Facing the reality of a tight salary-cap situation and a youth movement at wide receiver, the Pittsburgh Steelers will release 14-year veteran Hines Ward, the team announced Wednesday.
"We had a conversation today with Hines Ward and informed him that we plan to release him of his contract prior to the start of the 2012 NFL calendar year," Steelers president Art Rooney II said in a statement posted on the team's website. "Hines has been an integral part of our success since we drafted him in 1998 and we will forever be grateful for what he has helped us achieve. He has meant so much to this organization, both on and off the field, and we appreciate his efforts over the past 14 years.
"Hines' accomplishments are numerous, and he will always be thought of as one of the all-time great Steelers. We wish him nothing but the best."
A clause in Ward's contract likely prompted the Steelers' announcement. The Post-Gazette reported in January that his contract stipulated that the receiver must be released or guaranteed his job with the Steelers by March 1.
Ward, who turns 36 next week, released a statement through his attorney moments after the Steelers' announcement.
"This isn't how I wanted this chapter of my career to end," said Ward, who will finish his Steelers career with 1,000 catches for 12,083 yards and 85 touchdowns -- all franchise records -- and helped Pittsburgh to three AFC championships and two Super Bowl wins. "I did everything in my power to remain a Steeler and finish what I started here 14 years ago.
"I want to thank the organization, my teammates and coaches and everyone who made my run as a Steeler the best years of my life. To Mr. Rooney, thank you for allowing me to play for one of the greatest organizations in the world. To my fans and in particular, Steeler Nation, thank you for your support and all the great memories. I gave my heart and soul for you every down and I will always bleed black and gold."
Ward added that he has more football left and is "looking forward to playing in the NFL, again, this upcoming season."
Ward's soon-to-be ex-teammates took to Twitter to respond. Wide receiver Antonio Brown told Ward,"You define a 'Steeler,' " and linebacker LaMarr Woodley called Ward "not only 1 of the best WRs ever, but also a great leader & even better friend."
Ward, a four-time Pro Bowl selection and Super Bowl XL MVP, took a back seat to Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown last season, posting his lowest receiving totals (46 receptions, 381 yards, two touchdowns) since his rookie season in 1998.
The Steelers are facing what general manager Kevin Colbert recently called "serious issues" with the salary cap this offseason, and as of Feb. 6, they were $22.5 million over the cap, according to NFL.com research. Since then, the team has restructured the contracts of offensive tackle Willie Colon, linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Veteran linebacker James Harrison also has expressed a willingness to re-work his current deal.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.