There are some aspects of Mike Wallace’s reputation that the Ravens wide receiver doesn’t contest, because he acknowledges they are mostly true and he knows he’s not going to change your mind even if they aren’t.
He’s fine being labeled a diva. He has high expectations for himself and his teammates and he makes no apologies for expressing frustration if things aren’t going well. You’re damn right he wants the ball and gets ticked off when it doesn’t come his way. He wonders what successful person in any profession doesn’t want an opportunity to display their talents and get a return on their hard work.
And yes, he followed the money when he left the Pittsburgh Steelers and signed a five-year, $60 million deal with the Miami Dolphins in 2013. He doesn’t regret the decision one bit even though his time in Miami represents the low point of an accomplished career.
But if you want to wipe that seemingly permanent smile off Wallace’s face, remind him that he once was called a bad teammate and even worse, a quitter.
“Hell no,” Wallace shot back. “I work at this every single day.”
Wallace, 31, has been a model teammate in Baltimore, his upbeat and lighthearted personality making him a locker room favorite. His demeanor fires up his head coach. His quarterback loves him. The Ravens’ young receivers watch his every move.
Wallace dismisses the narrative that the past two years with the Ravens have changed his reputation, maintaining that Miami was the only one of his four stops where people said negative things about him. He does believe that his March 2016 decision to sign with the Ravens, a team he once abhorred, has made him feel whole again.
“I just came to the right team,” Wallace said Wednesday. “I’m the same person. I didn’t change one percentage of who I am. I’m just on a team where [being outspoken] is allowed. I want to win. You give me the ball, we’re going to win. That’s how I feel.”
Wallace, who signed a two-year deal with the Ravens after his release from the Minnesota Vikings, resurrected his career last season with 72 catches for 1,017 yards and four touchdowns. This season has been a struggle for the entire Ravens passing game with no exceptions. Wallace has 24 catches for 323 yards and three touchdowns.
However, he’s scored in consecutive games, and as the Ravens (5-5) prepared for their “Monday Night Football” home game against the Houston Texans, there was a resolve to get the speedy receiver more involved. The Ravens’ playoff chances might depend on it.
“I think we’ve all been frustrated at times, and I think we’re all doing a good job of handling it – that’s Mike included,” Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. “He’s been great all year. We were able to get him involved early on in the game [last] Sunday, and I think the more we can do that with him, the better our team is. He gets energized, and he plays better the rest of the game. But that goes for everybody — it really does.”
A third-round draft pick by the Steelers in 2009 out of Mississippi, Wallace ranks 11th among active players in receiving yards (7,647), 10th in receiving touchdowns (56), 19th in receptions (510) and ninth in yards per catch (15.0). Wallace has also been one of the league’s most durable players, missing just the second game of his nine-year career in Week 8, coincidentally against the Dolphins, after he took a head shot four days earlier.
Yet Wallace has had a hard time outrunning the hit to his reputation – both as a player and professional — caused by the rocky ending to his tenure with the Dolphins. In two seasons in Miami, Wallace caught 140 balls for 1,792 yards and 15 touchdowns. He posted solid numbers, but the size of his contract demanded spectacular ones.
During the final game of Miami’s 8-8 season in 2014, Wallace had a verbal altercation with then-Dolphins coach Joe Philbin that led to his benching. Some reports indicated that Wallace told Philbin he wasn’t going to play, prompting accusations that he quit on his teammates. A few Dolphins players were critical of Wallace.
The wide receiver said that his personality didn’t mesh with Philbin’s, but he denies he turned his back on his teammates.
“I wanted the ball and I wasn’t getting the ball in that game and I was frustrated. I got into it with my coach. That’s what it came down to,” Wallace said. “Everybody has different reasons for why they run the team the way that they do. But obviously it just didn’t gel well at the end. You are used to being in a winning fashion and then you go to a team that hasn’t been having much success.
“The grass is not always greener on the other side, but honestly, I would do the same thing over again. Maybe I would have done some things different down in Miami, but as far as the experience and taking the deal that I got, I couldn’t leave that on the table. It was for my family, first and foremost.”
Wallace was traded to the Vikings and he had the least productive season of his career in 2015 in a run-heavy offense. Wallace, though, impressed Vikings officials with the work he put in before and after practice and his mentorship of the Vikings’ young receivers.
“I really loved Mike Wallace,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said in October. “Everything about him was good. I couldn’t say any bad words about him.”
Wallace also gets positive reviews from his former Steelers teammates. After a solid rookie season in Pittsburgh, the organization drafted Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. Rather than feeling threatened, Wallace became inseparable from both and became the spokesman for the self-proclaimed “Young Money Crew.”
“Everything that he was in Pittsburgh was a good teammate, was that he treated people well,” said former Steelers safety Ryan Clark, an analyst for ESPN. “To hear about him being a diva, behaving in a certain way, it’s foreign to me. I don’t know what went on in Minnesota and Miami. I know that he didn’t play particularly well. I know the style of ball that both of those teams played wasn’t for him and the type of quarterbacks that both teams had weren’t the type of quarterbacks that he was going to excel with.
“Mike’s a cool cat. If you find ways to have problems with Mike, you’re really working hard.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh said earlier the season that how Wallace has performed and carried himself is a “good lesson” to not judge people from afar.
After most practices, Wallace leads a contingent of receivers to the JUGS machine to catch extra passes. He’s constantly counseling struggling receiver Breshad Perriman, offering support and advice. Wallace has been miffed at times with not seeing the ball more and with the offense’s struggles, but his teammates have praised the way he’s gone about expressing his frustration.
“Coming in, I heard the same things about him that you guys heard and they couldn’t have been any more false,” wide receiver Michael Campanaro said. “He’s been nothing but a veteran leader in our room. He’s been awesome.”
Wallace insists that he isn’t overly concerned with how he’s perceived. He said he finds the talk that he’s been a bad teammate more comical than hurtful. He also laughs at the perception that he can be a troublemaker.
He grew up in the difficult New Orleans neighborhood of Algiers, where drugs and violence were rampant, and not only did he get out of there with his athletic dreams intact, he’s stayed out of trouble off the field.
He spends his time doting on his two daughters, playing video games and hanging out with friends. He’s a free agent after the season, but it sounds as if he’s in no hurry to leave.
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“When you are home and in a place where they accept you, that’s like heaven,” Wallace said. “I love it here. It’s been great. It’s just given me back that sense of self. I’m happy they gave me an opportunity to re-establish myself. I want to go hard for these last games. We’re going to get where we want to be. “