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Starkey: Wallace a backup? Not really

| Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, 11:14 p.m.
Steelers receiver Mike Wallace makes a catch during practice on the South Side Nov. 28, 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review

Herman Melville created a wonderful literary character named Bartleby the Scrivener, an office clerk who had a stock answer for every question — even when his boss asked him to complete an assignment.

“I'd prefer not to,” Bartleby would say.

Mike Wallace on Wednesday sounded a lot like ol' Bartleby. In fact, the allegedly demoted wide receiver must have set the NFL record for Answers Begun With The Same Phrase, as reporters circled his locker to ask about his “demotion.”

Wallace's stock answer wasn't “I'd prefer not to” — though some fans will tell you that would fit him perfectly — but rather, “Not really.”

Examples:

• Is it strange not knowing if he'll play his usual role Sunday, in the wake of Mike Tomlin listing him as “co-starter” with Emmanuel Sanders, instead of as starter?

“Not really,” Wallace said. “You have to adjust. That's life.”

• Did any coach talk to him about the depth-chart adjustment?

“Not really.”

• Does he have a feeling of “I'll show you?”

“Not really. I don't have to show nobody nothing. … You can ask any one of my teammates: I practice hard every single day.”

• When fans say he's not trying, does it make him angry?

“Not really. Nobody outside this locker room really matters.”

Now, before anyone turns that last statement into, “He just insulted the people who pay his salary,” let me say this: not really. Wallace, in context, simply was saying that no one outside the locker room could possibly know whether he is working hard enough.

His teammates insist he is.

“Mike always shows up to work,” said veteran receiver Jerricho Cotchery. “He never complains. He's prepared.”

Wallace's in-game effort has been unfairly questioned. Those criticizing him for failing to break up an interception on a deep ball in Cleveland, for example, have lost their minds.

Production is another matter. Tomlin was right Tuesday when he said Wallace had not been “producing in the manner in which he'd like to and we'd like him to.”

Still, I'll be stunned if the coach's message extends beyond perhaps keeping Wallace on the sideline for the first snap in Baltimore. Anything more would be a classic case of Tomlin cutting off his nose to spite his face, and he did enough of that last week trying to play tough guy with his butter-fingered running backs.

Messages are fine. Winning is paramount for a 6-5 team very much in danger of missing the playoffs.

The Steelers need Wallace at his very best. For whatever reason, he hasn't been consistently productive since the middle of the last season. You see bursts of brilliance — the 51-yard sprint against the Giants; the fabulous touchdown catch against the Chiefs — mixed with long stretches of invisibility.

Or, worse, negative plays. Like the dropped 52-yard pass in the playoff game at Denver, the momentum-crushing fumble two weeks ago against the Ravens and the inability to come down with an end-zone fade in the same game.

Wallace hasn't been good enough. Nobody could dispute that. Not even him, though he left space to read between the lines when asked why his production has fallen.

“A lot of reasons,” he said. “Not that I want to get into this or that.”

Clearly, Wallace wants more deep targets. That's his game, and it's missing. He had 22 catches of 40-plus yards his first three seasons. He has two this season. I'm also quite certain he saw what we all saw last weekend: Charlie Batch couldn't get him the ball down the field.

None of which excuses Wallace failing to capitalize on his few recent opportunities. He was as big a reason as any for the loss to Baltimore.

Any play in particular he feels he should have made in the past two games?

“Not really,” Wallace said. “Any one I didn't make.”

Storylines abounded Wednesday: Antonio Brown and Troy Polamalu were full participants at practice; Ben Roethlisberger was a limited participant; and Maurkice Pouncey was practicing at left guard.

Wallace is a big story, too. His season hasn't gone the way he envisioned, for sure, but there is plenty of time to salvage it — and if anybody asks whether the Steelers are a viable Super Bowl contender without the old Mike Wallace, well, you know the answer.

It ends with really.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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