http://www.foxsportssouth.com/02/13/12/ ... eedID=4368
Hines Ward makes sense for Falcons
February 13, 2012
Hines Ward says he wants to retire a Steeler, and that is understandable. But in the hard business of the NFL, if the Pittsburgh Steelers do not want the aging wide receiver at any price, then what better place for the Forest Park High School and University of Georgia grad to finish up his storied career than with the Atlanta Falcons?
Here is the story. Over the weekend, the NFL Network reported that the Steelers would part ways with Ward, who is reportedly owed $4 million each season of the last two years of his deal and will be 36 in a few weeks. On Saturday, Ward posted this on his Facebook page: "I want to finish my career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. And as I've already told the organization, I am willing to work with them to restructure my contract to make sure this happens."
For Ward, staying in Pittsburgh might not be that simple. Here is how Sports Illustrated's Peter King put it on Monday: "The way he was buried in the last half of the season, it's hard to imagine the Steelers want him back, especially with the speedier bench player Jerricho Cotchery available."
Ward played an average of 14.4 snaps per game in the last nine games of the 2011 season, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
As mentioned before, the NFL is a tough, Darwinian business. No matter what a player has done for a franchise, especially one that values winning as much as the Steelers do, a team has only 53 roster spots and a finite amount of salary-cap space available. No matter how beloved a player might be (see Manning, Peyton), if a front office deems others are more valuable or if it's in the "best interests of the organization," it parts ways with him.
Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator of the past five seasons, Bruce Arians, is gone. Todd Haley is in. As we know in Atlanta, the impetus behind new coordinators is partly a fresh, objective viewpoint in evaluating personnel. Haley has no ties to Ward, which might make it easier for the organization to cut him than it would have under Arians. It's a young man's league.
While the Falcons might not have ties to Ward, Ward does have numerous ties to the area. Born in South Korea, he moved to metro Atlanta at the age of 1 and remained a resident of the state until he was drafted by the Steelers in 1998. He still owns a home in Sandy Springs.
As one of the keys to head coach Mike Smith's philosophies, the Falcons want to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Ward, one of the most physical wide receivers in league history, would seem to fit seamlessly into that philosophy.
Yet the best argument for the Falcons to sign him would be the intangibles that he would bring. (His star power would be one of numerous secondary pluses). It has been expressed that perhaps part of the reason the Falcons have failed to win a playoff game in three tries under Smith in four seasons is that the team lacks players who have won at the highest levels.
In Ward, they would acquire a player who has won two Super Bowls and who is active in the community, which is important to the Falcons and owner Arthur Blank. Ward owns a reputation as a high character player, his arrest on suspicion of DUI in metro Atlanta in July 2011 notwithstanding.
When the team held an end-of-season press conference in January with Blank, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and Smith, Dimitroff was asked specifically whether the team had enough players with experience winning.
"In line with what I mentioned earlier about the grit and the experience and the toughness, there's no question that's going to be something that we look into this offseason," Dimitroff said.
So it's possible that Ward would fit their profile. Heck, the Falcons gave Tony Gonzalez another season and $7 million.
Finally, it's by no means certain that the Falcons' slot receiver, Harry Douglas, will be back. Douglas is one of the team's 17 free agents and Dimitroff asked to guess how many he would be able to re-sign, guessed eight.
Douglas caught 39 passes for 498 yards and a touchdown last season, but is capable of delivering explosive plays. In the team's 26-23 overtime loss to New Orleans at the Georgia Dome, Douglas had eight catches for 133 yards.
With a lot of money already committed at the wide receiver position to Roddy White and Julio Jones, the Falcons might not be able to tie up even more with a substantial raise to Douglas, who will be 28 next season. Former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, now the head coach in Jacksonville, could make a play for Douglas, as the Jaguars are notably thin at that position. Ward could be a cheaper option.
(It would be an interesting coincidence if the Falcons replaced a wide receiver raised in Clayton County — Douglas is from Jonesboro — with another raised there, as Ward was.)
Ward could prove valuable in the slot and also as a mentor to Jones, who could use some polish in learning his playbook and in his growth as a professional.
Whether the Steelers choose to retain Ward remains a fluid a situation. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on Sunday, citing teams sources, that it had yet to make a decision.
If the Steelers do choose to let him go, Ward could find a welcoming home in his former one.