MINNEAPOLIS -- In the NFL echo chamber, where controversial quotes can live for days, if not weeks, Mike Wallace's remarks in his introductory news conference with the Baltimore Ravens will likely be interpreted as a direct shot at Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. After agreeing to a two-year, $11.5 million deal with the Ravens on Tuesday, Wallace shot down the idea that he'd return to Minnesota following his release last week, and seemingly pinned the reasons for his ambivalence toward the Vikings on Bridgewater.
"When this process started, I knew I wasn't going back to Minnesota. I was like, 'I need a good quarterback,'" Wallace said. "I need a quarterback who is proven and can get things done. [Ravens QB Joe] Flacco has always been that guy."
The gut reaction of Vikings fans will be to jump up and defend Bridgewater, and judging by the initial Twitter response on Tuesday night, the rebuke is already happening. But the opinion here is that we need a little extra context for what Wallace really meant.
To start, let's wind back the clocks a year. Wallace had just been traded from the Dolphins -- the team he'd picked over the Vikings two years earlier -- to Minnesota, where he'd spend the 2015 season playing in the cold weather he'd spurned for South Florida. Wallace seemed more content to be in Minnesota, at least before the season, because of how well it seemed he'd fit in offensive coordinator Norv Turner's downfield passing scheme; Turner, in particular, was excited about what Wallace could do for the offense.
As the season went on, Wallace became the leader of the Vikings' receiver group, setting an example with his diligent practice habits. Wallace was a fixture at the Vikings' Jugs machine after practice, shepherding a group of young wideouts through a routine of catching extra balls. "I love the kid, I love his heart," coach Mike Zimmer said after the season. "He didn’t bitch one time about not getting the ball. He just went and worked every day and tried to get guys better. He loves it here, he loves Teddy. If it can get worked out, I’d like to have him back."
So if, as Zimmer said, Wallace loved Bridgewater, what happened? According to league sources, Wallace came to Minnesota intent on keeping the peace after a rocky exit from Miami, knowing he needed to rehabilitate his reputation after complaining about his role with the Dolphins. The Vikings went 11-5, won the NFC North and Wallace said all the right things publicly, while trying to put his best foot forward in practices. But as the season went on, the Vikings' offense tried Wallace's patience.
Some with the team believed the receiver could have approached 10 touchdowns if the passing game had been more efficient; Bridgewater and Wallace couldn't connect on a Week 1 deep ball that bounced off Wallace's hands shortly after he loosed them from two defenders, and the quarterback badly overthrew Wallace on a would-be touchdown on Nov. 1 in Chicago. Those misses, coupled with a shaky offensive line that forced Bridgewater to scrub several deep shots, took away Wallace's best skill. On several other occasions, coverages rolled toward Wallace on plays where he might have been open downfield. And by the latter part of the season, the Vikings realized they needed to get by with a quick-hitting passing game to mitigate their offensive line issues.
Bridgewater targeted Wallace more than 30 yards downfield only five times, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, and the two didn't connect on any of those throws. The quarterback's arm strength probably will never be his best attribute, though the Vikings believe his arm is sufficient to hit receivers if he's given time to throw and he trusts himself to push the ball downfield. Few receivers in the league, though, are as closely connected with one route as Wallace is with the deep ball.
As the season went on, the Vikings couldn't use the 29-year-old the way they'd intended -- indeed, the way Wallace wanted. Rookie receiver Stefon Diggs, who was championed through the Vikings' draft process by quarterbacks coach Scott Turner after he had recruited Diggs while he was an assistant at Pittsburgh, became the top target in the Vikings' offense. The rookie's expanding role coincided with the younger Turner's growing influence in preparing the game plan, and Diggs' ability to run after the catch made him a natural fit for the changes in the offense. Wallace finished the year with 39 catches for 473 yards, and twice as many drops (four) as touchdowns. His longest reception was 32 yards. When one source was asked in the middle of the season what was going on with Wallace, he simply moved his fingers sideways and said, "We're doing this," before adding, "He [Wallace] is best at doing this," and moving his fingers in a vertical direction.
His numbers -- and Wallace's $11.5 million salary for 2016 -- made a return difficult, and yet Wallace had told those close to him he was open to restructuring his deal for a return to the Vikings. Absent an agreement on a redone deal, the Vikings released Wallace, and he decided to move on, to his old division and a quarterback known to have one of the league's strongest arms.
"I wanted to get back to what I do, and that's stretching the field and making some plays," Wallace said. "I just wanted to be with a good quarterback. I feel like we go hand in hand. The things he does well, I think I do well. I feel like this was the best fit for me."
That the Vikings didn't turn out to be the right fit for Wallace likely has to do with more than just the quarterback, which is why Wallace's comments shouldn't be seen as a dig at Bridgewater alone. The Vikings' offense of 2015 wasn't conducive to success for Wallace for a number of reasons, and until recently, the receiver seemed willing to give it another shot in Minnesota if he could agree to a deal. Now, he'll play for his third team in as many years, hoping this one can return him to what he did so well in Pittsburgh.
"I was disappointed and really -- I’m disappointed more so that it wasn’t the season that he wanted or we wanted," Zimmer said in January. "I say this from my heart: I love this kid. I love the way he works, I love the way he competes. I texted him last night basically and told him the same thing. I said, ‘You know, I know this wasn’t exactly how we planned it out.’ But I love him as a person, a competitor, a football player and I’m disappointed that it didn’t pan out the way I envisioned it and that really and honestly, he’s always going to be one of my kind of guys. I like this kid."