DALLAS — Hines Ward — soon to be all of 35 — stroked his whiskers and pondered the suggestion. Yes, he liked being called a mentor.
Donald Driver, who just turned 36, winced a bit before admitting that, yes, he liked it, too.
Pittsburgh’s Ward and Green Bay’s Driver, with a quarter-century in the NFL combined, no longer are the runaway receivers for their teams. No matter. There will be plenty of downfield dynamos around them on Sunday when the Steelers and Packers meet in the Super Bowl.
“Sometimes you just have to accept your role,” Driver said Thursday. “This year we had a bunch of great receivers that were able to step up. I had an injury earlier in the year that kind of set me back, but I think our young guys stepped up and played well.
“Those are the types of guys you want on the team, the ones that anytime one of the veteran guys go down, they step up.”
That would mean backups James Jones and Jordy Nelson. They complemented No. 1 receiver Greg Jennings and Driver so well that Green Bay had the fifth-best passing game in the league despite little balance and a third-string rookie getting much of the action at tight end.
Ward is surrounded by Mike Wallace, whose development in two NFL seasons has been “spectacular,” Ward says, and rookies Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders.
“I just try to spread my knowledge to these guys about the game,” said Ward, the MVP of the 2006 Super Bowl. “The first Super Bowl, it was (Antwaan) Randle-El and myself. And the second Super Bowl, it was Santonio (Holmes) and myself. And now, playing in a third Super Bowl, it’s Mike Wallace.”
If the young players lean on the 13-year vet for guidance, Ward and the Steelers lean on them, too.
“With those guys, the more and more the season went on, the more and more they gained confidence and the more and more Ben (Roethlisberger) had confidence in them to make plays,” Ward said. ‘ ‘They just stepped up each time their number was called. There’s going to be a point in this game where not only myself, but the younger guys will have to step up big and make plays, and we have all the confidence in the world that they’ll do it.”
In a game featuring aggressive, physical and sometimes dominant defenses, the wideouts could find yardage at a premium. But watch out if their quarterbacks have time to spot them and these speedy guys discover open spaces away from the likes of Steelers safety Troy Polamalu and Packers cornerback Charles Woodson.
Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bruce Arians estimates Wallace can run a 4.1 40, but has to slow down to 4.3 to be able to make cuts.
“He’s the fastest player in pads I’ve ever seen,” said Arians, who has coached for more than three decades.
A third option for Roethlisberger last year, Wallace’s “role changed totally when we traded Santonio Holmes to the Jets,” Arians said. “He embraced the challenge. Every day, he wants to get better and he asks, ‘How can I get better?’ “
Wallace certainly got better, leaping from 39 receptions for 756 yards and six touchdowns as a rookie to a 21-yard average (second to Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson) on 60 catches and 10 scores. His burst once he catches the ball might be unequaled in the NFL.
Jennings isn’t quite so explosive, but he’s the most versatile receiver on either team. He can get free short, deep, over the middle or down the sidelines.
When a guy named Favre was chucking the ball, Jennings developed a rapport with the quarterback and caught a career-high 12 TDs in his second pro season. The Packers went to the NFC title game.
Then Favre went elsewhere, Aaron Rodgers stepped in and Jennings had consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and a total of 148 catches and 13 TDs. This season, he had 76 catches for 1,265 yards and 12 more touchdowns.
But he doesn’t necessarily expect the spotlight to shine on him Sunday.
“We have a plethora of guys that could have that game and that’s why we’re such a unique group,” Jennings said. “We’re afforded with that opportunity to have four or five guys that could get it done. Simply put, we just want to be that guy when our number is called on Sunday.”
Brown has been that guy for the Steelers in both playoff games. His 58-yard catch set up the winning touchdown against Baltimore, and his third-down reception sealed the AFC title game victory over the Jets.
Brown and Sanders were drafted last April with the hope they might contribute at some point during the season. Coach Mike Tomlin used the “two dogs and one bone” theory, Arians said, meaning whichever rookie practiced better during the week and had more of a role on special teams would play.
By midseason, though, both were ready for bigger roles.
Green Bay’s equivalent is Nelson, even though he’s in his third season. He had 55 catches and four TDs in his first two years, but had 45 in 2010 and has another 12 in the playoffs. He excels at gaining yards after the catch, a strength of Packers wideouts.
Nelson believes all of Green Bay’s receivers are interchangeable.
“We rotate all around the field,” he said. “We try to keep everyone as fresh as possible. With our offense you know every position in the playbook … inside and outside, left and right. So you have to be on your toes with everything.”
As do the defenders in this Super Bowl — even against Ward and Driver.
“Yeah,” Ward said. “Don’t go to sleep on us.”