Doug Baldwin made yet another clutch catch last weekend versus the Saints, proving his habit of saving the Seahawks bacon is not reserved for the regular season. Just five years ago, he was close to giving up the game. He was a junior at Stanford, and had been relegated to the scout team by coach Jim Harbaugh. It was degrading and appeared to be motivated by something more than merit on the field. Baldwin would face the number one defense in practice every week and prove his worth with each rep. He did not see a light at the end of the tunnel. He was in the doghouse of a coach that made Michael Vick look like a PETA representative. Baldwin was never defined by football, and weighed whether the sacrifice and angst were worth the reward. Talking things over with his family in Florida and his father at Stanford helped convince him to stick with it. You see, incoming freshmen were assigned fathers. Baldwin, being a wide receiver, was assigned a player one year his elder who also played receiver. His name was Richard Sherman.
Sherman and Baldwin became more than orientation buddies over the years. They became family. When Baldwin faced his difficult decision about how to handle his football predicament, Sherman was there to help. Baldwin helped Sherman through his own crisis at Stanford when he landed in Harbaugh’s dog house as well for electing to have surgery on an injured knee. Sherman had been a top receiver before the surgery, but Harbaugh told him he would have to compete with the walk-ons to earn his role back. Instead of fighting what appeared to be a rigged battle, Sherman chose to switch over to defense where Harbaugh played no role on allotting playing time. It was a hard for Sherman to give up his dream of being the next Randy Moss, but the decision would pay huge dividends down the line.
For Baldwin, it took an injury to starter Chris Owusu during Baldwin’s senior season to get his shot. He played great, and then would be sat down, and then play great again. He did not do enough to get drafted, but became one of the league’s most sought-after undrafted free agents.
Harbaugh was the new coach of the 49ers the year both Sherman and Baldwin were available in the draft. He passed on Sherman four times, and drafted a cornerback (Chris Culliver) roughly 80 spots ahead of where Sherman was picked. He passed on Baldwin 10 times, and spent a 6th round pick on receiver Ronald Johnson.
Sherman was a big part of how the Seahawks successfully recruited Baldwin to sign, but getting a chance to play his old coach twice a year was not far behind.
It did not take long for Baldwin to make Harbaugh wince. The undersized Stanford wide receiver, with an oversized chip on his shoulder, scored a 55-yard touchdown in his first game as a professional that also happened to be against the 49ers. He scored again in the second match-up. That meant half his touchdown catches on the year came against the guy who thought he was a practice squad player.
That trend continued in his second season as he scored two touchdowns in the Seahawks 42-13 win over the 49ers. That remains his only two touchdown game as a pro, and he only had three scores all of last season. He added a 51-yard catch in the first game this season, his second-longest grab of the year.
Sherman had to wait a little longer to get some payback. He forced a fumble in the Seahawks loss in San Francisco last year, but really made his presence felt in the blowout up North. His 90+ yard field goal block returned for a touchdown was among the most memorable plays of the year, but that was not enough. He added four passes defensed and an interception in the end zone. This year, he got another pick and celebrated with the Sea Gals on the sideline.
Baldwin and Sherman are professionals. They take their craft seriously, and it is that dedication that makes their talent so dangerous. This team wants to go 1-0 every week. They want to approach every game with equal intensity. But this game is personal for these two. Jim Harbaugh has messed with Sherman’s son and with Baldwin’s father. It is never wise to get between family. That lesson comes once again this Sunday.