If Saturday's 27-0 domination of the St. Louis Rams is the last time Hines Ward suits up for the Steelers in Heinz Field, he will go out on top -- of the Steelers' record books.
The 35-year-old Steelers receiver is the franchise's all-time leader in yards, receptions, and receiving touchdowns. He is only five catches away from 1,000. If Ward makes it, he will become just the third player in NFL history with 1,000 catches and multiple Super Bowl wins. Jerry Rice and Art Monk are the others. Nice company.
If he can get those five catches Sunday in the season finale at Cleveland, Ward might guarantee his enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That has been the big buzz for everyone in Pittsburgh -- there was a sign in the south end zone Saturday that counted down with each catch -- except Ward.
"All we gotta do is keep controlling what we can control," he said.
Though he only caught four passes against the Rams, Ward still played a crucial role in the Steelers' win as his receptions kept drives alive. He hasn't been the go-to guy much this season, especially in recent weeks when he's seen a drastic reduction in playing time.
Though it's hard to argue that age doesn't play a factor, Ward's diminished role might be less about him and more about the arrival of three young explosive receivers in Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown.
So perhaps it was entirely fitting that on a day that 37-year-old Charlie Batch completed four passes to the 35-year-old Ward that a young receiver would swoop in and steal the spotlight.
With 77 total yards against the Rams, Brown broke Barry Foster's franchise single-season record for all-purpose yards. Brown, in his second season out of Central Michigan, has quickly become a fan favorite and appears poised to take over for Ward as the Steelers' top receiver for foreseeable future. He is faster and more explosive than Ward ever was, and he has shown a knack for big third-down receptions and making tough, physical plays. He had two tackles against the Rams with one that stopped the punter a yard short of the first down on a fake. Brown ran up from his returner position 40 yards down field to make the stop.
It was an almost Hines Ward-like play, a truly fitting performance for the player for this passing-of-the-torch moment. There are big things ahead for Antonio Brown that much is obvious. As his teammate and mentor, Ward is eager to sing Brown's praises.
"When he touches the ball, special things happen," Ward said. "It's just phenomenal considering where the kid came from, his whole story. And now here he is."
When asked to put into the words the impact Ward has had on his career, Brown did not hesitate.
"He's a great player and someone you can learn from," Brown said. "He's a great leader of our team and it's definitely a pleasure to learn from a guy like that."
If the Steelers do decide to part ways with Ward after this season, he would face the tough decision of trying to continue playing elsewhere. Even for non-Steeler fans, it would be strange to see Ward wearing No. 86 somewhere else.
Ward, more so than Jerome Bettis, James Harrison, Ben Roethlisberger or even Troy Polamalu, has been the quintessential Steeler in the past decade. His physical style has changed the way the wide receiver position is played, which has made him one of the most hated players in the NFL but a beloved figure on and off the field in Pittsburgh.
If Saturday was any indication, the Steelers already have their replacements for Ward on board. But there's still time for Steelers fans to enjoy Ward's presence and performance. There's the matter of those five catches he wouldn't mind getting Sunday. Then with a little help from the Bengals, maybe Hines Ward gets one last chance to soak in another day at Heinz.
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