Ward's days with Steelers are nearing the end


Ward's days with Steelers are nearing the end

From Comcast SportsNet
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Hines Ward has been an icon for the Pittsburgh Steelers for 14 seasons, but no more, as the NFL team announced Wednesday it was releasing the veteran wide receiver. A four-time Pro Bowl selection, who holds franchise records for receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, Ward, 35, will be released by the organization that drafted him back in 1998. "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 said in a statement on the team's website Wednesday. "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." The MVP of the 2006 Super Bowl will finish his Steelers career with 1,000 catches, 12,083 yards and 85 receiving touchdowns. He helped Pittsburgh to three AFC championships and a pair of Super Bowl wins. The former "Dancing With the Stars" champion -- who spent last weekend working the red carpet at the Oscars -- doesn't appear ready to put away his cleats just yet, however. While saying "this isn't how I wanted this chapter of my career to end," Ward vowed to return for a 15th season next fall. "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," Ward said in a statement. Ward has developed a reputation as one of the league's best blocking wide receivers, a trait that endeared him to the blue-collar fan base of one of the league's marquee franchises. Ward was pretty good at catching passes too, particularly in the postseason. He helped the Steelers to their fifth Super Bowl in 2006 catching five passes for 123 receiving yards and a touchdown in a 21-10 win over Seattle. "He has meant so much to this organization, both on and off the field," Rooney said, "and we appreciate his efforts over the past 14 years." There was just not appreciation to bring Ward, who turns 36 next week, back at 4 million next season. The Steelers are in the midst of a roster-wide salary purge and a youth movement at receiver. By the end of the 2011 season, Ward found himself on the sidelines for long stretches as youngsters Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown turned into quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's favorite targets. Both receivers topped 1,100 yards receiving and combined for 10 touchdowns, while Ward had just 46 catches for 381 yards and two scores. It was the worst reception total since his rookie year (15). Ward took the demotion in stride and relished the role of elder statesmen. Wallace, Brown and Emmanuel Sanders credited Ward for helping mature both on and off the field. All three players hoped Ward would come back for one more go, but understood they were nearing the end of an era. "We all know the direction in which we're going with the receiving corps," Sanders said last month. "But, like I said, Hines is still a great addition, just the knowledge he brings to the room. You can't pay for that. You can't coach that. He just brings that well being of how to be a pro into the room." Now the corner locker he's held for more than a decade is vacant. "Enjoyed playing with mvp86hinesward learned a lot! Was a great mentor for me! You define a "Steeler"," Brown tweeted after the announcement. He may end his career in a different city, but Ward left little doubt where his heart lies. "I gave my heart and soul for (the fans) every down and I will always bleed black-and-gold," Ward said.

Belichick: Dion Lewis is ‘on to the the next step’

Belichick: Dion Lewis is ‘on to the the next step’

FOXBORO - Dion Lewis was on the practice field for the first time on Thursday afternoon. The running back, who tore his ACL last season then sustained a patella stress fracture over the summer, will now have a maximum of three weeks to work out with the team before the Patriots decide whether to activate him or put him on injured reserve. 

Predictably, Bill Belichick was not particularly revealing when asked about Lewis' re-entry. 

"Well, he's been out there doing things with the training staff for a long time, so now it's on to the next step," Belichick explained, adding, "Dion works really hard. No one works harder than Dion."

It's a 53-man tie for the title of "Patriot Who Works Hardest" between Lewis and every other player on the roster who's been described as having nobody ahead of him in the "Works Harder" category. 

Anyway, Lewis will not be listed on the injury report until he's activated and that would seem an extreme longshot for this week, though the team would have until Saturday to make that move. 

Haggerty: Bruins sinking fast with nothing to hang on to

Haggerty: Bruins sinking fast with nothing to hang on to

So, what do the Bruins do now amidst a three-game tailspin that could easily devolve into a six- or seven-game losing stretch if they’re not too careful?

The goaltending has been predictably porous with Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin out of commission with injuries. The Black and Gold allowed 11 goals in the past two games despite Zane McIntyre battling in tough conditions at Madison Square Garden. The bottom line is McIntyre and Malcolm Subban don’t look ready for NHL prime time and there are legitimate questions as to whether Subban ever will become an NHL goalie.

Beyond that, the Bruins defense has been downright atrocious just as the goaltending situation has deteriorated. Adam McQuaid and Torey Krug have struggled individually and as a pairing that the B’s coaching staff had hoped would complement Zdeno Chara and Brandon Carlo in Boston’s top-four. McQuaid is a minus-3 in his first two games back from an upper body injury and Krug is a minus-4 with a surprising zero points in his first seven games this season.

In fact, every Bruins defenseman not named Chara or Carlo is a combined minus-16 on the season and, of that group, only currently-in-the-AHL rookie Rob O’Gara has a positive plus/minus for the season. Both the defensive zone coverage and the compromised ability to break the puck out of their own end have been problematic and Boston’s opponents have enjoyed way too easy of a time getting into the slot area for juicy scoring chances.

In other words, the defense looks very much like last season for the Bruins with – surprise, surprise – nearly the same cast of characters returning from that subpar crew.

Then there’s the forward group, which has enjoyed great production from David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand in the early going and from David Backes before his elbow injury that was at least partially caused by the hard miles the 32-year-old brawny center has logged over the years. 

Patrice Bergeron has just one point in four games since returning from a lower body injury and opposing defenses in recent games have been able to key on that top line of Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak while mostly neutralizing them. 

That’s because the other Bruins forward lines are doing nothing offensively from a production or puck possession standpoint. Sure, Austin Czarnik had his first NHL goal Wednesday night against the Rangers and Dominic Moore has a couple of goals for a fourth line that’s been decent for Boston this season.

But David Krejci has no goals and three points in seven games with a minus-4 rating while looking slow and tentative coming back from hip surgery, Ryan Spooner is off to a slow start bouncing between wing and center and the third line winger combo of Matt Beleskey and Jimmy Hayes have zero points and a ghastly combined minus-14 rating on the season.

So, basically the Black and Gold have nothing to hang their hat on with the goaltending, the defensemen and the forwards all working at far less than full capacity right now, and that’s making them hockey road kill for opponents. To make matters worse, the Bruins find themselves in the middle of a six-game stretch where they’re playing quality teams that made the playoffs last season, and can expose all of their weak spots.

A prolonged losing streak could knock the Bruins far out of the playoff picture over the next few weeks and leave them more than a handful of points out of the postseason cut by Thanksgiving. Once that happens, the odds would be against the Bruins turning things around and there would zero margin of error for a team that needs leeway based on the glaring roster weaknesses.

So, what are the Bruins to do right now?

There’s not much they can do aside from simply play better, hope that Backes and Rask can return rather quickly and avoid buckling and quitting in games like they did against the Wild and Rangers over the past few days. The Bruins will try to ramp Rask up potentially for this weekend against the Red Wings in Detroit and perhaps that will be enough time for his reported hamstring and groin issues to have healed up.

But if not, the Bruins will need to look on the goaltending market for possible answers rather than asking rookie goalies to thrive behind a struggling, substandard defensive group. Ondrej Pavelec out in Winnipeg would be too expensive in terms of cap hit and there may not be a chance to snag Mike Condon on waivers from Pittsburgh as the Penguins look like they want to hold onto the Massachusetts native with Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury also in the fold.

That leaves the Bruins with a number of retread goalie options like Kari Ramo, Kevin Poulin, Ray Emery, Dan Ellis and Yann Danis, who might have to become a reality if Rask suffers a dreaded setback in the coming days. Bringing in a veteran goalie with NHL experience certainly makes some sense on paper if things are left to Subban and McIntyre, but the bottom line is that Boston will continue to resemble an imploding hockey club until some of their other deep-seated issues are fully addressed.

Gerry Cheevers isn’t walking through that door anytime soon, and if he did, he’d smartly walk back out rather than get hung out to dry by a Bruins team that’s playing embarrassingly poorly in front of a couple of young goalies that need their best.