“No,” said Colbert when asked if the Steelers have decided whether to bring back Ward for a 15th NFL season. “To this current point, no final decisions have been made. We have had several discussions internally. We’re right in the midst of our free agent evaluations, talking about other teams’ free agents. We will meet on those starting on Thursday, (Feb. 16). That will carry through next Monday. That will give us an idea about what else is out there, where we stand with restructuring contracts and what we will have to do as far as possibly terminating people, both immediately and after the fact if we decide we want to add some players (in free agency).”
There was a report that surfaced last Friday that the Steelers had decided to cut ties with Ward, the most productive wide receiver in franchise history. That the report originated with the same “insider” who had reported that the Steelers would hire Bruce Arians’ replacement from within didn’t seem to matter. The story grew legs, and by the time the weekend ended, the assumption was that Ward’s Steelers career was over.
Even before the 2011 season ended and he had reached the statistical plateau of 1,000 career receptions, Ward talked of wanting to finish his career with the Steelers. He said he would be willing to accept a salary cut to make that happen, and then when the season ended with the loss to Denver in the playoffs, Ward said that to Steelers President Art Rooney II in a brief face-to-face meeting.
Rooney talked about it in an interview on Jan. 17. “He came in and saw me about that and said he was open to that,” said Rooney. “I said I appreciated that, and it’s something we would be talking about as we get through the process that we have to go through here over the next few weeks.”
There have been times when the Steelers have had messy divorces with some star players – Franco Harris in 1984, Rod Woodson in 1997 – but there also have been instances where the team and the player have come to an accommodation to allow the individual to finish his career here. The most obvious recent example of that being Jerome Bettis.
“I would say our decision-making is similar on all of our players. We get in the room and talk through everything we have to talk to and try to come out of it with a decision everyone in the organization is comfortable with,” said Rooney. “The one change that might apply to the kind of (star) players you are talking about is who is in the room when the communication is happening. There may be some differences there. But for the most part we follow our process and try to consider everybody’s ability to contribute.”
And that just might end up being the tipping point with Ward. Do the Steelers believe he can contribute to the team in 2012?
“The thing about the NFL is you can’t carry anybody, you just can’t,” said Rooney. “We have to convince ourselves that everybody we have under contract is going to make a contribution next year. The process we are in right now is talking through all of that and coming to some conclusions. I’m sure we will have some tough decisions to make.”
And apparently, the decision on Hines Ward is still pending.