By: Zach Herbaugh
I recently released an article ranking the top wide receivers in Pittsburgh Steelers history. Attempting to rank any position will create debate, but a position as prestigious as wide receiver in Steelers history obviously opened a can of worms I was not expecting.
I ranked the Steelers all-time leader in catches, yards, and touchdowns, Hines Ward, first on my list. I then ranked four-time Super Bowl champion and Pro Football Hall of Famers John Stallworth and Lynn Swann numbers two and three respectively. Then, I put Antonio Brown fourth overall.
These four wide receivers have not only made a lasting impact on the Steelers and their fans, but they are also some of the best wide receivers to ever put on a football uniform. I can see an argument for putting either of the four guys first on my list, but I’ll explain my reasoning for putting Ward first and Brown fourth. Before I jump into my thoughts, we hosted a poll on Twitter asking the fans of Steeler Nation to tell us who they thought was better and here were the results:
A big reason why I ranked Ward number one was his durability and consistency. Ward played 14 NFL seasons and played in 217 games while only missing 7 games during that time span. Brown lasted nine seasons in a Steeler uniform and played in 130 games while missing 15 games during his tenure. Could Brown have had the same lengthy career as Ward? Possibly, but Brown’s off-the-field antics mixed with his ego ultimately shortened his Steelers career. Should that be held against Ward and justify ranking Brown below him? Absolutely not. It should be quite to the contrary in fact. Ward should be viewed in a better light for never letting outside distractions and money cloud his judgment and let his play on the field speak for his legacy.
It’s no secret Brown had the privilege of playing with a first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger for his entire career with the Steelers. Ward on the other hand only played half of his career with Roethlisberger under center. During his first seven seasons, Ward was catching passes from either Kordell Stewart or Tommy Maddox. Don’t get me wrong, “Slash” and Maddox weren’t bottom-tier quarterbacks, but they weren’t perennial Pro Bowlers like Roethlisberger is. During those seven seasons without Roethlisberger, Ward made four Pro Bowls and had four 1,000 yard seasons. Ward also had the disadvantage of playing with Roethlisberger at the beginning of his career when he wasn’t quite the gunslinger that Brown played with his entire career.
In Brown’s five games without Roethlisberger under center, his production dipped drastically. Brown only caught 43 passes for 548 yards and failed to score a touchdown. Quarterbacks also threw four interceptions targeting him and had a passer rating of 61.2. This is a far cry from the 105.1 passer rating Roethlisberger amassed when targeting Brown over their nine seasons. So had Brown not played with Roethlisberger for half of his career, would his numbers look the same? We are not in the business of speculation, but it’s hard to imagine his career numbers looking identical to what they are right now.
This brings us to our biggest area of debate: should outside factors besides statistics and accolades be considered when comparing two players? I firmly believe so, but others may not. For the sake of argument, I’ll list why Ward is superior in this category to Brown and let everyone debate in the comments.
I can’t argue that Browns six-year run from 2013-2018 was the best span for a wide receiver in NFL history. But what benefits did the Steelers as a team obtain from his blistering six seasons? The Steelers had a regular-season record of 62-33-1. On paper, a .645 winning percentage is something that almost every organization would sign up for during a six-year period, but the Steelers were 3-4 in the postseason and never made it to a Super Bowl. Would the Steelers have been as successful without Brown? Unlikely, but at the same time, they never were able to complete their season goals and expectations of winning a Lombardi. They also dealt with multiple off-the-field issues with Brown that ultimately created headaches and issues within the locker room. Brown eventually forced his way out of Pittsburgh and left a poor taste in everyone’s mouth.
Ward was a consummate professional and teammate for his entire career in Pittsburgh. Ward, much like Brown, was considered undersized when he was drafted by the Steelers. However, Ward played each play as if he was the biggest guy on the field. Ward was never afraid to throw a huge block, run a decoy route, or make a tackle on an interception. Ward never complained when he didn’t have a great game and certainly never called out a teammate for having a better game than he did. Ward practiced what he preached regarding being a great teammate and was rewarded with two Super Bowl championships and a Super Bowl MVP award. Yes, Ward had the advantage of playing with amazing teammates and a great defense, but his big moments ultimately helped the Steelers capture two of their six Super Bowl victories.
Yes, Brown’s statistics and athleticism were breathtaking. His ability to make catches that seemed impossible was unforgettable, but what did they provide outside of a great highlight reel on YouTube? Ward will likely be donning a gold jacket in the upcoming years commencing his outstanding career in Canton, while Brown will be in court arguing over the plethora of ridiculous off-the-field issues he has amassed in the last 24 months. There is a debate for both sides and I would be ignorant not to acknowledge it, but if I were the general manager of the Steelers and had the opportunity to draft Brown or Ward again, then I would pick Ward ten times out of ten.
Who would you choose, Brown or Ward? What factors would you look at when choosing? Sound off in the comments below!