For only the second time since 1997, Pittsburgh Steelers opened training camp without Hines Ward.
But as notable as the recently retired Ward’s absence was on Wednesday, it was a no-show by another receiver that stole the show on the annual reporting day at St. Vincent College.
Restricted free agent Mike Wallace’s training-camp holdout became official when he did not arrive by 3 p.m. to move into his dorm room and take part in coach Mike Tomlin’s conditioning test.
Wallace, a starter in the Pro Bowl last season, was offered a one-year, $2.7 million tender by Pittsburgh. He has not signed it and did not take part in any of the Steelers’ offseason workouts or minicamp.
Neither Wallace nor his agent, Bus Cook, had publicly stated whether he intended to report for the start of camp.
”Obviously, we have a desire for him to be here,” Tomlin said. ”We want him to be part of this thing, both short-term and long-term. We’ve been in negotiations with him. He’s not here today. That’s unfortunate for him.”
Wallace is the biggest name to hold out on the Steelers since Ward, who was unhappy with his contract in 2005. Ward ended up missing two weeks before reporting on the day of the team’s first preseason game. He was signed to a four-year extension before the opener.
The Steelers are hoping Wallace won’t miss two weeks. He has been tightlipped throughout the offseason, and various reports Tuesday and Wednesday made it sound as if a long-term deal was imminent.
But while teammates, one by one, trickled in, Wallace never made an appearance carrying pillows, clothing and luggage into the Rooney Hall dormitory.
”He’s the lead dog,” veteran receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. ”So, when he comes in, I’m pretty sure there’ll be a lot of time set aside for him to get up to speed. We’re not worried about that. Whenever Mike gets here, he’ll be ready to roll.”
Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis was a high school teammate of Wallace’s, and the two worked out ”every day” over the summer along with other players in the New Orleans area.
Lewis proclaimed Wallace ”in the best shape he’s ever been in,” and predicted he would eventually arrive at camp.
”I’m pretty sure he’ll be here,” Lewis said. ”He’s a football player, he loves playing the game. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want to sit out.”
Over the first three years of his career, Wallace has 171 receptions for 3,206 yards with an average of 18.7 yards per catch. He has 24 touchdowns.
Last season, Wallace’s 1,193 receiving yards ranked 11th in the NFL. And his 21.0 yards-per-catch average in 2010 was tops among players with at least 50 receptions. Wallace was having one of the best statistical seasons in the NFL through eight weeks last season with 43 catches for 800 yards and five touchdowns through October.
But he struggled late in the season. In fact, Wallace did not have a 100-yard game after Oct. 23 and did not have a touchdown in seven of his final eight games, including a three-catch, 26-yard performance in a 29-23 overtime playoff loss to Denver.
”I want the player here,” Tomlin said. ”One thing experience has taught me is this is bigger than all of us. It’s bigger than Mike, it’s bigger than me. So I mean that when I say it’s unfortunate for him that he’s not here.”
Wallace wasn’t the only player on the roster who did not take part in the annual camp-opening conditioning test on Chuck Noll Field. Among the group not participating were six players added to the physically unable to perform list: Linebackers James Harrison and Jason Worilds, tackle Max Starks, running back Rashard Mendenhall, nose tackle Casey Hampton and reserve safety Damon Cromartie-Smith.
Tomlin said Harrison’s back has fully recovered after surgery last year, but that a knee injury is limiting him now.
”We don’t want to take any steps backward,” Tomlin said. ”James has had a good offseason. We just want to make certain as we move forward.”
Mendenhall, Starks and Hampton each sustained torn knee ligaments late last season. Mendenhall’s came in the regular-season finale, and Starks and Hampton were injured during the playoff loss.
Starks became a free agent and was signed last week to compete with rookie Mike Adams for the starting left tackle job.
Worilds had offseason wrist surgery.
”In many instances, these might be viewed as precautionary measures,” Tomlin said. ”Some of these guys that are getting close to coming off of injury, we want to get them in this setting, look at them, work them out, be certain that it’s something that’s behind us before we progress.”