Cowboys could find their leader in Hines Ward

Dallas Cowboys defensive end Jason Hatcher delivered some unintentional controversy a few weeks ago when he was asked to name at least one leader on the roster.

“Dude. . .” answered Hatcher before admitting that no one came to mind.

That radio interview on Dallas’ “Ben & Skin Show” has served as the basis for a larger discussion regarding who’s running the show at Valley Ranch. I believe players such as Jason Witten, Tony Romo and Jay Ratliff exhibit leadership qualities, but it seems Hatcher is looking for something more. The name he kept dropping, Ray Lewis, has been the heart and soul of the Baltimore Ravens’ defense for years. And other organizations such as the Giants and Patriots count on their head coaches to set the tone when it comes to leadership.

Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett came up short in that area this past season, as evidenced by his lack of accountability for what took place in a loss to the Arizona Cardinals. He certainly doesn’t have the presence of those coaches I mentioned, and a lot of that has to do with not having a lot of skins on the wall.

But the Cowboys have an opportunity to land someone cut from the same cloth as Lewis. He’s one of the most feared wide receivers in the game, even if some of that’s based on his reputation for taking cheap shots.

The Cowboys would be wise to find room on their roster for former Steelers receiver Hines Ward, who doesn’t seem interested in retirement after being released last week at age 35. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has already indicated he won’t commit big money to re-signing Laurent Robinson despite the wide receiver’s breakout season. And Jones’ praise for practice-squad phenom Andre Holmes seems a little forced.

A league source revealed to that Ward is being discussed as a potential target in free agency. The Cowboys would love to add a veteran leader much like they did with linebacker Keith Brooking prior to the ‘09 season. And Jones is drawn to players in free agency who have a chip on their shoulder.

The source said the Cowboys were concerned Ward might be a “progress stopper,” meaning his presence might block the path of a younger wide receiver, such as Holmes.

But forgive me for not thinking Holmes is the next Miles Austin. The Cowboys have had so much success with undrafted players (Tony Romo, Austin) that it has probably clouded their approach.

The Cowboys need to be proactive in trying to identify a third receiver based on the interest Robinson’s likely to draw in free agency. They’ve finally given up on Kevin Ogletree, and former reality-show star Jesse Holley is nothing more than a stopgap.

If you think Ward can still catch 40-50 passes (46 in 2011), why not bring in a former Super Bowl MVP? Austin is coming off a disappointing season that was hampered by a hamstring injury and Dez Bryant has yet to become a consistent threat.

It’s pretty clear that Bryant is freakishly gifted as an athlete. But he needs to run better routes and learn how to gain separation from defensive backs throughout games instead of just showing flashes. By all accounts, Ward has been a tremendous teammate over the years. And his well-documented nasty streak would be a welcome addition to an offense that seems to specialize in finesse.

“He was Hines Ward, one of the best receivers in the game,” Ben Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I got a chance to be in the huddle with him and Jerome Bettis. He made me better. It didn’t matter if I threw a good ball or a bad ball, 99 percent of the time he’d catch it, whether it was with one hand, off a helmet or off a defender. He made me a much better quarterback and player. That’s why I wanted to call him and thank him.”

It’s hard for players to become better leaders if it’s not being modeled for them on a regular basis. How do you think Ward would react to one of his teammates telling reporters about a “sense of entitlement” that permeates Valley Ranch? Ward would laugh in the face of any teammate who acted as if playing for the Cowboys made them special.

He’s been in an organization that is built on toughness and continuity. The NFL might be a young man’s game, but there’s still a place for guys like Ward who have excelled in this league for more than a decade despite not having the so-called measurables that we hear about so much this time of year. He’s one of only eight players in NFL history to have 1,000 career receptions, and he averaged 85.6 catches per season from 2001-2009.

With Ward in the locker room, maybe Hatcher wouldn’t have such a hard time answering a simple question. The Cowboys owe it to themselves to take a long look at the veteran wide receiver.

He’d be anything but a progress stopper.