Mike Wallace heard the boos. And the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver knew it didn’t have as much to do with the pass that had just clanged off his hands as with the expectations – self-imposed or otherwise – he just can’t seem to meet.
Walking back to the huddle, beating himself up a little bit after failing to hold onto a Ben Roethlisberger heave that would have gotten the Steelers out of an early hole last week against San Diego, Wallace tried not to take it personally.
That doesn’t mean he succeeded.
“I think they’re out to get me a little bit,” Wallace said with a smile.
Then again, the easygoing 26-year-old understands he has no one to blame but himself. Wallace took a calculated risk last summer when he decided to hold out during training camp. Coming off his first Pro Bowl and entering the prime of his career, Wallace didn’t want to leave the Steelers as much as he simply wanted to get paid a little more – OK, a lot more – to stay.
When management balked, Wallace reported less than two weeks before the season started and pledged not to let his uncertain future mess with his head.
It hasn’t exactly happened.
Sure, Wallace is on pace to match the 72 receptions he put up a year ago and he needs two touchdowns over Pittsburgh’s final three games to set a new career-high.
Yet it’s the slip-ups – such as a handful of costly drops and a pair of fumbles – that have outweighed the spectacular. Wallace is in the midst of perhaps the most productive season of his four-year career. It just doesn’t feel like it.
While the former third-round pick has shown the ability to adapt to offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s short-passing game and he’s accepted the fact there are fewer deep shots to go around, he knows he’s done little to calm critics who viewed his holdout as a betrayal.
“Anything I do is going to be magnified, good, bad, it doesn’t really matter,” he said. “I’ve just got to do what I need to do and I don’t give anybody a reason to say anything. Whatever happens I take full responsibility for it.”
And to be honest, he’s OK with it.
“I don’t want nobody to ever say it’s enough,” he said. “I always want somebody to have a knock on me. Always, because it’s always going to make me a better player and it’s always going to give me something to strive for.”
Even if, at the moment, Wallace is content with striving to avoid the kind of mental miscues that have cost the Steelers (7-6) this season. They are, after all, tied with Cincinnati for the AFC’s last wild card spot heading into Sunday’s game in Dallas (7-6) and could be in a better place.
Wallace has six drops this season, tied for 16th most in the NFL. The names higher on that list include Wes Welker, Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant.
The difference, of course, is that none of those guys skipped training camp, and Wallace knows it.
“I made the bed,” he said. “I’ll lie in it.”
No matter how uncomfortable it can get.
Wallace raised eyebrows last week when he admitted to having his mind wander during games. Looking back, he admits he probably should have kept that to himself.
“When you’re not getting the ball into the games sometime you might get a little frustrated and lose focus in the game, not on the game, but sometimes you get mentally not focused on the things you always need to be focused on,” he said.
It certainly looked that way against the Chargers. Backed up deep in their own end in the second quarter, Roethlisberger tested his sprained right shoulder and flung it as far as he could.
Wallace had a step on the defender and stretched to haul it in, only to have it bounce off his hands to the turf.
Though Wallace rebounded to catch seven passes for 112 yards and two scores, it’s the one he couldn’t bring in that stuck with him afterward.
“All I keep thinking about was the drop I had,” Wallace said. “But you can’t dwell on that.”
Besides, there’s plenty of other things to think about, including the future. Wallace has tried to block out what will happen once the season ends, adding it would be “selfish” if he started wondering where he’ll be playing next year.
Maybe, but with 2013 fast approaching, there’s a real chance Wallace could be playing his final games in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers signed teammate Antonio Brown to a contract extension while Wallace was working out by himself in Florida. And the rapid development of Emmanuel Sanders combined with the money Wallace could earn on the open market makes the prospect of Wallace sticking around seem unlikely.
If time is growing short, Wallace is trying to make it count. So is his quarterback.
“He has all the confidence in himself and we have it in him,” Roethlisberger said. “We’re confident that he’s going to come out and be great. There’s never a second thought in my mind about it.”
In Wallace’s either.
“It’s not like I’m out here dropping every pass,” he said. “I made a lot of plays, too, as well. But I definitely would like to make every single play on the field.
“I’ve just got to keep working at it and I think things will go my way.”
Notes: LB James Harrison (illness) did not practice on Wednesday ... S Troy Polamalu was held out of practice but it was not injury related ... LB LaMarr Woodley, who has missed the last two games with an ankle injury, was a full participant ... Coach Mike Tomlin met with RB Rashard Mendenhall to talk about the one-game suspension Mendenhall received for conduct detrimental to the team. Tomlin called the meeting productive.