines Ward's playing days signals the official end of a time that seems to have faded.  Toughness gave way to finesse.  Eating up time was replaced with quick strikes.  Legs no longer carried the ball, it was Big Ben's arm.  It's a movement many have been hesitant to get behind.  With Hines Ward gone, the last glimmer of hope has officially passed.

Todd Haley is the new Steelers offensive coordinator and likely had no use for the steady hands and sturdy legs of Hines Ward.  In a team built on speed and "Young Money", missing it's key running back for the season, the passing game will be more valuable than ever.  It was time to move on.  It was time to let go.

Hines Ward may have some football left in him.  He can still help someone.  For a season, maybe two.  For many fans, though, it will be inconsequential.  He'll be remember solely as a Steelers on his final stop: Canton.

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