Ravens head coach John Harbaugh talks about the contribution of wide receive Mike Wallace and defensive lineman Timmy Jernigan. (Baltimore Sun video)
Mike Wallace was already feeling pretty comfortable. He had started building relationships with teammates like Joe Flacco and Steve Smith Sr. He had gotten used to being a member of the Ravens, a team he once hated like no other. Even walking around the Ravens facility and seeing reminders of games in which he was an opponent had become routine.
Yet, there was still one more thing that needed to be done before his transition was complete. Ravens safety Lardarius Webb sensed it more than anyone. For years, he and Wallace had their own feud that was part of the intense Ravens-Pittsburgh Steelers' rivalry. So before they were on the field together for the first time as teammates, Webb sought out Wallace and told him those days, and any lingering animosity, were in the past.
"Being a Raven matters first to us. I wanted him to be comfortable here. I wanted him to be who he was throughout the years," Webb said. "I know how important he is to this offense, to this team. We wanted Mike Wallace. I felt like that was my job to go up to him and make sure we squashed what we had. It was a really big beef and we kind of squashed it. He actually turned out to be one of the greatest guys ever. We probably hated each other because we were so much alike."
With seven catches for 132 yards and the team's only three touchdowns, Wallace has given the Ravens, who are 2-0 heading into Sunday's road game against the winless Jacksonville Jaguars, the play-making ability and speed that they lacked on the outside last season. The Ravens have given Wallace the type of offense he felt he needed to play in to better showcase his skill set, and the locker room environment he wanted after relatively brief stays in Miami and Minnesota.
"I've been on a team with some great guys so far – a lot of parts, a lot of camaraderie with guys just hanging together, putting it all on the line for each other, having each other's back," Wallace said. "That is what I wanted to be a part of."
After Wallace finally entered the Ravens' locker room Wednesday following a roughly 45-minute session with the JUGS machine after practice, he was immediately surrounded by reporters. Wallace, a former Pro Bowl player in Pittsburgh, seemed almost uncomfortable by the attention. He immediately shifted focus from his three touchdowns – one more than he had all of last season with the Vikings – to the Ravens' two wins.
Wallace might not be as fast or as explosive as he was with the Steelers, for whom he averaged 65 catches, 1,095 receiving yards and nearly nine touchdowns from 2010 to 2012. Former Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson once wrote that he was convinced Wallace was so fast he didn't have hamstrings to slow him down.
However, the current version of Wallace seems to be both humbled and hardened by past experiences, from his ascent to stardom with the Steelers to his bitter departure from the organization after the two sides failed to agree on a contract extension; from his trade out of Miami following just two seasons to his release by the Vikings following the least productive year of his career.
"I came in as a third-round pick. I got a lot of love once I started making plays. Then you don't make a couple plays, and it all turns around on you," Wallace said. "I've seen the highs, and I've seen the lows, and I see how fast things can change on you…. I don't buy into anything anymore. You could be here today, and the next week you could be gone. I just take it for what it is worth, and I try to enjoy the moment. Every single day I come to work, I enjoy it and try to have fun with my teammates."
Ravens safety Kendrick Lewis sensed that Wallace, his former teammate at both O. Perry Walker High in New Orleans and at Mississippi, was looking for a place following his release from Minnesota where he could get back to having fun and being himself again.
"When we were speaking about his decision, he told me the things that he dealt with in Pittsburgh, the things that he was dealing with in Miami and Minnesota, and I told him, 'Man, this is a standup organization. You have a great quarterback, you have a good defense. This is what you want to be surrounded by,'" Lewis said. "I was being as biased as I wanted to be, but I was just brutally honest: This was a great fit for him. As my brother, as my best friend, he took my advice."
Before signing a two-year, $11.5 million contract, Wallace spoke extensively with Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. who sold him on how the Ravens allow players to be themselves. He also spent a little time with Flacco, whose strong right arm and willingness to take deep shots Wallace admired from afar. Wallace hit it off with both immediately.
"You saw it when Mike scored. He's very rambunctious," Smith said, alluding to Wallace's celebration after his 66-yard touchdown in the regular-season opener against the Buffalo Bills. "That's right up my alley."
Flacco focused primarily on what Wallace has meant to the offense. In two of his three touchdowns, Wallace was able to get behind the defense. On the other, he beat Cleveland Browns star cornerback Joe Haden on a slant to make a 7-yard touchdown catch.
"I always try to say when you have good players, it is not that hard to make connections like that," Flacco said. "That is what it comes down to – the fact that you can see how talented of a player he is."
What Ravens fans haven't seen is the amount of time Wallace spends each day in practice working with young receivers Breshad Perriman and Chris Moore. After the two-hour practice each day, Wallace leads the group over to the JUGS machine where they catch balls for nearly 45 minutes.
"From the first day I met him, he's always been there to help me," said Moore, a rookie fourth-round pick. "Every day I ask him questions and he tells me what to do. He makes me get in that extra work, which every rookie needs. It's great to learn those work habits from a veteran like him."
Webb, whose locker is a couple down from Wallace's, can't remember exactly how his feud with Wallace started. It certainly escalated when before a Ravens-Steelers' game in November 2011, Webb suggested that Antonio Brown, and not Wallace, was Pittsburgh's biggest outside threat. In his retort to Steelers' reporters, Wallace said, "Who is that guy? I mean, I heard of him, but at the end of the day, he can't check me, so it is what it is."
Nearly five years later, and after the victory over the Bills, Wallace credited Webb for burying the past and embracing him as a teammate.
Webb is warming to the playmaker on the other side of the ball, too.
"I enjoyed our battles. He won some, I won some. I think we both came out better people and players at the end," Webb said. "We just talked, squashed it and we moved on. Even though he was a Steeler way back, he fits so good with his team – his personality, who he is – and with the offense."