PITTSBURGH - While the NFL playoffs are being contested, the calendar has already turned to 2012 at Pittsburgh Steelers headquarters.
There are significant salary cap issues, and there are major decisions to be made on some veteran players.
Because the cap doesn't include loopholes for sentiment, the first question the Steelers have to ask is simple:
"Can this player help win games in 2012?"
In Hines Ward's case, the answer is easy: No.
No one is disputing what he's meant to the Steelers over 14 seasons.
But he ended the season on the sidelines, watching four other receivers who were more valuable to the Steelers.
Ward achieved his goals of 12,000 receiving yards and 1,000 receptions, which should help his Hall of Fame candidacy.
Those achievements came with a struggle, though, because Ward is no longer a viable NFL receiver.
He has said doesn't plan to retire. Maybe there's a spot on some roster for him, but that's doubtful.
There's been speculation that Ward might accept a Steelers salary close to the league minimum, but it makes no sense to spend the roster spot on him.
That could go to a young player who's developing, or a free agent veteran who's still productive, as Jerricho Cotchery was last season.
The Steelers have painful decisions to make on players who helped them win a couple of Super Bowls. Besides Ward, there are Aaron Smith, Chris Hoke and James Farrior.
If they want to contend in the future, they have to take a dispassionate look at older players and move forward.
No discouraging words
During the Penguins' losing streak, defenseman Brooks Orpik called out teammates for taking bad penalties and generally surrendering to adversity.
Orpik didn't name names, but it sounded like some of that was aimed at Evgeni Malkin, who had just taken a needless penalty in that night's game and has a tendency to sulk.
Orpik didn't expand on the comments, and it's unlikely he will.
Spies report coach Dan Bylsma was unhappy with the crack in solidarity and told Orpik he didn't think much of his comments.
After the next game - also a loss - Orpik was back in step with the company lin
Mehno can be reached at Johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com.