By Clark Judge
Talk of Fame Network
The Pro Football Hall of Fame announces its 15 finalists for the Class of 2017 Tuesday evening, and there will be at least one wide receiver included.
But there should be at least two ... with Hines Ward one of them.
The former Pittsburgh Steelers' star doesn’t have prodigious receiving numbers to compare with, say, Terrell Owens, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt – all semifinalists – and he wasn’t an all-decade choice, either, like Owens and Holt.
But so what?
If it's simply numbers that qualify candidates for Canton then the process should be changed, with the suits from Deloitte taking over for Hall-of-Fame voters and players chosen according to their statistical ranks. So a Johnny Unitas, tied for 81st in career passer ratings, wouldn’t get a sniff, while a Chad Pennington (14th) or Matt Schaub (tied for 15th with Andy Dalton) would be a first-ballot choice.
Nope, the Hall must be about more than gaudy numbers, and Hines Ward was. He was a complete player.
He made big catches. He was a renowned blocker. He was the consummate team player. He was a winner, making big plays in big games, and the evidence was everywhere.
In 16 playoff games, for instance, he had had 88 catches for 1,181 yards and 10 TDs. By contrast, the Colts' Marvin Harrrison, elected to the Hall this year, appeared in the same number of playoff games and produced 66 catches for 883 yards and two TDs.
But why stop there? Hines Ward was a Super Bowl MVP, five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro. He made bone-rattling blocks that helped send Jerome Bettis to the Hall. He was a three-time team MVP, a two-time Super Bowl champion and member of the all-time Steelers team. Whats more, he's the Steelers' record holder for career catches (1,000) and yards (12,083) -- a franchise that includes Hall-of-Fame receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.
Granted, both played in an era when league rules and philosophies didn’t benefit the passing game as it does today. But that doesn’t diminish Wards accomplishments, particularly when you consider that he played for a raft of journeymen quarterbacks before Ben Roethlisberger arrived.
And that was 2004, Ward's seventh NFL season.
The question, of course, is what separates Ward from the others among the Class of 2017 semifinalists. So we asked him on the latest Talk of Fame Network broadcast.
"I changed the game as far as blocking standpoints," Ward said. "I know these guys have these crazy stats, but I feel like stats are based on what type of system you're in. For me, I took pride in being the best player I could be in the system I was in. To have a rule named after you … I mean, there's a rule named after me … that’s flattering."
Oh, yeah, I forgot. The Hines Ward rule. The NFL adopted it in 2009 to make a blindside block illegal if it comes from the helmet or shoulder and lands to the head or neck of the defender. And it was passed after Ward threw a similar block on then-Cincinnati linebacker Keith Rivers, breaking his jaw.
"I took pride in blocking," Ward said. "I go around and do a lot of camps, a lot of coaching, and a lot of coaches say, 'Hey, man, we use your tape. We teach our receivers: This is how you block; this is how you make an impact on the game.
"It's kind of flattering that I'm five years removed for the game, and there are still coaches out there that put out some of my film, and they teach their young wideouts that, hey, this is how you impact the game when you're not catching the ball."
The problem there, of course, is that there are no numbers for blocking. There is only videotape and memories, and former teammate Alan Faneca – also a Hall-of-Fame semifinalist – had no trouble remembering what stood out most about Ward. In fact, he said Ward's blocking was so much better than his peers that he revolutionized the position – drawing attention to a part of that game that too often is ignored.
Look, I'm under no illusions that the road is steep for Ward. The wide receiver field is loaded, and there is more heavy artillery on the horizon, with Randy Moss eligible in 2018. Plus, voters have become more careful with their selections at that position, with Andre Reed waiting nine years to get in and Cris Carter and Tim Brown six.
But, sooner or later, Hines Ward should make it, and not because he was the best blocker at his position. Or because he was a five-time Pro Bowler, three-time team MVP, two-time Super Bowl champ or Super Bowl MVP. Or because he holds Steelers' franchise records or was Ben Roethlisberger's most reliable receiver on a team that went to three Super Bowls in six years.
No, Hines Ward should make it because he was all of that.
(Hines Ward photos courtesy of the Pittsburgh Steelers)