Like it or not, Mike Wallace had a point.
The Pittsburgh Steelers found themselves in a bind heading into 2012 as their top receiver watched his rookie contract expire giving the team the right to offer him a restricted free-agency tender, knowing their second and third receivers would be in the exact same position the following year; meaning the team would need to prepare itself for their impending unrestricted free-agencies.
Wallace, while not officially the leader on the depth chart, was definitely the production lead the previous two seasons, as the team found ways to use his unique speed to exploit aggressive defenses or provide a decoy to open zones for Hines Ward, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown.
With a roster grown fat with aging defensive veterans and their championship-worthy salaries, the Steelers found themselves stretching the elasticity of the NFL salary cap Speedo teams are forced to perform within. The team was doing everything it could to keep itself together, hoping nothing unfortunate slipped out the sides along the way.
The team took the safe route and offered Wallace the maximum RFA tender level - $2.742 million - which would have required any team which might consider offering him a better deal to return a first-round draft pick as compensation, should he accept their offer and the Steelers decline to match. This would permit the team to delay any decisions until the following off-season (now) to negotiate new contracts, as they would have a better view of how to handle the well-paid ring bearers clinging onto hopes of one last trophy run.
Wallace, however, did not agree. He felt he had earned his spot as the team's top receiver for franchise QB Ben Roethlisberger, and wanted the team to offer him a long-term contract now. His insistence on immediacy stemmed from a fear of injury without a guaranteed future in the NFL. Had he suffered a career-changing injury while playing for his tender, he would have found a significant decline in his negotiating ranges. He even had no guarantee the Steelers would still want him should such a scenario degrade his natural, physical talents.
The team held firm to its decision, and Mike Wallace followed suit by refusing to sign the tender offered by the Steelers. He had little leverage to use a holdout as a negotiating tool. He was holding out to prove to the team how strongly he believed in his fear of a premature end to his NFL career, and how important it was to him to know he would be here long term, no matter what.
Fast-forward to 2013, and find reports of former Chicago Bears receiver Johnny Knox, who announced his retirement from the NFL due to injury, after a four year career.
Knox took his final hit as an NFL player against the Seattle Seahawks in December, 2011. He required spinal fusion surgery the following day, which forced him to miss the entire 2012 campaign. Even with constant rehabilitation, Knox is barely able to walk or stand without pain. Although his heart still has the desire to play, as reflected by his statement regarding playing again following his recent official release by Chicago; his body is no longer able or willing.
While the specifics of each situation do not mirror each other perfectly, the similarities between Knox and Wallace are undeniable. Knox would have played under the final year of his rookie contract in 2012. Knox reached the Pro Bowl his rookie season for special teams return performance. In 2010, he was the team's leading receiver, helping the Bears reach the NFC championship game; only to fall to the Green Bay Packers, who coincidentally went on to beat the Steelers in the Super Bowl.
Knox had performed well enough to warrant the team's consideration regarding a new contract to keep him in Chicago, once he reached the end of his rookie deal's obligations. Unfortunately, Knox never made it so far.
This is what Wallace was afraid of. His holdout had little to do with $2.742 million dollars not being enough money for playing a game for a living, or a deep resentment toward the team who showed him the most respect as far as draft selection. He wanted the long-term, secure contract he felt his statistics had earned.
Whether it is right for a player to put his own career's wants above the team's overall salary cap problems, or the career-wants of his teammates, is better reserved for a morals and values forum; but each NFL career has its own unpredictable shelf-life with only two certainties - it does have an end, and it's over before you know it.
In the end, Wallace escaped the 2012 season virtually unscathed and will enter free-agency without his health scribing stipulations; something Knox's career did not permit.. While Knox would have preferred to use such an opportunity to remain with his original team, Wallace seems intent on securing a contract which will prevent his career from being snuffed out unrewarded, like Knox's.
Knox should serve as a lesson to Wallace about being grateful for every opportunity you have to do something you may not be able to tomorrow, to players like Brown to play every day like there is no tomorrow, and to the league and team owners to continue to make the game safer and take care of those men whose lives are devastated and tossed aside after sacrificing their own health and well-being to support the league's very existence.
He should also serve as a reminder to fans to appreciate your favorite players while you have the opportunity, because they cannot play forever. Appreciate them while they're here, and what they give for the fans and the teams they worship.
They're always gone too soon.