Steelers players urge team to re-sign Ward
LATROBE, Pa. -- Hines Ward became the Pittsburgh Steelers' first major holdout in 12 years Sunday, keeping his promise not to report to training camp without a contract extension that would make him one of the NFL's top-paid wide receivers.
Once Ward missed the 6 p.m. ET reporting deadline, Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said negotiations were over until Ward shows up -- something the four-time Pro Bowl receiver has insisted that he won't do without a new deal.
Ward, with one year remaining on a contract worth $1.66 million this season, apparently has two choices: End his holdout and continue talks, as Steelers Pro Bowl running back Barry Foster did in 1993, or sit out the season, as three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Mike Merriweather did in 1988.
Several teammates made impassioned pleas for the team to re-sign Ward, with linebacker Joey Porter saying the Steelers "can't win without him." And Colbert himself seemed uncomfortable talking about a missing player he often has cited for his unselfishness and team-first attitude.
"We understand Hines Ward is a special player and always has been ... but, sometimes, there's going to be a disagreement," Colbert said. "The policy has always been that, if a player is under contact, he has to be in camp for any negotiations to go forward. Without the player here, there won't be any exchange."
Ward's absence threatens to create a major distraction for a team that went 15-1 and reached the AFC championship game last season, and leaves quarterback Ben Roethlisberger without either starting wide receiver from his breakthrough rookie season.
Plaxico Burress signed with the Giants because the Steelers couldn't afford to keep both him and Ward. They preferred to keep Ward, whose production and toughness -- he is widely considered the NFL's top-blocking receiver -- have personified the Steelers' offense for years. He is within 33 catches of breaking Hall of Famer John Stallworth's team career record of 537 receptions.
Ward's salary last season was only a fraction of that of top receivers such as the Colts' Marvin Harrison, the Raiders' Randy Moss and the Eagles' Terrell Owens, counting bonuses and the prorated share of signing bonuses. The current impasse is mostly the result of Ward wanting much of his money in an eight-figure signing bonus, but the Steelers preferring to pay him in salary -- something he wouldn't earn if the team ever cut him for salary-cap reasons.
Asked if Ward deserves a new contract, running back Jerome Bettis said, "What do you think? He's like the 40th paid wide receiver in the league."
All-Pro linebacker James Farrior said the Steelers' camp won't be the same without Ward's never-take-a-down-off attitude, attention to detail and production. Ward has surpassed the team's former single-season record of 85 receptions three times, including a team-record 112-catch season in 2002.
"The way he plays and the way he approaches the game, everybody kind of follows what he does," Farrior said. "He's a great player and does all the little things and a lot of the young guys look up to him to get their motivation and see how he does things, because he's always doing it right."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press