Former Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward announced the ending of a great career today, but not a Hall of Fame career.
Fans of Ward will surely cite his 1,000 career receptions, over 12,000 receiving yards, 85 receiving touchdowns, two Super Bowl titles, and a Super Bowl MVP as reasons why he should be enshrined in Canton.
Such statistics are misleading because they fail to provide any context whatsoever. Super Bowl MVPs only mean so much because they're subjective. Deion Branch won a Super Bowl MVP the year before Ward did, but sportswriters across the country aren't campaigning to call him a Hall of Famer. In an X's and O's discussion, Hines Ward isn't a Hall of Famer, and in a statistical discussion that actually applies an understanding of what the statistics mean, Hines Ward isn't a Hall of Famer either.
In terms of schematics and "chalk talk," the difference between the effect an okay receiver and a good, even very good receiver, has on an opponent's defensive game plan is minimal. The difference a truly great receiver -- a Jerry Rice or a Randy Moss -- has on an opponent's defensive game plan is huge. Such a player draws safety help over the top, either creating openings for other receivers or leaving running room open for running backs.
The biggest threat Ward posed came from running a screen behind him. That's not a huge, Hall-worthy accomplishment, especially in today's NFL that emphasizes the deep passing game. The argument that his blocking tremendously helped the Steelers' run game ignores that Jerome Bettis, the Steelers' running back for most of Ward's career, was primarily an up-the-middle runner. Ward's blocking helped a little bit in that regard, but receivers' blocking is far more important when sealing the edge on outside running plays than on runs up the middle.
Statistically, Ward's numbers are more a product of how long he played than anything else. The highest yards-per-game average he had in a single season was 83.1. Randy Moss has had 5 seasons with a better average than that, Terrell Owens has had 6 seasons with a better average than that, and Marvin Harrison has had 6 seasons with a better average than that. Three receivers in Ward's era have consistently put together seasons better than Ward's absolute best season. Ward's case for Canton is far less compelling when considering that he wasn't even one of the top three players of his era.
Ward also was in the top five in receiving yards just once in his career, in 2002. No matter how good of a blocker he is, being in the top five in the league in receiving yards certainly isn't a Hall of Fame worthy accomplishment from a receiver.
To put Ward in the Hall of Fame would be categorizing him as on the same level as greats such as Jerry Rice and Lynn Swann. Doing so would also require the selection committee to rank him as better than Andre Reed, Cris Carter and Tim Brown, three outstanding receivers who have yet to be enshrined in Canton. By the time Ward is eligible, he'll also have to surpass Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Rod Smith.
Ward simply isn't in those receivers' category. He was fun to watch, and was one of the toughest players of his era. In terms of both statistical production and on-field impact, though, his credentials for Canton are lacking.
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