Hines Ward Pittsburgh Steelers
NFL Hall of Famer Hines Ward watches warmups before the AFC Divisional Playoff game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Jacksonville Jaguars at Heinz Field on January 14, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Few teams have received more attention in the 2018 NFL season than the Pittsburgh Steelers, and it isn’t due to the success the team has had on the field. Le’Veon Bell began his holdout in training camp, and the running back still hasn’t reported to Pittsburgh. Whether it’s been threatening a reporter, failing to show up to work or being sued, Antonio Brown seems to make a new headline each week.

Those are the kinds of distractions the Steelers were largely able to avoid when Hines Ward played in Pittsburgh.

“Playing for Pittsburgh as long as I did, the culture of Pittsburgh has not always been about drama and off-the-field stuff,” Ward told International Business Times while promoting McAlister’s Deli’s tailgate catering. “So I was a little embarrassed to hear all the stuff that was going on with my team and with my organization, but at the end of the day it’s about getting back to football and I think that matters most.”

The Steelers have long been viewed as a model NFL franchise, especially during Ward’s time in Pittsburgh. The former wide receiver experienced just three losing seasons in his 14-year career, reaching three Super Bowls and winning two championships.

Amid this year’s distractions, Pittsburgh has been among the early-season disappointments. Entering the year as one of the Super Bowl favorites, the Steelers have won just two of their first five games. They are tied with the Cleveland Browns for last place in the AFC North in Week 6.

Bell was expected to be ready for Week 1 after skipping the entire preseason, but the running back ultimately decided to stay home since he doesn’t have a long-term contract. Members of Pittsburgh’s offensive line publicly criticized Bell’s decision to hold out.

“I don’t really get involved in other people’s contracts or business. It is what it is. I was a little shocked to hear the remarks coming out of the locker room because that’s like the unwritten rule that you don’t talk about other people’s business,” Ward told IBT. “You don’t talk about other people’s contracts or other people’s money. Le’Veon Bell to me is one of the best running backs in football, and he’s making a business decision that’s best for him and his family. Unfortunately, it came to that situation, but at the same time, you have to understand it. Running backs have a short life-span in the NFL. You turn 30 as a running back, your career is basically done.

“When you no longer can play, a team will get rid of you at any time. No player can say anything then. So you have to respect both sides. It’s a business decision for Le’Veon Bell and he chose to do what’s best for him and his family, and as a teammate or a former player, all I can do is respect that.”

Head coach Mike Tomlin has received his share of criticism for everything that’s gone one with the team. The incidents with Bell and Brown have led some to believe that Tomlin lost the locker room, leading to questions about his job security.

There’s a lot of turnover each year when it comes to NFL coaches, though it almost never involves the Steelers. From Chuck Noll to Bill Cowher to Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh has only had three head coaches over the last 49 years.

“It’s a little outside noise. You hear about it a lot, but I think he’s done a phenomenal job getting his team focused,” Ward said, regarding Tomlin. “Le’Veon Bell is not there until he gets there. There’s really no need to talk about him. He’s not gonna talk about what he should or shouldn’t be doing. We just gotta focus on the team and take it week by week, and James Conner has done a phenomenal job. So I just think for coach Tomlin it’s all about getting back to football and that’s what matters the most, and leave all that other stuff off the field behind closed doors. Leave it to the media and everyone else. It’s just outside noise so don’t buy into it.”

Despite their slow start and their standing in the division, Pittsburgh has a chance to quickly turn things around. The Steelers are back at .500 after a dominant 41-17 win over the Atlanta Falcons. They’ve got a key matchup Sunday afternoon with the Cincinnati Bengals, who sit alone atop the AFC North with four wins in the first five weeks.

“We have a comfort-level going to Cincinnati,” Ward said. “We’ve had success. It’s kind of like home away from home. For whatever reason, we’re not intimidated to go into Cincinnati and pull out a W.”

Ward knows all about playing in Cincinnati, where he and Pittsburgh had plenty of success for his entire career. The Steelers won 10 of their last 11 road games against the Bengals to conclude Ward’s career.

Pittsburgh is usually one of the best home teams in the NFL. Whether he was playing at home or on the road, the environment always helped Ward get ready for his next game.

“Each and every day while I was playing in the NFL and college, just driving to the game and seeing all the tailgaters, it got me into football mode. Just the mindset that it’s time for football. Look at all these fans showing their support, showing their love. And even on the road, giving us the finger and booing us and doing whatever. Tailgating to me is very important to football fans and I think having great food is the key. Food brings people together, family and friends, to have a great time. So teaming up with McAlister’s makes that possible. They do all the dirty work and all we have to do is show up and eat this great food.”