Monday, December 11, 2006
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Two weeks ago today, a surgeon pulled a bone fragment and loose cartilage out of Hines Ward's knee, another bump in a rocky road for the defending Super Bowl champs.
Neither that road, nor his play has come to an end, Ward said, because he plans to return to the starting lineup Sunday when the Steelers visit the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, N.C.
And he predicted Troy Polamalu will join him.
"Troy and myself, we want to come back," Ward said. "There are three games left."
Ward and Polamalu are among the ironmen on the Steelers. It's the first time Ward has missed two consecutive games and just three total in his nine-year career. Polamalu missed the first two games of his four-year career with a second-degree MCL knee sprain.
Between them, they have been to six Pro Bowls, and Ward is the reigning Super Bowl MVP and owns the Steelers' record with 631 pass receptions.
Polamalu continues to lead the fan-balloting at strong safety and, Ward, after a slow start, was back in Pro Bowl form at flanker. He has 57 receptions and six touchdowns in his 11 games, and his 13.8-yard average per catch is the third highest since he became a starter in 1999.
Ward's knee was hyperextended at Cleveland Nov. 19. He started the following week in Baltimore and caught four passes before his new injury developed. He was taken out of the game and had surgery the next morning.
"They took out some bone fragments that broke, and cleaned up some loose particles," Ward said. "It was just an extra piece of bone that was there, it's not like I needed it. While they were in there, they cleaned it all up. I shouldn't have a problem, it feels good, and the swelling's going down."
He planned to start running over the weekend. Ward said he could have played against the Cleveland Browns if the game were yesterday rather than Thursday.
"In the long run, I need to feel a lot better now and in the next couple of years."
After he caught just nine passes for 99 yards in the first three games, Ward heard whispers that he was either hitting a wall at age 30 after eight punishing years as the most physical wide receiver in the NFL or that his success had somehow made him fat. He even dropped a couple of passes, a rarity.
But the Steelers had fewer than 200 yards passing in each of the first four games, and Ward halted further talk of his play as he hit stride in October. Over a stretch of five games, he caught 35 passes for 546 yards and five touchdowns that ended with him being helped off the field at the end of a comeback victory in Cleveland with a hyperextended knee.
No matter how coach Bill Cowher lists him on the injury report this week, Ward has no doubt he will play against the Panthers Sunday.
"It's just a pride thing," Ward said. "It stinks being on the sideline, it eats at you.
"Playing Cleveland and Tampa Bay, there was no need [to rush back], those are teams we're supposed to beat. Now we have a stretch coming down to Carolina -- a lot of people picked them to win the Super Bowl -- and then Baltimore and Cincinnati to finish out.
"We're still mathematically in this thing, and we're going to take it one game at a time. We're getting 10 whole days until we play our next game."
The Steelers would have to win all three to go 9-7 and, even then, their playoff chances look bleak with five other teams ahead of them for the two AFC wild-card playoff spots.
No matter, there are games to be played, and Hines Ward wants to be part of them.