I've only spoken with Hines Ward once and it was a phone interview done last spring probably about an hour after it was announced that Roger Goodell was suspending Ben Roethlisberger. He told me he was planning on retiring if the Steelers won the Super Bowl. With what was going on at the time, it seemed a very ridiculous condition on which to pin your career plans.
He backed down from that claim as the Super Bowl approached, saying he wasn't going to retire no matter the outcome. I'm not sure that's true. At the conclusion of the AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh, he was climbing into the stands and exchanging hugs with fans. I watched the broadcast later and it didn't seem to get picked up on TV. To me, it came off as something of a send-off for a guy thinking he might have played his final home game of his career. I think he just played down his career plans so as not to serve as a potential distraction.
I could be wrong, of course. He might have just been typically exuberant after beating the Jets. Even for a guy with two rings, going to the Super Bowl is not a mundane experience. And the retirement talk might have been frustration based on the way things seemed to have been unraveling last spring.
Either way, it's moot, because as we're all painfully aware the Steelers did not win the Super Bowl. Had the Steelers completed their comeback, I think Ward would have made a compelling case for MVP. Obviously it would all depend on how the final drive shook out if it were successful. If it were, Ben probably gets the MVP unless he throws a TD to end it to Hines. Two TDs, including the game-winner might have earned Ward his second SB MVP award of his career.
And credit to him for stepping up huge in the game. His seven catches for 78 yards and a TD were better than his two outings in the AFC playoffs combined (five catches for 39 yards and one score). It was especially pivotal with Emmanuel Sanders having been lost in the first half.
Hines is already scheduled to have more offseason surgery. And no one will make the mistake that he's not on the downside of his career in terms of production. He probably only has a year or two left, tops. Obviously, he's still valuable as a third receiver and even more for his leadership with the rest of the young receivers. I'd imagine he's owed no small part in the emergence of Mike Wallace from one-dimensional deep threat to full-on star receiver this season. And Wallace will likely only continue to thrive while learning from Ward, as will Manny Sanders. By the time Hines is done, the Steelers may have quite the staple of receivers waiting to take over.
In many ways, Hines has been the signature player of the team since Bettis retired. So it will seem like a changing of an era when he finally does hang it up. Good for us that's still at least one year away.