On the Steelers: Ward says retirement not in game plan
But his time here is out of his control
Friday, December 23, 2011

Hines Ward has no plans to retire after this season and said if he does not play for the Steelers in 2012 it will not be his choice.

Ward has no special plans to take a moment to relish what could be his final game Saturday at Heinz Field in a dazzling, record-setting 14-year career.

"I have two years left on my contract," Ward said, counting this one. "I'm not even thinking that this is my last one. If the organization decides to, I have no control over that. But, for me, I'm not even thinking this is my last game ever [at Heinz Field].

"I feel fine. I feel like I can play another year or two if I want to."

The actions of the Steelers coaching staff over the past five games make it look as if they are phasing out the most prolific and decorated receiver in franchise history.

Ward lost his 13-year starting job Nov. 13 in Cincinnati when he was demoted to No. 4 or No. 5 receiver, returned to start and play significantly more the next two games, then was buried again on the depth chart the past two games. He caught the only pass thrown his way Dec. 8 against Cleveland and had none come his way Monday in San Francisco.

He needs nine receptions to become only the eighth receiver in NFL history with 1,000. Might he get them elsewhere next season and become the Franco Harris of this generation, released by the only team he ever served to finish up elsewhere?

"I don't know," Ward said. "That hasn't even crossed my mind. If they cut me, it's on them. I don't want to be cut, I don't want to play for another team, but I haven't thought of the possibility of that even happening. It's happened to lot of guys. Franco did it when he was here.

"I don't want to play for anybody else. We'll deal with that when the time comes. Right now, it's not even in my mind to think what happens -- am I going to be here, is this my last game? I don't think like that, I've never thought like that."

Ward has 37 receptions for 325 yards and two touchdowns, on pace to have his lowest production as a starter. He was in the mix and seeing the ball regularly until he missed the Oct. 30 game against New England with an ankle injury. When he returned, his role was diminished. Not only has he been demoted as a starter, but Jerricho Cotchery has taken over his role as a flanker. Cotchery led the team Monday in San Francisco with 93 yards on five catches.

"I'm in my 14th year," Ward noted. "There are still guys in the league playing 15, 16 years -- Tony Gonzalez; Donald Driver is older than me and still playing. Donald Driver and I play the same position. He's still making plays on the team.

"OK, I don't have the same role I used to, but I don't think that's predicated on my play, I just think it's a move that they want to go in a different direction.

"I'm getting open. Maybe the attempts aren't there, but I'm blocking my butt off. I'm still doing basically the same things I've been doing. It's up to the organization. That can go for all of the older guys -- Potsie [James Farrior], myself, Aaron [Smith], it can go for any of these guys."

Ward, 35, said that, despite his demotion, he takes the same approach as always and has the same goals, to win a Super Bowl.

"I still love the game. I'm not going to let me not playing take the fun away. When the fun is away and I hate it, I'll walk away. The passion's still there for me to win Super Bowls, win games. I love competing. It's a different role where I had to adjust, no question about that. But so has James Farrior, he's substituting with Larry Foote. Does it mean we can no longer be part of this organization? It's out of our control."

Unless the Steelers win the AFC North Division, there will be no home playoff games, and Saturday will be the last time they play in Heinz Field this season. It's possible it could be the final time forever for Ward.

"I hope we win the game more than anything," Ward said. "But I'm not going to take pictures and celebrate with the guys. That's not even my demeanor or even the way I think. Whatever happens, happens, but I don't sit there and worry about the future based on what they've been doing.

"You start thinking like that, you just need to get out of the game.

"That word hasn't even crossed my mind, retirement."

Signs point to no Big Ben

If actions speak louder than words, Ben Roethlisberger will not start at quarterback Saturday for the Steelers.

Roethlisberger, who has a high ankle sprain, did not practice for the second consecutive day and, with a light practice today before the Saturday game, there is little chance for him to prepare to play against the St. Louis Rams. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said he does not necessarily have to practice to play -- he did not practice a lot the previous week and played Monday in San Francisco.

"It's just a matter of getting as healthy as you possibly can to be able to have some mobility," said Arians, who said he will wait to hear from Mike Tomlin on his decision.

Charlie Batch would start Saturday if Roethlisberger does not.

The quarterback may have a lot of company on the sideline because center Maurkice Pouncey, also with a high ankle sprain, did not practice and likely will miss his second consecutive game. And outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley also might not play because of his lingering hamstring injury.

Emmanuel Sanders will miss his second consecutive game with a foot injury because he has not been able to go through a full practice.

"He's going to have to practice to be able to play," Arians said.

Where's Wallace?

What's happened to Mike Wallace?

The receiver who publicly set his 2011 goal as an NFL-record 2,000 yards, started quickly as if he were intent on reaching it. He began the season with three 100-yard games in a row and 377 total yards.

He had 730 yards in the first seven games, not one of them under 76 yards. In his past seven games, he has 370 yards, no more than 70 in any one game and including games of 17 and 38 yards.

He led the AFC in yards per catch each of his first two seasons -- 19.4 as a rookie and 21.0 last season. He was at 20.2 after seven games but is down to 16.4 because he has averaged only 11.9 yards per catch the past seven games.

Arians blamed dropped passes by Wallace and bad throws by the quarterback for his low output the past seven games.

"He's open. We've dropped some and we've missed him, every game. There's a 50-yard play in every game that we could have made that we made early in the season. We've missed those chunks; either they have gone off our fingertips or we've overthrown him.

"We had him wide open the other night to take the lead. That's one of the throws the foot actually worked on, and he overthrew him. But just keep throwing it deep, we'll hit him."

Where once Wallace seemed a cinch to break Yancey Thigpen's team record of 1,398 yards set in 1997, now that seems out of reach because he would need 299 yards in his final two games to do so.

Antonio Brown has picked up the slack. Since he got his first 100-yard game Oct. 23 in Arizona, Brown has been the most productive receiver. He has 722 yards in the past eight games on 42 receptions.

Brown's average is the same as Wallace's, 16.4 per catch. With 984 yards on 60 receptions, he has an outside chance to pass Wallace -- 67 catches, 1,100 yards -- to finish as the team leader.

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First published on December 23, 2011 at 12:00 am