Mike Wallace came to the Minnesota Vikings with a reputation. It wasn’t a great one.
When the Vikings traded for Wallace and his $9 million salary, tweets from former teammates suggested he quit on his team, that he could be the diva type, a label so often saddled on top of receivers.
To date, Wallace has been nothing but a model teammate. Not only is he not creating waves, he’s inspiring extra work.
It’s a scene played out time and again after Vikings’ practices. The horn sounds to end practice, players huddle to hear one last message, usually from head coach Mike Zimmer, and many make their way to the locker room. Interviews are conducted as players leave the field, press conference are executed … and 15 minutes or 20 minutes later, Wallace is still on the field catch bullets fired out of a Jugs machine. A couple dozen at first, then rotating with others he encourages to stick around with him.
Charles Johnson is a regular at the post-practice session. Others are occasional visitors – yes, even Cordarrelle Patterson, who reportedly wasn’t happy he had to play in the preseason finale, was spotted there recently but not regularly. Xavier Rhodes has joined, as well as other receivers.
But it’s always Wallace, and Johnson, setting the pace.
“All last season, we had Coach (Clint Kubiak), who was our assistant wide receivers coach, after practice. I didn’t catch off the Jugs, he would come out here and throw me 100 balls, just different sets,” Johnson said. “I’d do that every day after practice on my own last season. But Mike came here this year and now we’ve been on the Jugs doing one-handers and everything.”
Johnson didn’t need Wallace to inspire him to put in the extra work. It was a natural instinct for a player that spent his time on practice squads or injured reserve in Green Bay and Cleveland. It’s the chip-on-the-shoulder cliché attached to lower draft picks clawing their way into NFL survival mode.
Wallace was never that.
He was a four-year letter winner at Ole Miss, a third-round draft choice of the Pittsburgh Steelers and led the NFL with a 19.4-yard average per catch as a rookie, when he had 756 yards receiving and six touchdowns in 2009. He followed that with two seasons where he averaged more than 1,200 yards receiving, but after he dipped below the 1,000-yard mark he was shipped off to the Miami Dolphins and placed in an offense that didn’t fit his deep-ball tendencies.
“My specialty is deep balls and everybody knows that and they want to see it, but we have other things to work on and we’ll get to that,” Wallace said when answering the question he has been posed numerous times in the last few weeks – why the lack of preseason use? “I have complete confidence our coaching staff has a great plan set up for us. This time, it will come. … Hopefully going into San Francisco we can keep working and keep working, and come Monday Night Football we’ll have a showcase.”
With one catch in his first three preseason games, Wallace could have groused about his use, but he’s certain from what he has experienced in practices and the preseason that the true offense is being held back for that regular season “showcase.” Who knows? Maybe the Wallace that was portrayed the last couple of years will appear, but for now his work ethic has been impeccable and consistent.
“He holds everybody to a standard and he wants to have as many people as he can,” Johnson said of Wallace’s daily post-practice ritual of catching approximately 100 balls from the Jugs machine. “If you come over there, we’re going to compete and we’re going to talk mess over there. It’s always a good time and we’re also over there encouraging one another and trying to make each other better.”
Zimmer said the Vikings always do their homework before signing a player.
“I have no qualms or issues about Mike Wallace at all. I like the kid an awful lot. I talked to several people about him,” Zimmer said.
Zimmer was told Wallace was a hard worker and had seen his speed up close and personal during Zimmer’s days as a defensive coordinator with the Cincinnati Bengals and Wallace’s days going deep with the Steelers. But the leadership, that has stood out.
“I didn’t know much about that, but he’s not afraid to say things to other players to get them practicing or doing the things that should be done the right way,” Zimmer said. “I didn’t know he stays out extra and catches a lot of balls on the Jugs machine and things like that, but for the most part, pretty much as I expected.”
That’s the advantage teams have over fans. They have the resources to investigate, interview and get the inside gossip. Sometimes they are misled, or simply believe their program can turn around a problem player. But so far, it appears Wallace is not only not causing waves, he’s motivating teammates.
It isn’t always persuasive words that are needed. It should come naturally to the highly competitive receivers to want to emulate Wallace’s work. No other Vikings receiver has gotten to 1,000 yards receiving in a season, and yet Wallace and Johnson are the ones consistently putting in the extra time to improve the reliability of their hands.
The Vikings haven’t had a 1,000-yard receiver since 2009, when it was Sidney Rice catching passes from Brett Favre. They hope to end that six-year string in 2015. Wallace and Johnson are the most likely men for the job, despite largely squirrelling Wallace away during the preseason.
“He’s a guy who if he was a rookie and he hadn’t made plays in games you say, ‘Well, we have to see him do it in games.’ He’s not in that category,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “He’s played a lot better in the last two years than people give him credit for. If we get him to catch 65 balls and have 10 touchdowns or nine touchdowns, I think he’ll make a great contribution and help our entire team.”
For now, the work is being done behind the scenes, and Wallace is volunteering for overtime and encouraging others to join. For him and Johnson, it’s probably 100-plus catches a day after practice on the Jugs machine, including the goal of 10 straight one-handed catches, with each hand, to end the routine.
Wallace is tired of talking about his recent past in Miami. He’s got a fresh start in Minnesota and has been the veteran leader the team has lacked. Greg Jennings couldn’t wait to get out of the locker room after games and off the practice field. Wallace can’t wait to get to the Jugs machine and get back to being the deep threat he is convinced still exists. Patterson could learn a lesson, if he wanted.
“You’re not putting up the numbers I want, but I did make some plays; I helped my team win a couple games and I think I played well,” Wallace said of his time in Miami. “Obviously, it wasn’t where I wanted to play, but I do think I played pretty well. That’s the past. You go on to the future. The future’s looking bright.”