Ward Blindsided By Big Ben’s Comments

By Ed Bouchette
Updated: January 25, 2008

PITTSBURGH — Hines Ward spends his time these days at home in Atlanta, recovering from postseason surgery on his right knee. A different kind of hurt was delivered by his own quarterback last week.

Ben Roethlisberger called for the Steelers to acquire a tall wide receiver, specifically to help inside the 20 and for a bailout target when he’s under pressure. He said he had that with 6-foot-5 Plaxico Burress, but not since after the 2004 season.

“I’m always going to ask for a tall receiver,” Roethlisberger said in an interview with the Post-Gazette. “That’s just me. Our receivers are unbelievable, but our tallest guy might be Hines. Or Santonio [Holmes]. Hines is going to say he’s 6 foot, but he’s 5-11.”

That stung Ward, the most decorated Steelers receiver in history.

“I don’t hear Tom Brady or Peyton Manning asking for that,” Ward said Thursday.

“I don’t know, whatever he says. I have no idea. To me, it’s a rare combination of receivers out there who are good and tall. We won a Super Bowl, we didn’t have a tall receiver then. I don’t see Tom Brady caring about who’s tall or not. He got Randy this year, but he did it before without him.”

Randy Moss, who is 6-foot-4, is Brady’s first good, tall receiver in New England, which is trying to win its fourth Super Bowl in the past seven seasons. Moss joined the team this year after a trade and set an NFL record with 23 touchdown receptions.

Reggie Wayne, one of Manning’s stable of Indianapolis Colts receivers, led the NFL with 112 receptions and 1,510 yards this season. Like Ward, he is listed at 6 feet. So, too, is Marvin Harrison, who long has been Manning’s favorite receiver.

“To me, I have enough problems to worry about than what Ben wants — I can’t give him the contract,” Ward said, referring to Roethlisberger’s wish to have a contract extension as soon as possible. “He wants a tall receiver? Why did we draft Santonio?”

Holmes, who stands 5-11, led the Steelers with eight touchdowns and 942 yards receiving last season, on 52 catches. His 18.1 yards per catch were higher than any of the top 50 receivers in the NFL. Ward led them with 71 receptions despite playing much of the season with a sprained knee and caught seven touchdown passes. Nate Washington, who stands 6-1, was third with 29 catches.

“I don’t buy into height,” said Ward, one of four finalists for the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year award that will be chosen next week. “Look at my red-zone touchdowns — I have as many as anyone in the league.”

Since 2002, Ward is tied for second in the league in percentage of touchdowns in the red zone, described by the NFL as inside the 20. Moss is first with 36 percent and Ward, Harrison and Terrell Owens are tied with 33 percent.

That’s why Roethlisberger’s appeal for a tall receiver to help in the red zone hurt Ward, who holds most Steelers receiving records to go along with his four Pro Bowl appearances and a Super Bowl MVP award.

“In the red zone, it’s nice to have a guy like that,” Roethlisberger said of wanting a taller receiver. “Obviously, we have a guy like Nate who can jump out of this world, he can jump so high. It’s nice to have that.

“But to have a big guy who can create mismatches — the same thing happened when Plax was here. So much presence went to Plax’s side just because he’s a big, good receiver, that Hines was always open or Antwaan [Randle El]. I just think it would open stuff up for us a lot more.”

Said Ward, “I don’t buy into the hype you have to be tall.

“You throw the ball up and give somebody a chance to make a play, I’ll make as many catches as anyone.

The Steelers do have two tall receivers in 6-5 Heath Miller and 6-7 Matt Spaeth, both tight ends.

“If Ben wants a tall receiver to make him feel comfortable or whatever, maybe the organization will get him one,” Ward said.

“To me, I like the four guys we have. This is Ben’s first year with [coordinator] Bruce Arians, and he had a tremendous year, a Pro Bowl year. I think he’s coming into his own. We have weapons, let’s gel together a couple more years and let’s see what happens.

“If they go and get a tall receiver in the first round, someone’s got to lose a job. Now we had all these weapons around us, now what are we going to do?

“I was here with me, Plax and Antwaan; we had three deadly weapons. Did that win us a Super Bowl? No, the year we won the Super Bowl we had me, Antwaan and Cedrick Wilson. If there’s a formula for bringing a tall guy in to win, I don’t buy that.”

He also did not buy Roethlisberger’s opinion that because the 6-foot-5 quarterback was throwing down to his smaller receivers, they got “killed” on occasion reaching up for passes. Roethlisberger said he’d like to throw to someone tall who is on his plane.

“A lot of that has to do with technique,” Ward said. “If he wants to say it’s height or whatever or he didn’t see me — I’ve caught 719 balls. I don’t think me being short had anything to do with catching those balls.

“That’s his opinion. Even with Plax and Kordell [Stewart], I would be wide open in the red zone, but people get enamored of tall receivers — ‘I have to throw it to him, throw it to him.’ Tom Brady looks at coverage. Me, I’d take a guy who will scratch and claw and do anything to get the ball rather than go with height.”

Ward had surgery on his right knee Jan. 9 to repair a torn meniscus and said he will be good as new in about four weeks. He said the MCL and PCL in his right knee were torn Sept. 23 against San Francisco, causing him to miss two games.

The meniscus was torn at St. Louis Dec. 20. He missed the season finale in Baltimore, then had his most productive playoff game with 135 yards on 10 catches in a loss to Jacksonville.

“I played all year on that one knee,” Ward said. “As time went on, the knee got worse because I never let it rest … That’s why I didn’t practice on Wednesdays and Thursdays, we were trying to let the PCL heal.”

Ward said he talked to coach Mike Tomlin and his trainers about the option of surgery during the season vs. the risk of playing and making the knee worse. He preferred to play.

He said he’d like to play another three or four years and noted that at age 32 come March, he’s only one year older than Burress, who turns 31 this year, and Moss; the same age as Torry Holt, and younger than Owens (34), Harrison (35) and Isaac Bruce (35).

“I have three, four good years left, I would like to think,” Ward said.

“All these other guys are playing 12, 13 years and still going strong. Why can they go strong and ‘Hines Ward will be the one to fall off.’ I never could fathom that.

“There will always be question marks around me because I’m not the prototypical guy, not flashy. But I’ve shown you what I can do when they pass the ball.”

“I was here with me, Plax and Antwaan; we had three deadly weapons. Did that win us a Super Bowl? No, the year we won the Super Bowl we had me, Antwaan and Cedrick Wilson. If there’s a formula for bringing a tall guy in to win, I don’t buy that.”