Greg Cote: When the smoke clears, Mike Wallace excites Miami Dolphins fans

03/12/2013 12:01 AM

09/12/2014 7:11 PM

From a simple metal smokestack atop the Vatican on Tuesday, a papal conclave of 115 cardinals in Rome will reveal their globally anticipated vote — white smoke indicating a new pope has been chosen, black smoke indicating no decision.

(I would find it funny if the billow arose a sort of ashen gray that left the crowd in St. Peter’s Square murmuring and the world thoroughly confused — but that’s just me.)

Imagine if the Dolphins on Tuesday revealed their own monumental result in similar quaint-yet-dramatic fashion on the first official day of NFL free agency.

Picture a teeming multitude of Dolfans and gathered media staring up at a small smokestack atop the giant indoor Practice Bubble at the club’s Davie headquarters ... all hoping for something divine … all waiting for a sign.

Suddenly, the afternoon growing late, tendrils of white smoke begin to rise as anxious silence erupts into a sustained, roaring cheer of worshippers.

“It is done!” a believer’s cry is heard above the din. “We got Mike Wallace!”

My analogy intends no blasphemy. I am not comparing these two things in importance, even as I suggest that most Dolfans would be as excited about a new impact receiver as most Roman Catholics will be about a new pontiff.

And why not! Wallace is much faster and more of a deep threat, although the 40-yard-dash time of the new pope may only be estimated, with concession given for the hindering drag of flowing robes and that spectacularly non-aerodynamic papal hat.

Fans will see landing Wallace — or the failure to do so — as the free agency test of almost Biblical gravity defining Jeff Ireland, the general manager with much to prove.

The soundtrack for the pricey pursuit would be The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again. Ireland knew the Dolphins needed a premier wideout one year ago and privately coveted Vincent Jackson, but then misfired twice. He underestimated the market and what Jackson would cost, and how hamstrung Miami’s offense would be without help.

He won’t get fooled again. (Or at least try not to.)

Ireland and check-signing owner Stephen Ross stand ready to offer Wallace, from the Steelers, a contract that might fairly be guessed at $60 million through five years when the signing period opens at 4 p.m. Tuesday. That bar was set last week when Kansas City re-signed its own pending free agent receiver, Dwayne Bowe, for $56 million through five years. Wallace is better and more coveted.

The imperative to land Wallace is so great the team might have to overspend, because other teams are pursuing. One is thought to be Minnesota, perhaps more so now after trading disgruntled receiver Percy Harvin to Seattle on Monday. Champion Baltimore might also chase Wallace now that it traded Anquan Boldin on Monday.

The past year taught Ireland not only about the marketplace but also that second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill cannot become all he’s going to be without a target who can get open deep, a target opposing defensive coordinators and cornerbacks will fear.

That’s Wallace, who is game-changing fast, has a proven knack for reaching end zones and is only 26.

Miami re-signing its own free agent, Brian Hartline, was important. He is productive, reliable. So is slot receiver Davone Bess. But they are more suited to the No. 2 and 3 roles they will play if Wallace signs. Both will be better with him commanding the defense’s attention. So will Miami’s running game.

I know the knocks against Wallace: Held out last year, supposedly all about the money. And the lingering question: Why would the smart Steelers let him go? But his speed and upside are too great to pass by. He’s too good a fit.

It is crucial Miami sign Wallace not only for what he will mean on the field but also for the value in public perception, with him so clearly the free agent priority. See, the Dolphins are trying to shake four consecutive losing years and be seen as headed right again at a time when the club faces a likely public referendum on $400 million in planned stadium improvements.

Dolphins fans and the electorate are close to one in the same in Miami-Dade County, so the franchise needs fans happy or at least hopeful running up to that vote. Trotting out Wallace as a prize catch, a fresh face of optimism, couldn’t hurt.

Ireland has not had a great track record as a closer — another reason landing Wallace would be a personal victory as much as a win for the team. Ireland tried to hire coach Jim Harbaugh. Didn’t. Tried to hire coach Jeff Fisher. Failed. Went hard after QB Peyton Manning. Lost him.

Ireland needs Wallace as much as Miami’s offense does.

The danger here, though, is to think Wallace alone will mean a successful free agency period. The Dolphins need lots more.

Offensively, they also need a tight end more impactful than Anthony Fasano, which is why somebody like Martellus Bennett or Jared Cook could help.

Another running back will be needed with Reggie Bush reportedly going-going-gone — so rumors about Rashard Mendenhall, another ex-Steeler, are intriguing. Lamar Miller has potential but is unproven, and Daniel Thomas is an OK backup. Signing a healthy Mendenhall to challenge Miller would be an invigorating jolt.

Left tackle? I have a feeling Miami might yet re-sign Jake Long if the market is less for him than he had hoped, but not many agree. So adding a tackle could be essential.

Defensively, the Dolphins did well to keep tackle Randy Starks (via the franchise tag), but cornerback remains a need as urgent as receiver. That assumes Sean Smith leaves but probably is true even otherwise. Miami should be considering anyone with proven talent even if the overall package has flaws. Somebody like Aqib Talib comes to mind. DeAngelo Hall, perhaps?

Safety and a pass rusher are other needs — but not like cornerback is. (Speaking of safety, bringing the old Cane Ed Reed home to Miami for a season isn’t the dumbest idea I have ever heard, or proposed. Charles Woodson might also be a tempting Band-Aid.)

It’s axiomatic that a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game since 2000 has personnel needs deep or broad or both.

For Miami, then, Wallace wouldn’t be the only answer, but he would step up as the fresh face of the solution.

That’s why Dolfans will be watching devoutly that metaphoric smokestack Tuesday, praying for puffs of white.

About Greg Cote

Greg Cote

@gregcote

Greg Cote has been a Miami Herald sports columnist since 1995 and also writes the Random Evidence blog and NFL predictions along with his notorious sidekick the Upset Bird. He has covered Hurricanes football (1984-88), the Dolphins (1990-91) and major events including Super Bowls, NBA Finals, World Series, Stanley Cup, Olympics and World Cup.

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