By Jeremy Hritz
It seems a foregone conclusion that Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall are as good as gone. And the reasoning for letting both of them walk from the Pittsburgh Steelers organization isn’t completely connected to money: both are also responsible for creating distractions that were not conducive to team success.
Wallace’s unresolved contract issues seeped into the season and resulted in missed preparation in training camp, which manifested itself on the field in the form of a good but not great season, highlighted by a lack of concentration and too many dropped footballs.
Mendenhall’s return to the game was slowed by his rehab from his ACL injury, but his first performance in 2012 against the Philadelphia Eagles was promising. However, from there, he was injured again, and went AWOL on a game day and was subsequently suspended. His performance, sadly, was uneven and average.
For locker-room, production, and salary cap reasons, Wallace and Mendenhall have most likely played their final days of football with the Steelers. However, if the Steelers are prepared to watch these players don the uniforms of other NFL teams, they must have players of equal caliber in mind to fill these voids.
For as much as I have been critical of Wallace and Mendenhall, both have been productive during their careers with the Steelers. Wallace wasn’t overly productive in 2012, but he still snagged 64 passes for 836 yards and eight touchdowns. Can Antonio Brown replicate such a stat line without Wallace demanding coverage from the defense? While the Steelers have been productive on offense before with average talent at wide receiver, in the new NFL that scores points in bunches, it is foolish to believe that the passing game can get better losing the fastest pass catcher in football and replacing him with a rookie. What is scary is that this is exactly what will happen as the Steelers will not spend the money to bring in a solid free agent receiver. The Steelers will have to rely on hope and player development to compensate for Wallace’s loss, but the likelihood of that happening is unlikely.
While Mendenhall has always had a case of the happy feet, dancing too much instead of hitting holes, the Steelers witnessed first hand what happened when he was out of the lineup, and what resulted was the worst rushing performance since 2003. Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer do not possess the speed of Mendenhall, and that was evident in the way that defenses played the run against the Steelers.
The same holds true at the running back position that does at the wide receiver position: the Steelers cannot expect to improve by subtraction. This is not to say that Mendenhall is the answer, but his departure will have to be filled appropriately, or mediocrity will be the only expectation in 2013.
Ultimately, the Steelers are going to have to rely on rookies to turn their offense around next season, and that is an unsettling thought. Rookies rarely start for the Steelers, so the assumption that a fledgling running back and wide receiver will not only start, but be productive is almost delusional.
This will be the case however, and the success of the offense will be a roll of the dice. The Steelers are averse to bringing in big name free agents, and as a result of the salary cap, they don’t have the resources to do so.
With all things considered, maybe the Steelers should at least try to make an offer to Wallace and see what happens; they have just about a good of chance of him signing as they do rookies lighting it up at running back and receiver next season.