Ask Hines Ward what has been the key to 11 seasons of accomplishments, and he'll turn the question the way he turns defenders.
"You guys are the key," Ward said during a media scrum this week. "I love it when you write about what I can't do."
Most receivers prefer to run and catch without carrying extra baggage around, but Ward seems to play his best when he has that chip on his shoulder. It's uncertain who, if anybody, wrote that Ward wouldn't be on the doorstep of another 1,000-yard season going into the regular-season finale against the Cleveland Browns tomorrow. No matter. The former Super Bowl MVP plays his best when everything is on the line.
A favorite on YouTube for his devastating blocks, and the target of bounty hunters by opposing defenders, Ward previously has reached the 1,000-yard mark in receiving yards four times from 2001-04, with each of the those seasons punctuated by a Pro Bowl selection. No other receiver in franchise history -- and it's a history that includes some Hall of Famers -- had four such seasons.
At 32, he is 27 yards shy of reaching 1,000 again. And even if he says all the right things about team goals, the milestone is meaningful.
"It would be a great accomplishment. I don't think I have to prove anything to my teammates by getting 1,000 yards, but it'd be great to have," said Ward, who has caught at least one pass in 161 consecutive games.
He is the franchise leader in 12 categories, including career catches, most receiving yards, most receiving touchdowns and receptions in a single season. He is six catches short of 800 in his career, which is some 250 more than John Stallworth had. He also is tied with Louis Lipps and Buddy Dial for most touchdown catches in a season (12, in 2002).
By his own admission, Ward is not a typical wide receiver.
"I'm not 6-foot-3. I don't have blazing speed. But I find ways to be the best player I can be," Ward said. "To play this long in the league, you have to be consistent. Consistency is the measuring stick. I'll keep showing up and keep making plays to get this team to the Super Bowl."
And in the words of coach Mike Tomlin, "He's a football player, a wide receiver second."
When it comes to running with the ball or taking a hit to make a play or throwing a jarring block, Ward can irritate defenders no end. But it's hard to tell what's more annoying -- his accomplishments or his radiant smile.
One of his nicknames is Psycho Ward. But he's also known as Hines Field for his accomplishments at home. He opened the season by grabbing two touchdown passes against the Houston Texans.
The game against the Browns has no meaning as far as the standings or the playoff seeds are concerned. But Ward has found motivation beyond his personal goals.
"This is one game they would love to win," Ward said.
"For us, we trying to gain momentum going into the playoffs. This is our last preparation. Last year, we limped into the playoffs. You can't just turn it on and off. If you're not playing good heading into the playoffs, it takes a miracle for you to have a good playoff run."
And there's another little chip on the shoulder -- wanting to erase the aftereffects of the loss last week in Tennessee.
"We don't want to go into the playoffs with that game on our minds still," Ward said. "We don't want that taste in our mouths."