Hines Ward’s retirement from the Pittsburgh Steelers highlights the Cleveland Brown present situation.
Not because Ward will no longer be around to torment the Browns with his pass-catching or his blocking, but because Ward highlights what the Browns lack in terms of team culture and identity.
Ward was drafted by the Steelers in 1998. He played 14 seasons, all with Pittsburgh. He was not an accomplished receiver when he was drafted, but he worked and made himself the Steelers all-time leading receiver.
He arrived rather quietly, and left a leader of a team that won two Super Bowls and appeared in a third.
And he left a Steeler through and through. (Chris Crocker won’t miss him, but that’s another matter entirely.)
He made a connection with the team’s history and with the community in a way that is rare in this day and age. Ward pondered playing for another team, but couldn’t.
The post 1999 Cleveland Browns have a Hines Ward, and he’s their kicker.
Phil Dawson has been with the team since expansion. He is the pro’s pro.
But do the Browns have another Hines Ward on the roster?
Joe Thomas could be one.
He’s already there in terms of playing ability and contributions, and it seems likely he’ll be a Brown for a long time. But that has to play out. It once seemed like Kamerion Wimbley would be with the Browns his entire career, and he got traded for no apparent reason.
The post-1999 Browns do not have a Hines Ward except for their kicker, which really speaks loudly about the team.
Because the post-1999 Browns have consistently changed their culture over and over and over. Every time a new coach or General Manager or president is hired, the approach changes.
Phil Savage spent like mad. Tom Heckert hoards the cash.
Chris Palmer ran the four-three. Butch Davis ran the three-four.
Romeo Crennel drafted Brady Quinn. Eric Mangini traded Brady Quinn.
Quinn was drafted in the first round and celebrated. Mangini benched him after 2 ½ games.
Mangini went with veteran additions. Mike Holmgren went young.
The Steelers are built on a system, style and approach, and they draft to fill that system, style and approach. The Browns draft to an approach, but when it changes a couple years later the guys previously taken are deemed expendable.
This has happened in part because of the search to win. When one approach fails, changes are made and a new approach is tried.
But the result is a mish-mosh of talent and thinking that leads to clashing cultures and many losses – as in 46 the last four seasons.
And, quite frankly, it is one advantage to the way the Browns are building with the present regime – provided the team sticks with the approach and doesn’t listen to the noise.
Drafting solid, young players can produce the core of a team – as long as the right guys are drafted.
This allows the core of a team to grow together. And it can work – as Pittsburgh and New England and Baltimore have proven. None spend excessively on free agents, all supplement with trades when they give up mid-to-late-round picks, and all depend on their guys growing together.
The Patriots were lucky to find Tom Brady in the sixth round, and the Steelers were lucky that Davis was not a Ben Roethlisberger fan. Both those moves gave them the key player at the key position. The Browns are still trying to figure that part out.
But if they hit on the right players in this year’s draft they theoretically will have a core to build with.
That is the Steelers way. And the approach unifies a team and brings a cohesiveness within the team and with the city that helps.
Consider that a guy named Aaron Smith – a three-four defensive end who might not have started for some teams – was beloved in Pittsburgh to the point that when he retired this year he took out a full-page ad in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to thank the fans.
Smith was a borderline Hines Ward.
And there are many Hines Ward left on the Steelers roster.
Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Maurkice Pouncey, Casey Hampton, James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley and Troy Polamalu all are winning players drafted by Pittsburgh since 1998, the year Ward was taken in the fourth round.
Pittsburgh has a culture, it has developed it and it follows it.
The Browns are reinventing their culture. Again.
Teams have made this approach work. There’s no reason it shouldn’t if the right guys are picked. It just takes time, and it’s tough for fans who have seen their team be the league’s losers for more than a decade to give that time.
But it can work, provided the guys making the picks are smart and pick the right guys.
It’s what Holmgren refers to when he says it’s not “business as usual” with him as president. It’s “not” because his management team has an approach and it will not blow that approach up if there are two tough seasons.
The problem is the time it takes. Fans have had enough, and are speaking with megaphones.
The result of so much change is evident.
Once Dawson retires it might be an entirely new decade before the Browns host a fond retirement farewell to their next Hines Ward.