Last week, I wrote about growing discontent amongst the Pittsburgh Steelers. Naturally, I’ll begin this week writing about growing discontent amongst the Pittsburgh Steelers. What? You thought I’d do five hundred words on some college kid’s 40 time at the Combine?
When last we left this ridiculous controversy, an unnamed player called linebacker LaMarr Woodley a fatass. Regardless of his off-season workout regiment, there’s absolutely no denying Woodley has been an injury prone disappointment since signing his big money contract extension a couple seasons back. These unattributed comments riled up team leader/annoying loudmouth Ryan Clark, who was offended someone would break the code of locker room omerta. Shockingly, Clark did make one valid observation; that the team had a clear leadership vacuum in the wake of last season’s purge of veterans.
Since no controversy is complete until we hear from the wide receivers, not one but two Steelers wide outs chimed in on this issue. First there was Antonio Brown, wearing the swankiest pimp hat this side of the Godfather. He appeared on ESPN’s First Take but since I try to avoid ESPN and I especially try to avoid First Take, I only caught his comments when they were uploaded to their website. In between his various assaults on the English language, AB managed to reveal the Steelers had a “fractured” locker room with guys more worried about their stats and impending free agency than winning football games.
In other words, Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall were the bad guys. Shocking, I know. And convenient. Since both of those goofs are long gone, it very nicely puts all questions about a divided locker room to rest. At least until the team loses two in a row to bottom feeders they should’ve crushed.
Hines Ward, who is no longer a Steeler although for some reason the media runs to get his opinion on every move they make, went on the NFL Network to weigh in on this controversy. Hines reiterated Clark’s point about losing veteran leaders and talked about the team losing track of the Steeler Way. He also provided every headline writer their money quote by saying the backbiting was a sign the team was in “total disarray.” Impressive insight for a man who spent most of last season in Los Angeles preparing sweet and sour spare ribs for Guy Fieri and Rachel Ray.
Look, the Steelers definitely have a problem. When they cut Hines and James Farrior, yinzers called local sports talk shows worried about leadership and were dismissed by hosts who (rightfully) pointed out teams don’t have to like each other or be compromised of good guys to win. Now that the players themselves are pointing out the problems in the locker room, those same hosts are all over this topic. This is why I started this blog, the reporters and sports personalities in this town suck.
You don’t need a team full of choir boys or a team wide lovefest to win. However, the good guys need to outnumber the bad guys. The Steelers have had idiots on the team before but with Hines or the Bus leading the locker room and a hard-ass head coach in Bill Cowher, the Steeler Way prevailed. In recent years, the guys who were all about winning have faded away and a bunch of chest-thumping me-firsters have taken their place. And instead of the head coach reining them in, we have hear-no-evil see-no-evil Mike Tomlin. There is a systematic flaw within this team. Unfortunately, a flaw I don’t see being corrected any time soon.
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Yesterday, the Sporting News released their annual poll naming the NFL’s Dirtiest Player. For the second year in a row, Detroit Lions thug Ndamukong Suh took the title as voted on by a sampling of his peers. Somewhat surprisingly, an offensive lineman took the second spot. The ironically named Richie Incognito was recognized by enough of his fellow players to earn that dubious honor.
As usual, the Pittsburgh Steelers were well represented.
The Steelers had a lock on top spot for quite a few years. First, there was Hines Ward, who had a nice run of three of four years in a row. For the record, Hines was not a dirty player. Guys just resented the fact he played every snap and he played them hard. If you ever watch NFL wide receivers on iso-cam, 90% of them jog leisurely down the field on running plays. Hines looked to block or hit somebody, which made a lot of defensive players mad. As a result, he was frequently called dirty when all he did was play every snap.
When Hines started slowing down, and the NFL started getting worried about vicious hits because a lawsuit was coming, James Harrison became the new whipping boy. I’m not going to lie, Harrison definitely deserved his rep as a head-hunter. At the same time, the vast majority of his “illegal” hits came between the whistles in the context of a football play. Guys like Suh, who stomp downed opponents or hit them late are a different case entirely.
With Hines retired and James sidelined most of the year, I thought perhaps the Steelers would finally disappear from the list. Or, if they did show up, they would be represented by one of two prime candidates. Ryan Clark is every bit the vicious hitter that Deebo is. For whatever reason, he doesn’t receive the fines (or media scrutiny) but he definitely aims to annihilate rather than tackle. Then there’s Willie Colon, who’s an absolute maniac. When Giants DE Justin Tuck whined about the Steelers offensive line playing dirty a couple weeks back, I’m sure Colon was one of the guys he had in mind.
In the end, the Steelers were once again represented by two players. The Ginger Dictator‘s smear campaign has evidently been effective enough that Harrison came in 4th place despite only playing a handful of games. The other Steeler who was among those who garnered more than one vote was safety Ryan Mundy. Yes, Ryan Mundy. In a way, it’s not that surprising because he also looks to spear guys instead of tackling them. And he was recently fined a cool $21,000 for knocking Oakland’s Darrius Heyward-Bey out of the game.
I wonder if those two players came from Oakland?
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As the Pittsburgh Steelers wrap up part one of their two week (they reconvene next Tuesday) off-season workout, they were greeted with a surprise visitor at OTAs. No, not disgruntled wide receiver Mike Wallace. He’s still laboring under the delusion that holding out will magically grant the Steelers salary cap space they don’t have to sign him to a long term big money deal. Nor was it rookie David DeCastro, who is still over at Stanford working on becoming the scariest looking bachelor of science and engineering in history.
It was Troy Polamalu who showed up at Steelers HQ this week. Since his early years in the Black and Gold, Troy has become the football version of Punxsutawney Phil, disappearing once the season ends and only appearing to signal six more weeks of training camp. Which isn’t to say Troy doesn’t work out during the off-season, he just prefers to do so with his own personal trainers and the occasional group of current players at his alma mater, USC. Considering his long history of excellence, whatever he does clearly works for him.
So why mess with his usual routine? Well, Troy told reporters that with the loss of veteran leaders like Hines Ward, Aaron Smith and James Farrior, he felt the team could use a veteran presence on the sidelines. This is why Troy is one of the best Steelers of all time. It’s not just his play on the field, it’s not just his charitable works and Christian values, it’s that he gets it. Troy gets that doing the minimum is fine if you want to be an average player on an average team; if you want to be a champion, you have to always do a little bit more.
Speaking of doing a little bit more, reporters were tweeting that after practice ended yesterday, Antonio Brown and Leonard Pope stayed on the field to practice catching balls from the JUGS machine (which is not a vending machine you’d find at Blush). We always wondered who’d be the heir apparent when Hines finally retired. First we thought it’d be Santonio Holmes, who turned out to be a pothead me-firster. Then we had Wallace, who has turned out to be an overrated me-firster. It looks like of all the receivers who’ve passed through Heinz (or is it Hines’) Field in recent years, it’s AB who’ll carry on the tradition of doing things the Steeler Way.
A few final notes from week one of OTAs. With Willie Gay gone to Pittsburgh West, we wondered what the new look secondary might look like. Keenan Lewis has been starting at corner opposite Ike Taylor with second year man Cortez Allen playing the nickel. I’ll admit I’m not sold on Lewis. He didn’t exactly blow me away last year as the nickelback. I believe he was victimized on the go-ahead touchdown pass in the second Baltimore game and I recall him getting burned in the second Cincy game as well. Fans weren’t exactly high on Gay, I didn’t particularly care for him either, but he had a solid season last year. I know the team was really high on Allen last year so I imagine if Lewis struggles in the early going, they won’t hesitate to flip the two.
In more positive news, our long national nightmare may be over. Todd Haley likes having a fullback, an actual fullback, not a mediocre TE pretending to be a fullback, in his offense. As such, FB/TE David Johnson now has one fewer position to suck at. Haley told DJ that going forward he’ll strictly play fullback since the team already has a plethora of talented tight ends. Johnson will have to compete with former WVU Mountaineer Will Johnson, who has reportedly looked very good in camp. Although as an undrafted free agent who spent 2011 out of football, I have to imagine Johnson needs to badly outplay Johnson to make the team. Admittedly, that’s not very hard.
Finally, while it’s too early to declare training camp “battles,” there are a few positions to keep an eye on. First we have offensive line, which will be in flux until our top two draft picks get into camp. Max Starks was seen working out at the facilities, trying to rehab after off-season surgery, so he may be in the mix at some point. With Willie Colon moving to guard, Marcus Gilbert has evidently been told to concentrate on right tackle. He was supposedly in the mix to take over LT which made no sense after a disastrous stint there last year. Speaking of disasters at LT, this probably means Jonathan Scott heads into camp as the de facto starting LT with rookie Mike Adams being given every chance to beat him out.
And finally, there appears to be a running back battle brewing as well. The team has six backs on the roster although Rashard Mendenhall will be out until October/November. I don’t see the team keeping five active backs on the 53 man so it would appear there’s gonna be a three way dance between John Clay, Baron Batch and Jonathan Dwyer for two of those four spots. Clay was undrafted and we know how Kevin Colbert loves to hold on to his picks even when they’re clearly no good (see Sepulveda, Daniel or Sweed, Limas) but he had a couple nice runs last year while Dwyer has shown next to nothing. Batch is coming off a knee injury but he’s really the only back on the roster who can play a third down role similar to the departed Mewelde Moore.
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With March Madness in full swing, our pal Hennessy came up with a great idea for our very own Final Four. However, coming up with 64 individual participants and 32 separate brackets proved way too unwieldy. So we narrowed the list to 16 names who we both agreed would prominently figure into how the 2012 season played out for the Pittsburgh Steelers. To give it more of a competitive flavor, I agreed to take half the brackets with Hennessy taking the other half. I’ll be leading off today with an analysis of my eight brackets, picking a winner as to who I think will play a more significant role to the Steelers going forward. Tomorrow it’s Hennessy’s turn. With our Final Fours set, he and I will have a final face off on Monday just in time for the actual NCAA Championship game.
OLD DOGS BRACKET
Hines Ward vs James Farrior - Two distinguished veterans, both cut by the Steelers early in the off-season. Hines has been the face of the franchise for many years but his actual on-field importance had diminished in recent seasons. Farrior, meanwhile, was the defensive captain and Dick LeBeau’s eyes and ears on the field right up until the day he was released. And while Hines’ leadership was invaluable, Potsie’s leadership was every bit as important to the D. I’ll miss Hines but the bottom line was he was a 4th string receiver last season while Farrior was not only starting but calling the signals.
Willie Colon vs Willie Gay – You say good-bye, I say hello. Gay, of course, recently departed for
Arizona Pittsburgh West, where ex-Steelers go to never be heard from again. Colon was allegedly on the team the past couple seasons but you’d never know it because he kept being lost to season-ending injuries. With Max Starks coming off an ACL injury, the Steelers entire O-Line plan depends on a healthy Colon returning to man the RT spot, allowing Marcus Gilbert to slide over to LT and Jonathan Scott to mercifully remain on the bench. I thought Colon was overrated when he was completely healthy so coming off two serious injuries, I’m skeptical of this plan. However, you can’t deny his level of play will be a crucial factor to this upcoming season. I liked Gay, I thought he did a good job as a starter this past season but I don’t think he showed anything youngsters Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown couldn’t potentially replicate. If Colon falls apart, well, Ben is a dead man.
THE STAFF BRACKET
Dick LeBeau vs Todd Haley – LeBeau is a genius. I’m not disputing that. But he coached one of the worst games of his life against Denver. Dick is usually a master of adjustments but his refusal to acknowledge Tim Tebow’s success throwing the ball ultimately doomed the team to an ignominious playoff exit. Still, the Steelers ended the season with the league’s number one overall defense, continuing LeBeau’s streak of top ranked units. He’ll have work to do this year, finding a new starting cornerback and replacing his team captain at inside linebacker. However, roster change-over is nothing new to the Steelers and I’m sure the old master will be up to the challenge. The real question is whether Haley will rise to his challenge like he did at prior stops in Dallas and Arizona or flame out miserably like he did in KC. He already got off to a somewhat rocky start with Ben Roethlisberger and despite Mike Tomlin’s outright lie that he made the call to hire Haley, the decision to fire Bruce Arians was far from unanimous. Arians had his faults, no doubt, but he also coached the Steelers to a 21st century high flying high octane offense. Will Haley take them to the next level? Or will he follow a mandate from above and return us to the grandaddy’s five yards and a cloud of dust? And how will Ben or Mike Wallace react the first time they walk to the sideline only to be greeted by a crazed Haley’s hostile word vomit?
Art Rooney II vs. Omar Khan – And here’s our 15-3 upset of the tournament. Most people would think, “Nobody is more important than the owner. He’s the owner!” While Deuce has certainly injected himself into the day-to-day activities more than his father ever did, I still think he limits himself to a large extent. Sure he fired Arians and maybe his mandate to run the ball more will influence Haley’s playcalling but at the end of the day I don’t think he’ll be calling down to the sidelines at halftime. Omar Khan is the Steelers’ cap specialist and I think the work he does will figure much bigger into the team’s future. Mike Wallace becomes an unrestricted free agent next season while both Antonio Brown and Manny Sanders become restricted free agents. Omar will be the man charged with figuring out some way to finagle the cap so we can keep our young receivers while also addressing potential holes at RB and CB.
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Our national nightmare has ended. For card carrying citizens of Steeler Nation that is. Yesterday afternoon, Hines Ward officially announced his retirement in an emotion-filled press conference you can watch by clicking here. A few hours later, Peyton Manning held his own press conference where he was introduced as the new quarterback of the Denver Broncos. I point this out because as sad as it is for Hines to hang up the cleats after fourteen glorious seasons, think about what it would’ve been like to see a beloved player who led our team to some of the greatest victories in franchise history wearing the jersey of another team.
Of course, in Hines’ case that was never going to happen. Anybody who watched him closely the past two seasons could plainly see he was old, slow, and couldn’t get open. The only people who thought he could still play were a small cadre of his hardcore fans and Hines himself. The stuff in his press conference about wanting to “retire a Steeler” was, frankly, total bullshit because if he wanted to retire a Steeler he would’ve called it quits when they cut him two weeks ago. When he was released, he clearly stated he intended to continue his career elsewhere next season and he even reiterated yesterday that he thought he had “one or two”(?!?!) more years left in him.
I understand that walking away is hard for athletes to do. Aaron Smith, despite his injury history, had to practically be forced into retirement. At the same time, Smith didn’t carry on some charade that he’d continue his career elsewhere when it was obvious to everybody that he was washed up. I don’t begrudge Hines still wanting to play but spare me this talk of wanting “to retire a Steeler” when the truth is he’s retiring because nobody else wants him.
Just because we love ya, Hines, doesn’t mean you can piss on our leg and tell us it’s raining.
I don’t want to be too hard on Ward because I’ll be the first to admit to getting a little misty-eyed watching him speak. Despite what some of you may think, I always have been and always will be a big fan of #86. I meant everything I said in the tribute I wrote about him when he was released a couple weeks back. I only wish he would’ve had the grace and tact to call it quits back then although, as I’ve said, at least it’s better than watching him muddle through a totally unproductive season as a fourth receiver for the Arizona Cardinals.
The picture above was taken after Hines’ press conference. Jerome Bettis flew up from his home in Atlanta to be here for the announcement. The only other Steelers to attend were defensive players James Harrison, Brett Keisel and the aforementioned Aaron Smith. No current member of the Steelers offense was in attendance nor was head coach Mike Tomlin. I’m not sure what to make of that since by all accounts Ward was well-liked by most of his teammates. There have been whispers that Tomlin and Ward didn’t have the best relationship, no doubt exacerbated by Tomlin’s decision to demote him to fourth string this past season. Insiders have said it was ultimately Tomlin who did not want Ward back, not for veteran’s minimum, not if he offered to play for a dollar.
Diehard Steeler fans are also well aware of the frosty relationship that has always existed between Hines and Ben Roethlisberger so it’s no surprise he wasn’t on hand yesterday. Yet in an ironic way, things have come full circle. When Ben took his first snap as a rookie, the Bus was the team’s undisputed leader. When he retired, Bettis passed that mantle over to Hines. With Hines gone, this is undoubtedly Big Ben’s team now. He definitely has some big shoes to fill.
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For those members of Steeler Nation who live outside Pittsburgh and therefore don’t have access to the Post-Gazette, well, consider yourselves lucky. That rag hasn’t been worth reading since John Clayton left to become ESPN’s Senior NFL Insider (as opposed to Junior NFL Liaison, I suppose) and they got rid of Mark Madden. Seriously, I’m beggin’ somebody over at the P-G to pull the plug on Bozo the Columnist’s inane “blog” and bring in somebody who doesn’t think youtube is that portable cushion you sit on to relieve hemorrhoids. I mean, would it kill them to bring in a couple columnists under the age of 60?
Anyway, I do receive the Sunday edition, primarily because I’m an Extreme Couponer. While perusing yesterday’s paper, I immediately noticed the ginormous full page ad taken out by former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith. Smith was among the long-time Steelers released in the Purge a week and a half back. During his career in the Black and Gold, Smith was known primarily for two things: being one of the most underrated players in the league and also for being one of the most classy.
Taking out a full page ad to thank Steeler fans pretty vividly exemplifies the latter. Smith’s message was as follows:
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Two notable things happened on Wednesday. The big sports news of the day was the Indianapolis Colts releasing Peyton Manning. Locally, the Pittsburgh Penguins unveiled a statue of the greatest hockey player to ever lace up the skates, Mario Lemieux. Watching both events unfold, I couldn’t help but think of the recent purge by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Breaking up is always hard to do. The Packers divorce from Bret Favre was full of drama and if some of Favre’s snide comments towards his successor are any indication, there are still hard feelings. Not to mention Favre ended his career playing the Vikings, who are to Packers fans what the Browns are to us. On the flip side, Manning’s press conference is already being hailed as the standard for athletic break-ups. While we should expect nothing less from football’s version of Mr. Perfect, I have to admit to getting a bit choked up listening to his heartfelt words.
And I ordinarily can’t stand the guy.
Manning’s situation is no different than that of Hines Ward. Both were synonymous with teams who achieved great success. Both are classy individuals who did a lot of good for the community. And while they may have seen their best days, both intend to continue playing football in 2012.
Where was Hines’ press conference? Why was the release of the greatest wide receiver in Steelers history made by a PR statement? And where was Hines? His only response to being released was a short paragraph issued through his agent. Why didn’t he request a chance to personally express his feelings about moving on after fourteen glorious years in the Black and Gold?
When Chris Hoke retired a couple months back, the Steelers had a press conference where Hoke spoke touchingly about his time in Pittsburgh. With all due respect to Hokey, he’s hardly been a major part of the team’s success. Aaron Smith was amongst Hoke’s teammates who showed up to wish him well. Why didn’t Smith rate a similar send-off when he was recently released?
Now maybe the players were offered a chance to speak but declined. Smith has always been a blue collar player who shuns the spotlight. But Hines, well, Hines has never met a microphone he didn’t like. If he declined a proper farewell, it’s because that famous chip on shoulder has grown a bit larger to include the Steelers thinking he’s washed up.
There’s certainly some evidence that this divorce is more of the Favre variety as Hines recently posted a whiny little message on his Facebook page asking fans to express their anger over his release. Okay, it was supposedly posted by a member of “Hines’ team” and it was quickly taken down when people on FB and Twitter began mocking it unmercifully but I find it hard to believe anybody posts things in Hines’ name without at least checking with him first.
Then again, it’s equally plausible the Steelers never reached out to him or Smith. Steeler Nation considers their franchise the classiest in the NFL if not all of sports and that opinion is largely warranted. However, one area where they’ve consistently fallen short is how they deal with their ex-players. The Steelers have always put the Steelers first while the actual players who made them the greatest franchise in NFL history have been secondary. That’s why Mario Lemeiux gets a statue outside Consol Energy Center and the Pirates have more statues than World Championships yet the Steelers only choose to honor their founder, Art Rooney.
I have no problem with honoring our beloved Chief but the Steelers have the greatest dynasty in football history, they can’t come up with some way to acknowledge those players? And they can’t put aside any tension or hard-feelings for twenty minutes to allow Hines one last farewell? I expect better from the Pittsburgh Steelers. We all should.
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The Post-Gazette is calling it the March Massacre. Being a rabid fan of the television series “Lost,” I prefer to refer to it as the Purge. In a span of three days, the Pittsburgh Steelers cut four veterans who combined had logged over forty seasons in the Black & Gold. Going back a little less than a month, the Steelers cut a total of six players, five of whom at one time or another had been mainstays in the starting line-up.
The latest veteran to get the axe is in some ways the most significant. Linebacker James Farrior was rumored to be on the chopping block since his age (37) and salary ($3.25 million) didn’t appear to fit with the team’s current youth movement. Still, Potsie’s exit comes as a mild surprise because even though his play had obviously declined, he remained a key member of the defense. Farrior’s helmet bore the Mr. Yuck sticker signifying that he alone was Dick LeBeau‘s on-field game general. Of the six players released during the Purge, Farrior is the only one who was still a regular starter at the end of 2011.
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Only one week ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers announced they had renegotiated Ben Roethlisberger‘s contract in order to lower their cap hit by $8 million. That money, in addition to what was saved in several other reworked deals, put the Steelers in line with 2012′s projected salary cap. Many members of Steeler Nation thought the team would sit back, take a breather and spend some time figuring how they wanted to configure their roster for the upcoming campaign. Well, as the old fish story goes, just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…
Instead of relaxing, the Steelers have embarked on an unprecedented roster overhaul which has seen them ruthlessly cut ties with several veteran mainstays over the past 48 hours. All day yesterday, Pittsburgh talk radio was dominated by news of Hines Ward’s release. Some people were angry and a few were even happy but most were genuinely sad to see a legendary career end. Before the day was out, word had spread that two more players were set to join Hines as ex-Steelers. Although neither name was much of a surprise.
Aaron Smith has finally run out of time. The Steelers held a roster spot open for him in 2010, hoping he’d pull a Woodson and return from major injury in time to play in the Super Bowl but it wasn’t to be. They did bring him back last season despite injury concerns and having two first round draft picks eager to take the field. About a month ago, Smith attended the retirement press conference for fellow defensive lineman Chris Hoke and was asked about his plans for this season. He clearly indicated a desire to suit up for one last go-round despite playing only a handful of games in each of the previous three seasons. It’s hard to find fault with the Steelers’ handling of the situation as they obviously hoped he’d retire gracefully rather than force their hand. When Smith suffered his latest season-ending injury shortly into the 2011 campaign, it seemed his career was over. Since we now know that Smith will only leave the game kicking and screaming, the Steelers really had no choice but to cut him.
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Hines Ward has been released by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite the outpouring of sadness across Steeler Nation, it isn’t quite the bombshell it would have been even a season ago. In fact, everybody from Hines on down have acknowledged if he were to return next year, it would be under a reworked contract and in a reduced role. Nevertheless, just because we knew this was coming doesn’t make it any easier.
Unlike the last great Steeler to retire, the end for Hines comes not with a bang but with a whimper. Our final memory of Jerome Bettis is him announcing his retirement while holding the Lombardi Trophy aloft. Our final memory of Hines will be those annoying shots of him sitting glumly on the bench while the Steelers’ offense tried time and time again to get something going against the stubborn Denver Broncos. While the Bus didn’t exactly set the world on fire his last year, he still contributed 9 touchdowns and 26 heart attacks when he fumbled the ball in Indianapolis. Hines had a totally forgettable season, barely seeing the field for long stretches of time. Even what should have been his signature moment, his 1,000th career reception, was somewhat anticlimactic when it was force-fed to him on a little shovel pass which lost five yards.
But let’s not dwell on the sad ending. It’s far better to Hines for what he was, the greatest wide receiver in Steelers history. Not bad for a third round draft choice out of Georgia. He came to Pittsburgh with little fanfare and spent most the majority of his first three years playing special teams and serving as a third receiver behind Plaxico Burress and epic first-round bust Troy Edwards (what the hell were they thinking when they drafted him?). When he finally became a full-time starter in 2001, he ripped off the first of four consecutive 1,000 yard seasons and Pro Bowl appearances. From that point on, Hines Ward and the Steelers became synonymous.