DAVIE, Fla. — On July 21, nearly three thousand Dolphins fans gathered at 8:48 a.m. to watch Ryan Tannehill unleash his first public pass of training camp. No surprise whom they wanted to catch it.
“Throw it to Wallace!” one fan roared.
That’s Mike Wallace, the speedy receiver the Dolphins snatched up with a whopping five-year, $60 million contract the minute free agency opened in March. Right now the return on the investment is just like Tannehill’s pass: incomplete. The second-year quarterback launched the ball 35 yards downfield—about five yards or so beyond the reach of his new toy.
The fans, including one guy whose entire torso and head were painted half in aqua and half in orange, let out a collective groan. With big money comes big expectations, even during a 7-on-7 passing drill 49 days before the season opener. It’s not fair, but everything Wallace does over the next five months will be held up to one burning question: Is he worth $12 million a year?
“I don’t think they’d give that to just anybody,” the 26-year-old Wallace said as he walked off the practice field, his aqua jersey rimmed with sweat in the South Florida humidity. “They took a gamble and feel like I’m either one of the best or can be one of the best. You’re worth whatever they pay you, and the team felt like I was worth it.”
There’s no guarantee for what $12 million a year will get you. Wallace will earn roughly twice as much as Brian Hartline, the Dolphins’ leading receiver in 2012 (1,083 yards on 74 receptions) who signed a five-year deal for $31 million in March. Should Wallace be expected to have double the catches, or double the touchdowns, or double the receiving yards? What makes him worth the investment? How do you measure true value? “I’ve never bought into the philosophy that one player is going to turn your fortunes around,” says Joe Philbin, Miami’s second-year coach. “But yeah, he can add a dimension we were lacking last year.”
Tannehill and Wallace didn’t exactly set the practice field on fire, but it’s still early and they’re still getting to know each other. After Sunday’s practice, a sloppy session in which the entire offense shook off some rust, Wallace lingered on the field for 10 minutes of extra work with his quarterback, ironing out another mistiming on an out route. “You never want to go off the field when you do something wrong, with that still in your head,” Wallace said. “And then we worked on our long ball a little bit.”
The long ball, of course, was Wallace’s specialty during his four seasons in Pittsburgh—67 of his 235 receptions (more than a quarter) went for at least 20 yards, and 27 of those were for 40 or more. Last season the Dolphins had just three pass plays of 40 or more yards, tied for lowest in the league and one fewer than Wallace himself had in Pittsburgh.
From 2007 to ’11 Philbin was the offensive coordinator in Green Bay, where he ran one of the league’s most potent passing attacks. In 2012, his first year as a head coach, he learned what it was like not to have a deep threat. The problem really sunk in when he studied game film during the offseason. Week after week, the lack of respect was evident as opposing coordinators frequently bunched defenders at the line of scrimmage—sometimes with zero safeties deep.
After evaluating their options in free agency and the draft, the Dolphins identified Wallace as a potential target and asked coaches to do their own evaluations. While Philbin, offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and their assistants assessed whether the 26-year-old would fit into their plans, Wallace was also weighing his options. He knew the Dolphins were all-in on him as soon as the negotiating window opened 88 hours before the start of free agency. But a couple other teams, he says, offered him the same deal as the Dolphins—same number of years, same total compensation, same $30 million in guaranteed money. So why did he go to a team that hasn’t had a winning record since 2008?
Wallace believes the Dolphins, with Tannehill and Philbin both entering their second seasons, are a team on the rise. Some of Miami’s statistics are alarming—like the fact that wide receivers combined for just three receiving touchdowns in 2012 (Hartline had just one, in Week 4). But Wallace, who has 32 career touchdowns, said to himself, “I can help.”
The first time Tannehill threw to his new No. 1, he was blown away by Wallace’s 4.33 speed in the 40. This was back during March’s offseason program, and the Dolphins had just finished a heavy lifting workout on their lower bodies. Tannehill told his receivers to go half-speed so no one would pull a muscle running routes. Yet Wallace was getting out of his breaks before Tannehill was hitting the top of his drops. The quarterback reminded his receiver to go half-speed. “I am going half-speed,” Wallace said.
“That was the first moment,” Tannehill says, “when I was like, ‘Alright, well, I guess I’ll speed up.’ ”
To help foster the pair’s chemistry, the coaching staff charted every aspect of every catch Wallace made last season in Pittsburgh: the route, the depth, whether it was inside or outside the numbers, and so on. Philbin believes football shouldn’t be complicated, so he and his staff want to focus on what players do well. For Wallace, that’s tracking the ball on deep passes and pulling it down. But the coach also sees potential for Wallace to be more than just a vertical threat.
Wallace says he’s already being moved around more with the Dolphins than he ever was in Pittsburgh, where he was tasked with taking the top off opposing defenses while Antonio Brown worked the intermediate field and Emmanuel Sanders lined up in the slot. Wallace is being deployed in all three of those roles in Miami, which he thinks will make him more productive than ever.
“Definitely. Hopefully,” he says. “That’s the plan.”
Wallace’s benchmarks for productivity are 72 catches (2011), 1,257 receiving yards (2010) and 10 touchdowns (2010). His numbers dipped a bit last season after a holdout into late August, and a change in offensive coordinators, with Todd Haley replacing Bruce Arians.
Learning a new system once more, the offseason’s biggest free-agent splash knows the transition won’t be easy. When Wallace isn’t taking a rep on the practice field, you’ll find him glued to the side of receivers coach Ken O’Keefe. And after Wallace’s bonus session with Tannehill on July 21, assistant receivers coach Phil McGeoghan tossed the ball back and forth with his new charge as they shimmied horizontally across the field; they later wrapped things up with a few fade routes in the end zone.
Hartline has also been a gracious ambassador, helping to “snap him out of it” anytime Wallace appears to be doing something reminiscent of the Steelers’ offense. A fifth-year veteran, just like Wallace, Hartline admitted to being “a little skeptical” when the team doled out the mega-contract to his new teammate. “When people are given that kind of money, the human reaction sometimes is to shut it down or not work as hard,” he says. “But as soon as you meet him, you see that’s not the situation. He deserves it.”
In theory, yes. But Wallace understands the reality.
“As long as I make plays,” he says, “I think I’ll be worth it.”