Steelers Throwback Thursday: Hines Ward as top franchise receiver

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There are many reasons fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers retain fondness toward the franchise’s career receiving yards leaders. The guy at the top of the list, Hines Ward, remains a fan favorite despite the years that have passed since he last wore the famed black and gold. This week, we look back on Ward’s career in Pittsburgh, focusing on his best seasons with the team.

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Three-position collegiate player

Ward played collegiate football for the University of Georgia from 1994-97. Technically, Ward played three positions as a Bulldog: quarterback, tailback, and receiver. As a tailback, his 3,870 all-purpose yards were second only to Herschel Walker in team history. In his final two seasons at Georgia, Ward primarily played receiver. His athleticism made Ward an interesting prospect for NFL scouts ahead of the 1998 NFL Draft.

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Pittsburgh Steelers rookie

Ward was selected in the third round (no. 90 overall) by Pittsburgh in 1998. During the 1998 NFL season, Pittsburgh rostered Jahine Arnold, Andre Coleman, David Dunn, Will Blackwell, Charles Johnson, Courtney Hawkins, and Ward at receiver. Blackwell, Ward, Johnson, and Hawkins were the primary receiving targets throughout the season for quarterback Kordell Stewart.

Ward dressed in all 16 games his rookie season, but recorded just 15 receptions for 246 yards. His 16.4 yards-per-reception average led the team. This led to the team looking to get him more involved after a 7-9 season under head coach Bill Cowher.

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Ward’s top seasons

For the sake of this article, Ward arguably had his best seasons in 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004. In 2001, he earned his first nomination into the Pro Bowl. In the three subsequent seasons, Ward was a Pro-Bowler and named an Associated Press All-Pro.

Some fans might argue that Ward’s best season was in 2005 when he, and the Steelers, beat the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL at Ford Field (5 Feb 2006) where he won the Super Bowl MVP award. That’d be a fair debate.

Ward also became a Super Bowl champion with the Steelers against the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII (1 Feb 2009) at Raymond James Stadium. Teammate Santonio Holmes won the SB MVP award in that game.

To say that Ward wasn’t spectacular those Super Bowl seasons would be erroneous. Ward was a leader on and off the field both of those seasons.

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In 2001, the Steelers offered Ward a four-year, $9.5 million contract extension and brought in Mike Mularkey as the offensive coordinator under Bill Cowher. Ward was rostered with Blackwell, Bobby Shaw, Plaxico Burress, and Troy Edwards. While Blackwell saw little playing time, it was Ward who was targeted by Stewart and Tommy Maddox outside of Burress at the receiver position.

Ward recorded his first career game with over 100 receiving yards against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 2 of that season. On December 9, Ward recorded his season-high ten receptions for 124 yards against the New York Jets. Ward played in his first career playoff games following the regular season. Earning his first 16 game starts, Ward went over the 1,000 receiving yards mark for the season for the first time as a professional and was voted to the Pro Bowl with fellow Steelers Alan Faneca, Jerome Bettis, Kordell Stewart, Jason Gildon, and Kendrell Bell.

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In 2002, Ward scored two touchdowns in a game for the first time in his career in Week 2 against the Oakland Raiders. In November (10), Ward recorded his season-best 11 catches for 139 yards and a touchdown with Maddox as the Steelers’ starting quarterback. In the next two games, Ward recorded 10 receptions for 168 yards and 2 touchdowns and 10 catches for 125 yards and a touchdown respectively.

On the season, Ward led all Steelers receivers in receptions (112) but just edged Burress in receiving yards (1,328). He recorded 12 touchdowns.
Ward would be rewarded with a second trip to the Pro Bowl for his achievements. The Steelers also returned to the playoffs after a 10-5-1 regular season.

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2003 was the season that gave Pittsburgh fans the opportunity to see Ward dominate Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed and create a longstanding rivalry between the pair.

That rivalry was still alive in the 2011 NFL season, amazingly. Ward, with a smile on his face, is famously remembered for standing over Reed following one play. The duo have since created a friendship

On November 30, Ward caught a career-high 13 passes for 149 receiving yards and a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Steelers voted him their team MVP after he secured 95 receptions for 1,163 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season. He was voted, along with Faneca, to his third consecutive Pro Bowl.

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In 2004, Ward once again worked under a new offensive coordinator in Ken Whisenhunt and receivers coach Bruce Arians. When Maddox was injured, rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw a fourth quarter touchdown pass to Ward for their first career connection (19 September). Roethlisberger went on to lead the Steelers offense as Pittsburgh went 15-1 on the season.

Ward finished the season with 80 receptions for 1,004 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns. It marked his fourth year with over 1,000 receiving yards. Ward participated in the playoffs and again was a Pro-Bowler.

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An outstanding career

Ward retired as a player from the NFL on 20 March, 2012.

“Without the support over the past 14 years this game wouldn’t be the same to me. It wouldn’t be as fun for me. You guys meant the world to me. The city and this organization means the world to me. So today as sadly as it feels for me right now, I hope it will be a good day for everyone here.” – Hines Ward

Ward accumulated 76 receptions, 1,064 yards, and eight receiving touchdowns in 14 post-season appearances. He finished his playing career of 217 regular season games with 1,000 receptions for 12,083 yards (the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise lead) and 85 receiving touchdowns.


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