Hines Ward now knows how much he is valued in Pittsburgh. The four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver is one of the few players to walk away from contract negotiations with the Steelers with more money than he expected to get.
Ward, on the verge of becoming the leading receiver in franchise history, agreed Monday to a four-year contract that could be worth as much as $25.8 million and includes $10 million in guaranteed money and more than $2 million in incentives.
If he collects those bonuses, Ward will earn more than the $12 million in assured money he wanted before the extended negotiations began. The Steelers were believed to have originally offered $8 million to $9 million in guaranteed money.
"I think they went out of their way," Ward said of an organization that has long set its own value on player contracts and ignored the huge money deals given by other teams. "It was far more than what I expected."
Ward had one year left on his previous contract, worth $1.67 million this year, and is now signed through 2009. The total value is far less than the $49 million, seven-year deal Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens wants renegotiated. But Ward, an all-around receiver rather than a gamebreaking downfield threat, was determined to end his career in Pittsburgh.
"I look good in black and gold," he said. "The contract is going to make me work even harder, just to prove I'm worth every penny of what they gave me."
Ward's two-week holdout when training camp began was the first by a veteran Steeler since running back Barry Foster in 1993, and Ward returned Aug. 15 only because the franchise held to its policy of not negotiating with holdouts. The Steelers traditionally don't negotiate during the season, either, which led to a busy weekend of talks between agent Eugene Parker and the team.
"These things can get ugly and can become major distractions," team president Art Rooney II said. "While these things can be difficult, it was something we got through without having it become the kind of distraction that can really disrupt a team."
Ward had something else going for him in his negotiations: fan support. Ward's physical style of play and passion for the game, at a skill position, have come to so personify the Steelers that the fans clearly sided with him.
It also helped that his current contract was so undervalued he was barely among the NFL's top 40 highest-paid receivers.
"I was a little worried with the holdout, of people questioning my character and being put in the category of a T.O.," Ward said. "But I went to pick up my wife and son at the airport yesterday and the lady at the Great Steak place said, `I can't give you a million dollars, but I can give you a steak sandwich for free.' I got a kick out of that."
Relieved at finally reaching a deal the Steelers previously called their top offseason priority, Ward went out Monday and had what he called "a great practice" before Sunday's opener against Tennessee.
"I can go into the season focused now. ... I'm going to play until the wheels fall off," he said. "I know only one style and one way to play it, and that's how I have to play."
Ward, 29, has four of the top five receptions seasons in club history, but he is also widely regarded as the league's best blocking receiver. He has caught at least 61 passes in every season but one since he became a starter in 1999.
Ward averaged 95 catches over the last four seasons, including a franchise-record 112 in 2002, when he also had a career-high 12 touchdown catches. He had 80 receptions last season, his fewest since 2000, and four touchdowns as the Steelers ran the ball 61 percent of the time, but was chosen for his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl.
A 1998 third-round draft pick from Georgia, Ward has caught 505 passes in his career, 32 behind Hall of Famer John Stallworth's franchise record. His 88 consecutive games with at least one catch, an ongoing streak that began in 1998, is a club record.
Last month, the Steelers gave nose tackle Casey Hampton a five-year contract that included a $6.975 million signing bonus. But while wide receiver Antwaan Randle El and safety Chris Hope can become free agents after this season, Rooney said it is unlikely any more deals will be reached this season.