Here’s how nicknames (and reputations) stick:
When your own coach gives you a backhanded compliment that comes to define your first four years in the league.
Mike Wallace is fast. Like 4.3 fast. He blows past corners as if they’re running in wet sand.
But Mike Tomlin, his coach in Pittsburgh, noticed right away that Wallace didn’t have a great change-up. He was all heater.
Which is why Tomlin, perhaps joking, perhaps not, infamously called Wallace a “one-trick pony.”
Even if that’s still true – and many would argue it is not – that one trick would be better for the speed-deficient Miami Dolphins than anything David Blaine could fathom.
“He has that ‘Oh [bleep]’ speed, the kind of speed that can take the top off a defense,” said David Todd, who hosts the drive-time show on Pittsburgh’s 970 ESPN Radio, the Steelers’ flagship station. “Defenses have to roll to him and respect him every play.”
The Dolphins are aware. It’s the reason they’ll likely be serious contenders in the Mike Wallace Derby if the wide receiver hits free agency next Tuesday, as expected. The Steelers decided not to place the franchise tag on Wallace before Monday’s deadline, meaning that unless he signs a final-hour extension with Pittsburgh, he’ll be available to the highest bidder.
The Dolphins, with nearly $40 million in salary cap space, are well-positioned to be that team. But they’ll also have competition. The Browns and Bengals are similarly resource-rich, and are expected to also make a play for Wallace. The San Francisco 49ers could too, particularly after letting Randy Moss walk.
“I think [the Dolphins] should get him,” said former Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder, now a co-host on WQAM-560. “If you can’t find talent [in the draft], then you have to go get it.”
CATCHING SOME FLAK
There’s no question about Wallace’s ability. Whether he’s a fit with Dolphins coach Joe Philbin’s no-nonsense philosophy, however, is another story.
Wallace has a bit of diva in him, Todd said, and can be a bit moody in the locker room. And Wallace’s training camp holdout last summer – he refused to sign his $2.7 million restricted free agent tender until just before the season – didn’t help his reputation.
That’s why Crowder believes the Dolphins would be more comfortable giving big money to Greg Jennings, the other big name in this year’s free agent class. (Dwayne Bowe is no longer an option; he reportedly signed a five-year deal Monday to stay in Kansas City.)
But Pittsburgh sportscaster Bob Pompeani, who calls the Steelers’ preseason games for local TV, said Wallace’s character should not be a concern for potential suitors.
Pompeani’s station, KDKA, does a weekly show that brings in a player every week as a guest.
“He’s one of the few to stay all night, and sign autographs,” Pompeani said. “This is a guy that shows up for work.”
Raised in New Orleans, Wallace was the fastest player on most any field. He played at the University of Mississippi, where he showed flashes of greatness but didn’t consistently dominate.
Then came his blazing 40 time at the NFL Scouting Combine (4.33, officially), spurring Pittsburgh to take him in the third round of the 2009 draft. Wallace was the 11th receiver selected that year, behind certifiable busts Darius Heyward-Bey and Kenny Britt – and just three spots ahead of Patrick Turner, who appeared in two games during his one year with the Dolphins, and didn’t catch a pass.
STRETCHING THE FIELD
Early on, Wallace proved special. He led the league in yards per catch his rookie year (19.4), and was even more effective in 2010 (21.0).
He has 32 touchdown catches in his first 63 games. He has gone over 1,200 yards in a season twice. And yet, the Steelers seemed content to name Antonio Brown (Miami Norland) as their No. 1 option when Wallace held out for a new deal last summer.
While Wallace was boycotting camp, Brown was signing a five-year, $42.5 million contract. The unmistakable message: Wallace was the past, and Brown the future.
Last fall, Wallace saw his playing time dip. He was on the field for just 41 of the Steelers’ 67 snaps in a Week 13 win at Baltimore. His performance also regressed in 2012, posting the worst yards-per-catch average of his career (13.1).
“He wasn’t the same Mike Wallace that he was the previous two years,” Pompeani said. “I think [the contract situation] did affect his play.”
Todd Haley’s more-conservative offensive approach didn’t help either. But even after last year’s down season, Wallace will probably still command – and receive – in excess of $12 million a year on the open market.
A price that’s fit not for a show pony, but a thoroughbred.