Since the NFL Draft was instituted in 1936, 277 Georgia football players have been drafted into the pros, including such luminaries as Charley Trippi, Fran Tarkenton, Terrell Davis and Champ Bailey. But as one of those stars prepares to take the field for his third Super Bowl -- and, perhaps, to make a big decision about the future of his career -- it may be time to start asking whether wide receiver Hines Ward has had the most successful NFL career of any former Bulldog ever.
Let's run down Ward's list of accomplishments. In 13 seasons since being taken by the Pittsburgh Steelers with the 92nd pick of the 1998 draft, Ward has gone to four Pro Bowls; has been named team MVP three times; has earned the mantle of all-time team leader in receptions, receiving yards, and TD catches; has become only the 12th player in NFL history to catch more than 900 passes, and one of only 32 to tally more than 10,000 receiving yards in a career; and was named to the Steelers' All-Time Team in 2007, joining, among others, Terry Bradshaw, Jack Lambert, Franco Harris and Mean Joe Greene.
And, of course, Ward has distinguished himself on the stage most NFL fans place front and center in any discussion of the game's greatest players -- the Super Bowl. He already has two rings from Super Bowls XL and XLIII, and in the former game he earned the title of Super Bowl MVP after catching five passes for 123 yards, including a 43-yard touchdown strike from Antwaan Randle El that effectively iced the 21-10 victory over the Seahawks. If the Steelers win today, Ward would join Guy McIntyre, Patrick Pass, and Richard Seymour as the only Dawgs with three Super Bowl victories.
Granted, Ward doesn't have any single-season stats quite as gaudy as Terrell Davis' 2,008 rushing yards in 1998; he doesn't have an NFL MVP award like Davis, or an NFL Player of the Year like Fran Tarkenton. And as far as Pro Bowls go, it's possible that no Bulldog will ever go to as many of them as Champ Bailey, who's been to eight and probably has a couple more left in him before he retires. But one can still make the case that Ward has had a more consistently prolific body of work, on a more consistently successful team, than any Dawg before him.
The other factor that might mitigate against Ward, of course, is the little matter of him being named the "NFL's dirtiest player" twice in SI.com's annual poll of pro footballers. It's true, you can't laud Ward for his willingness to block without also mentioning his predilection for nailing defenders on their blind side. It's worth mentioning, though, that even in today's fine-happy NFL, Ward has only been hit twice with monetary penalties for overly aggressive hits -- and neither hit actually drew flags in the games in which they occurred. And even Joe Greene weathered accusations of dirty hits in his career. If Steve Wisniewski's lengthy resume of chop blocks didn't prevent him from being named to an All-Decade Team, Hines Ward has reason to feel fairly safe about his long-term reputation.
Ward first started talking about possible retirement way back in April of last year, when he told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review he'd probably wrap up his career if he won one more Super Bowl. The question has come up again since then, and there's no denying that age 35 -- which Ward will hit one month from now -- is downright wizened by today's NFL standards, particularly for wideouts. Either way, the clock is probably ticking on how much more time he has to build up his legacy as a future Hall-of-Famer. But even if Ward's prolific career is indeed winding down, he's got a solid case to make as the ex-Dawg who's had the greatest success at the pro level. The fact that that case would hold even if the Steelers were to lose today is an indication of just how big an impact he's had in the NFL.