Before the end of the regular season, here’s what I had to say about a couple of wide receivers who’ve been on a certain reality show I wouldn’t watch even if you paid me in Three Twins Lemon Cookie ice cream, in a post titled “Prepare to wave/waive goodbye to these 20 NFL vets.”
7. Hines Ward: if you haven’t already retired when you go on Dancing With The Stars, you soon will.
10. Chad Ochocinco: watching him catch his first TD of the season and immediately start talking trash in Denver was kind of cute, but when you put him next to the new guard of receivers (A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Dez Bryant) Ocho almost looks like he’s from another era, at least physically.
He’s known as a receiver who smiles all the time, particularly after taking the nasty shots that come with catching passes over the middle. He’s also just well known. The Steelers’ uniform imparts the label of (perceived) toughness onto all who wear it, and Ward stuck around Pittsburgh for 14 years. Not only that, his playing style brought to mind a receiving version of John Stockton. “Hard-nosed” if you’re with the Steelers, “dirty” to everyone else — but in a way people respected, mostly.
So if the San Francisco 49ers had an opportunity to sign Hines Ward on the cheap — say, Braylon Edwards’ contract — would I change my mind and decide his career isn’t over like the other 19 guys I mentioned a few months ago (four of which have already retired, with several others expected to in the coming months)?
In fact, can we have a moratorium on calls for the 49ers to sign old wide receivers? Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, Hines Ward … no thanks.
But isn’t Hines Ward is a possession receiver who could help in a leadership role?
Sure, and he’d give the local and national media a story to work with, and a familiar face on the sideline for cameras to focus on. It’d be easy for production crews to find him if he came to San Francisco, because he’d always be on the sideline with his helmet off. But he couldn’t get on the field near the end with the Steelers, so why would the 49ers want him?
I get it. Michael Crabtree’s a little weird. But he’s already a good and willing blocker. His problems weren’t due to conditioning or poor attitude, he’s just not big or fast enough to do consistent damage against No. 1 corners, and his hands aren’t as great (well, trustworthy) as advertised. Crabtree isn’t going to start getting open on 3rd-and-8 just because Ward put his arm around Crab’s shoulders during the week and talked to him about the finer points of hitting a safety in the back of his knee when the refs aren’t looking.
The 49ers don’t need leaders, they need guys who can get open more than 8 yards down field (Ward averaged 8.3 yards per catch in 2011). They need speed on the outside, as well as a fast guy who can return punts without dropping them — since Ted Ginn is an unrestricted free agent.
Ward was never the same last season after suffering a concussion in Week 9 against the Ravens on a hit by Ray Lewis. After that, Ward managed only 20 receptions, 123 yards and no scores over his last six games. He was a forgotten man in the Steelers’ overtime loss to Denver in the Wild Card round. He turns 36 on Mar. 8, and he was never that fast anyway. Now he’s far slower than the average NFL receiver, and that’s what makes him different than other great, aging receivers like Jerry Rice (workout fiend who just happens to be the best receiver ever) and Isaac Bruce (extremely fast in his prime and, unlike Ward, utilized a playing style that kept him out of harm’s way, relatively speaking).
Ward’s had a great career, one that will receive Hall of Fame consideration. But if the Niners are eyeing Steelers receivers, hopefully they’ll go after Mike Wallace … or no one.