When Hines Ward decides to call it quits -- and he should definitely consider retiring as a Pittsburgh Steeler after the team announced it will release him -- he will have completed a Hall of Fame career.
Whether Ward sees his bust immortalized in Canton is up for debate. He is certainly far from a slam dunk to get voted into the Hall of Fame, and the odds are currently against him from getting inducted. But he deserves to be there.
Ward should get in for his productivity. He is one of eight players in NFL history to reach 1,000 career receptions.
Ward should get in for his consistency. He averaged 85.6 catches during a nine-year period (2001 to '09).
Ward should get in for his toughness. He is the only wide receiver who will be remembered as much for his bone-jarring hits as his clutch catches.
Perhaps the best argument for Ward's enshrinement is that there are only two players in NFL history to catch 1,000 passes and win multiple Super Bowls: Ward and Jerry Rice. That's elite status, which is what the Hall of Fame represents. It's the best of the best.
The reality is Ward will have trouble making the Hall of Fame. Just ask Cris Carter, Tim Brown and Andre Reed. They've been waiting for years, even though their credentials say they should get in. Brown ranks fourth on the NFL's all-time receiving yards list and sixth in touchdown catches. Carter is eighth in yards and fourth in touchdowns.
One theory is that voters are split among those three receivers, so Carter, Brown and Reed cancel one another out. Another theory is Hall of Fame voters don't value wide receivers, which is something Carter believes.
Only seven receivers in the Hall of Fame started their careers after the 1970 AFL-NFL merger: Michael Irvin, Steve Largent, James Lofton, Art Monk, Rice, John Stallworth and Lynn Swann. That's fewer than quarterbacks, running backs, offensive linemen, defensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs.
The struggles of Carter and Brown to get into the Hall work against Ward. He has significantly fewer catches, receiving yards and touchdowns than each of them. Ward also has been to half as many Pro Bowls. In many ways, getting into the Hall of Fame is a numbers game, and that's not what Ward wants to hear.
Ward's best shot at reaching the Hall of Fame is his entire body of work. He wasn't the best deep threat. He wasn't the receiver with the most touchdowns. But he was the most complete wide receiver of his generation. No wide receiver blocked like Ward, and he fearlessly made catches over the middle. His reputation will stand the test of time.
Receivers are often considered divas. Ward is ruthless. He's an old-school player who stood out because of his physical play.
"Is there another receiver in the past 12 years who has a tougher reputation than Hines?" Swann said.
Once the Hall of Fame voters resolve this current logjam with wide receivers, Ward could be faced with another one once he is eligible. (A player becomes a candidate five years after his final game.) He could be going against the likes of Terrell Owens (No. 2 on the all-time receiving yards list), Randy Moss (No. 5) and Marvin Harrison (No. 6). This could mean a long wait for Ward, who is 18th on that list.
From my perspective, Ward has strong enough numbers to put himself in the Hall of Fame conversation. It's his other credentials -- violent blocker, Super Bowl MVP and great leader -- that put him over the top.