So I don’t know if you heard (apparently some guy named Manning was also in the news today), but Hines Ward has officially called it a career. As the relationship between Ward and the Steelers slowly sputtered to an end over the winter, every time it was brought up on Pardon the Interruption Tony and Mike described him as a surefire Hall of Famer. Back in February, he didn’t appear on my Top 50 Active Resumes, and honestly didn’t come very close – in other words, I had him just as surefire not to get in. The last time the PTI guys brought him up, when the Steelers finally cut him, they expressed incredulity that anyone would disagree with their assessment. He has all the receiving records for the vaunted Steelers! He’s eighth all time in receptions and 18th in receiving yards! He has two Super Bowl rings! How can you not put him in the Hall of Fame?
Two words: Passing. League.
Prepare to hear those two words a lot for the next few decades and possibly the remainder of the history of the league whenever the Hall of Fame merits of any wide receiver to play this century come up. Simply put, it’s hard to overstate how inflated today’s passing and especially receiving stats are compared to earlier eras. Every single one of the players ahead of Ward on the all-time receptions list played at least four seasons as Ward’s contemporary (you have to go down to #12 Art Monk to find someone who retired in the 90s) and only Cris Carter didn’t play during at least half of Ward’s career. Only four players ahead of Ward on the receiving yards list didn’t play at least one season as his contemporary. Even discounting that, being the best receiver on the traditionally-run-heavy Steelers doesn’t mean as much as you might think – only two Steelers receivers are in the Hall, and not only did Lynn Swann have a very long wait he seems to have gotten in mostly on the back of his memorable Super Bowl catches, not his actual career.
The smoking gun on Ward’s resume is this: although he made the 2nd-team All-Pro three times, not once was he named to the first team. Over the course of his career, the following receivers were named 1st-team AP All-Pro (and thus, were considered better than Ward) at least once: Randy Moss, Antonio Freeman, Marvin Harrison, Carter, Terrell Owens, David Boston, Torry Holt, Muhsin Muhammad, Steve Smith, Chad Johnson, Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Wes Welker, Roddy White, Reggie Wayne, Calvin Johnson. Moss, Owens, Harrison, Chad and Andre Johnson, and Welker were named multiple times; Jimmy Smith, Rod Smith, Wayne, and Fitzgerald were named 2nd-team All-Pro in at least two different years Ward wasn’t; Holt, Steve Smith, and Calvin Johnson were also named 2nd-team All-Pro in a year Ward wasn’t. Throw in the Hall’s infuriating inability to pick between Andre Reed, Carter, and Tim Brown, and how can you even find room for Ward to get in at some point?
Shouldn’t a Hall of Famer make more than four Pro Bowls in a 14-year career, especially if they were never one of the two best receivers in the league in any year? Do Super Bowl rings even matter for non-quarterbacks? Would Tony and Mike disagree with my February post that, just among active players, the Johnsons, Moss, Fitzgerald, Steve Smith, Welker, and Wayne are all more deserving of the Hall of Fame than Ward – before you even get to retired players who aren’t eligible yet like Owens, Harrison, Holt, or Isaac Bruce, or the aforementioned eligible players that haven’t gotten in yet?
Perhaps, like Swann, another beloved Steeler receiver can get in late in his eligibility despite a questionable career. It is, after all, the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Great. But if you still want to read more, you can browse through this post from January and the associated comments.