Although he might have considered a salary reduction, Hines Ward was informed he’ll be released by the Pittsburgh Steelers on Wednesday without the franchise ever broaching the possibility of a contract restructuring, a source close to the 14-year veteran wide receiver told The Sports Xchange later in the evening.
That was subsequently confirmed by a club official.
The move, long rumored, will save the Steelers about $3.4 million in salary-cap space. At one point roughly $25 million over the projected salary cap for 2012, the Steelers are now within shouting distance of the spending limit, and have several ways of creating more wiggle room. So the release of Ward, team and league sources emphasized, was more a football decision than one based solely on economics.
“(The Steelers) knew he would think about (a reduction), because he wanted to stay there,” a source said. “But it never came up. It apparently was never a possibility.”
Ward, who will be 36 on March 8, had played his entire career in Pittsburgh, having joined the team as a third-round choice in the 1998 draft. He established franchise records for receptions (1,000), receiving yards (12,083) and touchdown catches (85), played in three Super Bowl games, and twice won NFL titles. Ward was chosen as the most valuable player in Super Bowl XL.
The former University of Georgia star played in 217 games, with 190 starts.
In 2011, though, Ward’s role was dramatically reduced, as he was usually either the No. 4 or No. 5 wide receiver. His 46 catches for 381 yards and two touchdowns were his fewest in all three categories since his ‘98 rookie season.
Signed to a five-year, $24.9 million contract extension in 2009, Ward had two more seasons remaining on his deal, at base salaries of $4 million each. He will count $1.22 million in so-called “dead money” against the club’s salary cap because of the acceleration of prorated signing bonus money.
“There were probably some limits as to how far he might have gone (financially),” the source said. “He would have made some accommodations, up to a point, but it never got to that. People will say, ‘Well, that’s business in the NFL.’ But to be fair, it wasn’t about business. They just didn’t think he could contribute to their team, as it moved forward.”
Pittsburgh has reshaped its receiving corps around the trio that has dubbed itself “Young Money,” three-year veteran Mike Wallace, and a pair of two-year pros, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders.
After the team reported on its web site that Ward will not return for a 15th season, the popular wide receiver announced through his business manager that he will not retire and hopes to play in the league in 2012.
Ward’s statement said, “This isn’t how I wanted this chapter of my career to end. I did everything in my power to remain a Steeler and finish what I started here 14 years ago. I want to thank the organization, my teammates and coaches and everyone who made my run as a Steeler the best years of my life. To Mr. Rooney, thank you for allowing me to play for one of the greatest organizations in the world. To my fans and in particular, Steeler Nation, thank you for your support and all the great memories. I gave my heart and soul for you every down and I will always bleed black and gold. I do feel that I still have more football left in me and I am looking forward to playing in the NFL, again, this upcoming season.”
The Steelers’ statement said, “We had a conversation today with Hines Ward and informed him that we plan to release him of his contract prior to the start of the 2012 NFL calendar year,” Steelers President Art Rooney II told the team’s website, Steelers.com. “Hines has been an integral part of our success since we drafted him in 1998 and we will forever be grateful for what he has helped us achieve. He has meant so much to this organization, both on and off the field, and we appreciate his efforts over the past 14 years. Hines’ accomplishments are numerous, and he will always be thought of as one of the all-time great Steelers. We wish him nothing but the best.”
While the Steelers keep chopping away at what once was their bloated $25 million over the cap, they face difficult questions on some venerable veterans and on how to keep wide receiver Mike Wallace.
Restructuring five contracts and releasing veteran cornerback Bryant McFadden and special teams captain Arnaz Battle have left the Steelers finally about even with the cap. They will need to find about $8 million more before March 13 to have room for tenders.
After the decision was made to release Ward, among others whose salaries could be cut or released are linebackers James Farrior and Larry Foote, nose tackle Casey Hampton and defensive end Aaron Smith.
General manager Kevin Colbert predicted on Thursday that Hampton, 34, would be with the team in 2012 even though he had ACL surgery in January and has a salary of $4.89 million. He was not so definitive when asked about Ward’s return, even if their career receiving leader takes a pay cut from his $4 million salary.
“We don’t know what we’re dealing with from a cap standpoint so we have to look at multiple scenarios as to what we can and can’t do and what we’re going to have to do because we don’t know,” Colbert said when asked if he thought Ward would be on the team in 2012. “There still can be more restructurings and they’re still can be more terminations. That’s where we have to leave it.”
Wallace is a restricted free agent and he wants money, big money. He says he wants to stay in Pittsburgh but also called it a “business,” which is often a code word for whoever has the biggest check will get his signature. However, while there has been much speculation on which team might be willing to sign Wallace (Patriots, 49ers and Bengals lead the speculation), rarely do teams give up first-round picks for a free agent, especially a first-rounder who played so poorly in the second half of last season.
Wallace averaged only 46.6 yards per game in the final nine games of 2011, including the Steelers’ playoff loss in Denver, after a spectacular start. There are those inside the organization who would be more than willing to accept someone’s late first-round draft choice for him.
One thing’s for certain: The Steelers will not put the franchise tag on him. It’s more likely that Wallace could play the 2012 season on the RFA tender and become an unrestricted free agent next year. The Steelers have to be concerned about next year because Antonio Brown, whom many judge to be a better receiver than Wallace, will be restricted at this time next year.
“Once we determine what his tender will be, we’ll know what our compensation will be,” Colbert said of Wallace. “I’m pretty sure he’s going to be protected with a first-round pick at minimum.”
In the meantime, Colbert knocked down the supposition that the Steelers’ weakest link is the offensive line and that is where they will go in the first round of the draft.
He said, “I don’t necessarily agree with that. Look you’re not going to have five first-rounders. We’re very fortunate for have one first-rounder. Max (Starks) was a third-rounder, Marcus Gilbert’s a second-rounder, Willie Colon’s a fourth-rounder. Sure you fill in with a free agents and they develop. Ramon Foster did a great job, Doug Legursky. They’ve developed into NFL starters in some form or fashion. No team has five Pro Bowlers. No team has five first-rounders on the offensive line that I know of. It’s always going to be a collection of different players.”