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Saunders: Hines Ward Faces Uphill Battle for Hall of Fame Spot



Steelers Hines Ward

For the sixth time, former Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward was nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, joining 121 other nominees for the Hall’s Class of 2022 on Wednesday.

Among the five Steelers nominated, Ward almost certainly has the best shot of some day being enshrined in Canton, Ohio.

Ward is just one six receivers to win the Super Bowl MVP Award, he won two Super Bowls, was named to four Pro Bowls, was a three-time second-team All-Pro, and finished his career with 1,000 catches for 12,083 yards and 85 touchdowns.

He also helped changed the game, with his physical blocking style leading to restrictions on offensive players hitting defensive players from their blind side, known as the Hines Ward rule.

But is that enough to get him into Canton? Statistically, probably not.

Two players that were passed over last time around seem near locks to eventually make the Hall of Fame: Reggie Wayne (1,070, 14,345, 82) and Torry Holt (920, 13,382, 74). Each player won a Super Bowl and Holt (seven) and Wayne (six) were more frequent Pro Bowl participants than Ward. They were also named a first-team All-Pro once each, something Ward never accomplished. You can pretty safely put those two at the top of the list.

Then there are three wide receivers in their first year of eligibility all have better career numbers than Ward: Andre Johnson (1,062, 14,731, 70), Steve Smith (1,031, 14,731, 81) and Anquan Boldin (1,076, 13,779, 82).

Johnson and Smith never won a title, but was a Johnson seven-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro and Smith was a five-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro. Boldin, whose numbers are the closest to Ward’s, was also never a first-team All-Pro. He was named to two Pro Bowls and won one Super Bowl. Johnson and Smith’s accomplishments probably put them ahead of Ward, while he and Boldin are close.

Four to eight players make the Hall of Fame in every class, and it’s hard to see five wide receivers going this year, so if Ward is behind Holt, Johnson, Smith and Wayne, it’s hard to envision him making it this year, but someone that far up the food chain should probably make it eventually, right?

Well, maybe not.

Ward’s problem is that as the game has gotten more and more pass-heavy, each subsequent wave of wide receivers is going to have more and more impressive numbers. Larry Fitzgerald (1,432, 17,492, 121) already has better numbers than Ward. Julio Jones (857, 13,053, 60), Antonio Brown (892, 11,884, 80), DeAndre Hopkins (757, 10,146, 63) and Roddy White (808, 10,863, 63) are closing fast.

According to Pro Football Reference’s Hall of Fame Monitor score, which compares career accomplishments with statistical prowess, Ward is currently behind Fitzgerald, Wayne, Holt, Jones, Brown, Smith and Johnson for modern era selection.

Of course, all of that comparison ignore’s Ward’s style and contribution to the game. It’s the Hall of Fame, not the hall of great, and Ward’s physicality, delivered with a trademarked style, made him one of the most recognizable players of his generation. If the voters put more value on that than statistical and career accomplishments, Ward could cut the line. Spending his whole career in a place like Pittsburgh will be a help.

In some ways, Ward’s Hall of Fame chances are a lot like his football career. He was never the biggest wide receiver or the fastest. Ward became great through toughness, hard work and perseverance. Once again, he’s an underdog that’s going to have to battle it out.

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