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Mike Wallace can still replay the moment in his mind. It was the final game of the 2010 season. The Steelers were playing the Browns in Cleveland. It was early January. The Dog Pound was loud. Browns cornerback Joe Haden was in man-to-man coverage.
“First offensive play,” Wallace says. “I’m open deep. The ball is right there. I took it all the way; I think it was for about 60 yards (actually 56). We sent a message early on. It was sweet.”
The same kind of message Wallace is hoping to send the Browns on Sunday, this time as a member of the Miami Dolphins. There is no better way to take the teeth out of The Dog Pound than with a quick score. Wallace played there every season with the Steelers. He knows the fans. He knows the feeling of breaking their hearts. He knows what a big play can do.
“If I can do that again this year, that would be special,” Wallace said. “I’m in a new environment now and it would let my teammates here know what they can expect of me and what I can do. That would be a great way to start off with a new team.”
Big plays. It’s what I believe separates these two teams more than anything else. The Dolphins have Wallace; the Browns don’t. Can it be as simple as that? Sure it can. Cleveland’s best receiver, Josh Gordon, will be serving the first of a two-game suspension on Sunday. Miami’s best receiver will have his foot pressed hard on the gas pedal all afternoon long.
“I’m all about big plays,” Wallace said. “I’d love to be the difference in this game.”
I know there are a lot of interesting subplots in this opener. The battle of second-year quarterbacks. Browns running back Trent Richardson against the Dolphins imposing front seven. How the Dolphins respond in a hostile environment. Rookie placekicker Caleb Sturgis knowing sooner or later it’s going to come down to him.
All are important. All are worth following. But, from my vantage point, the easiest way to win this game is to take the easiest route: Down the field in a hurry. There is a reason the Dolphins signed Wallace on the first day of free agency.
There is a reason why they probably overpaid for his services. It was a void that had to be filled, a message that had to be delivered. Nobody respected the Dolphins deep passing game a season ago and that had to change.
Wallace is hoping he can do just that.
“I’m ready for this to start,” he said. “There’s no better feeling than to win that first game.”
The Dolphins may have a hard time remembering what that feeling is like. Only once in the last seven seasons have they started 1-0 and only twice in the last 10. A year ago they were in a 1-3 hole after only a month. The year before they were buried at 0-7.
Compound a history of slow starts with the reality of a brutal 5-game stretch to open the season and you can see why this game, this opener, carries extra significance.
“It’s too early to call this a must win, but that’s the mentality we have to have,” said defensive end Cameron Wake. “We have talked all off season about the improvement on this team. But now it’s time for the talk to stop; it’s time to show what we are made of.”
Added defensive tackle Randy Starks: “We have put ourselves in an early hole year after year. We have a chance now to change all of that.”
And if change is indeed coming for these Dolphins, it will be up to someone like Mike Wallace to lead the way. He is a difference-maker and could very well be the difference against the Browns.
Wallace stood by his locker early last week recalling that big touchdown catch three seasons ago. The feeling of running all out in the open field. The sweet sound of silence in a packed Browns stadium. The look on the faces of his teammates.
He smiled: “Would love nothing more than to do that again.”
And the Dolphins would love nothing more than to see that happen.
On Monday, AC in the AM dissects the opener against the Browns
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