An anxious murmur builds across CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks are trailing 10-0. Their offense is scuffling as the ferocious 49ers defense has imposed their will from the very first snap. Everything is on the line. Fans, players, and coaches all know this team is their best bet to bring home a Lombardi Trophy. It is now 2nd and 7 from the Seahawks 38-yard line. Seattle has barely 30 yards of offense after three possessions. The mood is tense as Russell Wilson calls for the snap and drops back.
He rolls to his right and sees both his primary and secondary targets are covered along the sideline. The pass rush comes for Wilson, but he escapes, as he so often does, and starts rolling back toward the middle of the field. One of the covered receivers along the sideline points to an open space deep down field between the hashes and starts sprinting in that direction. They move in unison as if two bodies are controlled by one mind. Wilson sees the plan developing as more 49er defenders helplessly flail in his direction, and unleashes a perfect parabola that settles into the receiver’s hands 51 yards away.
Seattle would kick a field goal a few plays later that would account of all of the teams points in the first half. After they had tied the score to start the second half, Colin Kaepernick seized back momentum with a laser strike to Anquan Boldin over the outstretched fingertips of Earl Thomas for a touchdown. San Francisco kicked off with renewed confidence a few seconds later, only to see that same receiver deliver another body blow by taking the kick back 69 yards to set up another Seattle field goal.
Most Seahawks fans remember Richard Sherman’s tip, Malcolm Smith’s interception, or Wilson’s 4th and 7 touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse from that game. Even things that happened in postgame press coverage get more attention than what that receiver did that night, becoming the only player in NFL history to surpass 100 yards receiving and 100 yards in kick return yards in a conference championship.
This was not unusual. The following year saw more storied moments when the Seahawks made the conference championship again. Punter Jon Ryan threw a touchdown pass to offensive tackle Garry Gilliam. Marshawn Lynch rumbled for 24 yards for a go-ahead touchdown. Kearse caught another NFC Championship game winner. What people are less likely to remember is the 29-yard catch on 3rd and 19 that set up the chance for Ryan to make that pass, or the key block downfield that paved the way for Lynch’s run, or the 35-yard catch on 3rd and 7 in overtime that created the opportunity for Kearse’s game winner. All plays coming from that same receiver who again finished with over 100 yards receiving.
That was the way of Doug Baldwin Jr. He was the vertebrae that helped form the spine of the greatest team in Seattle sports history. While so many will remember the pounding muscles, hyperactive mouth, beastly legs, or powerful arm that formed the championship Seahawks, it was often Baldwin who helped them stand, fight, and win.
Look back at the most pivotal and important Seahawks games over the past eight seasons and you will see memorable highlights like Richard Sherman returning a Matt Schaub interception with one shoe against Houston at first glance. Look one layer deeper and invariably there will be a crucial play by Baldwin that set the stage for the more flashy heroics of others.
Talented, thoughtful, and complex, Baldwin heads toward an early retirement as one of the more beloved and best players in Seahawks history, and one of the most fascinating men to pull on an NFL jersey.
A man conflicted
Baldwin’s tendency to fade to the background extends beyond the football field. His charitable work is far more extensive than the public is aware of. His civic involvement is deep and impactful as well. He does these things without promoting the activity on social media or through team public relations channels unless doing so clearly assists the cause.
A foundational part of his value system comes from his mom and his faith where he was taught that personal gain and notoriety cut against the notion of true self-sacrifice and servitude. There is a purity that comes from helping others quietly and privately.
As powerful of a guiding principle that has been throughout Baldwin’s life, he is not without ego.
He was under-recruited in high school, relegated to the scout team in college, and undrafted in the NFL. There was a massive divide between his perception of his worth as a player and the perception of those around him. That chasm created a renewable source of motivation, but it came from a dark place of frustration and insecurity.
His desire to be seen for the player he knew himself to be cut against one of his core foundational values of humble servitude. Out of those grating tectonic plates came eruptions that became known as Angry Doug Baldwin.
He cussed out reporters for no clear reason after beating the Packers in the NFC Championship. He pooped out a football in the Super Bowl after scoring a touchdown against the Patriots. He pointed his finger and screamed in coaches faces on the sideline.
Interviews often would show both the Jekyll and Hyde inside Baldwin. There would be remarkably insightful comments one minute, and thinly-veiled barbs the next.
He was usually the smartest guy in the room. That included reporters, coaches, and elected leaders. His understanding of the role that privilege and business plays in shaping society both helped him deftly identify where he could make the biggest impact, and deepened his cynicism about those wielding power.
It was a battle that waged within him throughout his career.
There was a third force at play in the struggle. He was an astute businessman, who knew players had to seize the opportunity to maximize their income during fleeting NFL careers.
He watched Sherman’s star rise not only with performance on the field, but performances off of it. Sherman created controversy with a clear purpose in mind to drive engagement with his brand. His brash statements served him well as a competitor and as someone looking to build additional revenue streams through advertising, merchandise, and more. Name recognition also goes a long way toward helping a player break into the Pro Bowl and get other accolades.
Baldwin tried some of Sherman’s tactics earlier on his career. But they fit about as well as if the diminutive Baldwin put on the lanky Sherman’s jersey. It never felt genuine. It always felt contrived and out of character.
Young men often try on personas in pursuit of figuring out who they are. It took time for Baldwin to relax into the man he was meant to be.
Anderson Cooper welcomed the audience back from a commercial break. Hines Ward, Spike Lee, Nate Boyer and Rev. Michael Falkner had been sitting with him for nearly an hour discussing the controversy surrounding NFL players kneeling in protest of police violence against people of color.
The conversation had been well intentioned, but covered little new ground. There were the same points made about whether the form of protest was the right one, and whether the President was engaged for the right reasons and the focused on the right injustice.
Cooper welcomed two Seahawks to the show via video. Michael Bennett and Doug Baldwin sat with the Virginia Mason Athletic Center grass field as their backdrop.
Bennett answered some questions first as Baldwin waited. Then Cooper asked Baldwin where things go from here, how this can lead to actual change. He added, “I — you know, I don’t expect you to have an answer.” Sir, you do not know Doug Baldwin.
“Well, first and foremost, I want to go back to something that the reverend said earlier. He said that the Boston tea party got this kicked off. I’m sorry, sir. You’re incorrect. It was the Boston massacre that happened three years prior to that when nine armed British police officers gunned down some unarmed Americans. That’s where this got kicked off.
And I think that it’s ironic that we’re talking about this topic tonight. You asked me, Hines Ward, you want to see players doing something on Tuesday. I would invite you to come to Seattle and see what we have done, every Tuesday on our off day, last year, since this conversation has been talked about.
You asked me, Anderson Cooper, what can be done? What are the next steps? Well, we’ve been saying what the next steps are for a very long time. For me and for my teammates, I don’t speak for all of us, but for our message we’ve been trying to get across, number one, we want more resources for our law enforcement so that they can experience better de-escalation tactics, better policies, better protocol so that issues and situations like Tamir Rice don’t happen.
I was a young man once, 12 years old, playing around in my neighborhood, playing cops and robbers, and I had toy guns, and I can only imagine what it would be like if I had a friend that got shot and killed in those situations.
Number two, I know that the rebuttal is going to be about you should handle yourself accordingly when you interact with law enforcement. Let’s put the DARE program back in schools. Let’s start funding more education programs. Let’s start putting more resources in our public school system in general.
So, you want to know what’s the next steps. That’s what we’re asking for and we’ve been saying that since day one.”
There may have been no wiser words uttered about the controversy by any person at any point. They came from a place of deep compassion, reflection, and study.
Baldwin can show you page after page of notes taken while meeting with police officers, citizen groups, government officials and more. His gestures were never symbolic. He did what comes naturally to him, and so unnaturally to most; he challenged his own assumptions by spending more time listening than talking.
It took time to speak to enough people and gather enough perspectives from experts to see patterns begin to emerge. When it came time to transition from listening to advocating, he spoke with confidence born of grit and knowledge. Through it all, he never took a knee, but defended those who did. He never generalized about police, but worked hand-in-hand with them to prevent further loss of innocent life.
Many believe his passion, commitment, and skill in navigating what amounted to category five political storm is an indication that his future will involve a political career. Don’t count on it.
Baldwin has been effective, in part, because he works outside any one organization or party. He has the money, the time, and the intellect to influence society on his own terms.
We can be thankful that his passion and values will continue to draw him to making his community, his country, and his planet, a better place no matter what role he plays.
A lethal receiver
Much has been written about the biases Russell Wilson had to overcome as a short quarterback. That is not the only position, though, where height plays a major role is forecasting a player’s potential.
Ask the average NFL fan or media member for a list of great wide receivers, and you will hear names like Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Calvin Johnson, and Julio Jones. The prototypical player is tall, fast, and can jump over defenders. Receivers who enter the league under six feet tall are almost immediately typecast to be slot receivers, and slot receivers are expected to be possession players who make their living on shorter passes near the line of scrimmage.
At 5’10” tall, Baldwin will always be known as a slot receiver, and that will never sit well with him. He saw himself as more Steve Smith than Wes Welker, and there were numbers that backed up his perspective.
Smith was one of the most explosive players to step on the field over the last two decades. He was just 5’9″, but had speed, strength and toughness that made him a nightmare for the opposition. Baldwin was actually a more explosive player than Smith even if few people will remember him that way.
If you compare Smith’s first eight seasons to the eight seasons Baldwin played, and calculate the percentage of explosive receptions (defined as 16+ yards by Pete Carroll and 20+ yards by others in the NFL), Baldwin comes out on top.
Baldwin also had a far higher touchdown per target rate. Nearly 7% of the passes thrown his direction resulted in touchdowns (6.8%), compared to just 4.6% for Smith.
It was not just height that impacted Baldwin’s reputation. The lower volume passing offense implemented by the Seahawks suppressed his numbers significantly.
Antonio Brown is considered the best receiver in the game by some. He stands under six feet tall, but he plays in an offense that passed the ball 4,776 times during the past eight seasons. That ranked fifth in the NFL over that time. The Seahawks passed the ball nearly a thousand fewer times (3,826), which ranked dead last.
Brown enjoyed 1,256 targets during those eight years compared to just 722 for Baldwin. Compare these two on a per-target basis, and you may be surprised what you find.
Were Baldwin’s efficiency numbers to hold while being in a higher volume passing offense, he likely would be in the conversation for best receiver in the league. Brown’s average season included 157 targets. Baldwin would theoretically put up 107 receptions for 1,428 yards, and 11 touchdowns if he was getting that many opportunities.
Sound crazy? I did similar math back when Golden Tate was on the Seahawks and it played out when he left for Detroit. Look at what Baldwin did with just 103 targets in 2015, when he had 78 receptions for 1,069 yards and a league-leading 14 touchdowns. Or look at the following year when he had 125 targets and finished with 94 receptions and 1,128 yards.
Add to the challenge that Baldwin is best-suited for a rhythm and timing offense that can take advantage of his precision route-running. The Seahawks have been anything but that, other than the final eight games of the 2015 season when the team found a quick-passing formula that led to Baldwin to tie Rice as the only player in history to record 10 touchdown receptions in a four-game span.
His talent was not wasted here, but it was far from maximized. There is no way to prove Baldwin would have been a Hall of Famer in a different offense, but I believe it to be true. I would think Baldwin feels the same way, and you can imagine what it must have felt like for someone so underestimated throughout his life to get so close to the pinnacle of his profession and not being able to reach out and grab it.
Still, he had the chance to choose free agency and see his star rise. He chose Seattle and his teammates instead.
Baldwin did not start out as the hyper-efficient receiver Seahawks fans remember him to be. His first two seasons were negatively impacted by dropped passes. He dropped a combined 12 catchable passes in his first two seasons, according to ProFootballFocus.com. That worked out to a 13% drop rate.
Baldwin was smart enough to know the offense he was playing in was not going to transform into a high volume pass attack. Instead of sulking about his lack of opportunities, he set out to “control what he could control.” That meant catching nearly every catchable pass thrown his way.
Over the last six seasons of his career, he dropped just 13 catchable passes, one more than he had in his first two years combined. That worked out to a remarkable 3% drop rate. He had just two drops total in his final two seasons.
His hard-earned efficiency was on full display in 2015 when he became just the fourth receiver in the past 20 years to eclipse 1000 yards and have at least 14 touchdowns with fewer than 110 targets. The other names on the list? Jordy Nelson (2011), Randy Moss (1998), and Terrell Owens (1998).
Absurdly, Baldwin did not make the All-Pro or the Pro Bowl that year despite leading the league in receiving touchdowns. He became the Seahawks first Pro Bowl receiver in 27 years when he got the nod a year later. He joined Brian Blades and Steve Largent as the only receivers in franchise history to make the Pro Bowl as a position player (as opposed to special teams play).
Baldwin will always be remembered as a heady and clutch receiver. He was more than that. His staccato feet left defenders spinning and flailing at the snap of the ball and at the top of his routes. His blocking was phenomenal for a man of his size. Both were born of his love for basketball where he translated the crossover to his release and his passion for physical post play to blocking.
His physical gifts, however, were not what made him great. That came from a less tangible trait.
A fierce competitor
Jim Harbaugh made the mistake of relegating Baldwin to the scout team at Stanford University. Baldwin was so unhappy that he considered quitting football entirely and transferring to a different school. His mother helped convince him to stick it out.
When Baldwin went undrafted, he had a choice of where to sign in the NFL. His Stanford “father,” Sherman, played a role in recruiting him, as did the $20K signing bonus John Schneider dangled in front of him. The chance to play against Harbaugh twice per season was the clincher.
The first touchdown of his career came against his former college coach, a 51-yard score. That historic NFC Championship game came against Harbaugh as well. He always brought his game to another level when facing the man who slighted him. Harbaugh was not the only target.
Scouts got an earful from Baldwin all the time for not drafting him. A new crop of undrafted free agents would show up each season and he would take them under his wing, both as a team leader and as someone who was eager to reinforce the notion that scouts make mistakes.
His competitiveness went beyond proving people wrong. No player on the team played through injury more than Baldwin. And he did it in typical Baldwin fashion, with little fanfare.
There were high ankle sprains with ligament damage, dislocated collarbones, sports hernias, torn patella tendons, and more. Where many would sit, he would find some way to soldier on.
He did it for himself, for his brothers on the team, and to make his family proud. It clearly came at a cost. The toll on his body is a primary reason for his early exit, but it is more complex than that.
His closest teammates were Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Marshawn Lynch, Jermaine Kearse, Golden Tate, and Earl Thomas. They were not just good friends, they were alpha competitors themselves that set a standard he was proud to meet.
Their exit left a void that never appeared to be filled by new recruits. Being a leader of pups did not seem to hold the same appeal as being part of a pack of wolves.
He also grew up. Some of what motivated him early in his career became less important. A lot of what he set out to prove had happened. He won a ring. He got respect across the league. He got married and started to see how much work off the field filled his cup in ways football never could.
Baldwin’s competitive drive may have been his most elite quality. Without that burning desire propelling him to great heights, he would have been a mere mortal. He will walk a different path now, where he is more likely to be fueled by how he can improve the lives of others than by seeking personal validation.
That’s just separation, not a divorce
What seemed like an impersonal send-off by the team where they announced simply that they had “terminated the contract” of Baldwin and Chancellor, turned out to be a far more thoughtful gesture. By taking this procedural route, the Seahawks were able to not only provide Baldwin with his full signing bonus, but also an additional $1.2M injury payout that he would not have received had he retired prior to the contract being terminated.
Charlie Whitehurst once famously described Baldwin’s ability to get open on the practice field by saying, “That’s not separation. That’s a divorce!” The hope here is that the Seahawks and Baldwin separated amicably off the field, and it appears they have.
What Doug meant to me
I have been a Seahawks fan since the mid-80s when I first started watching football. Brian Blades was my first true favorite player. He was tough, and smart, and productive. I purchased my first Seahawks jersey in 1997. It was an Ahman Green classic. Next, came my Koren Robinson. They were both players who I bet on due to talent. When it came time to invest in my next jersey, it was about the person.
I have had the pleasure of getting to know a number of players, coaches, scouts, and front office folks off the field. None of them impacted me quite the way Doug did.
Watching him grow up as a player and a man is one of the great pleasures of my life. Knowing that he is walking away on his own terms and with a clear mind is something to celebrate.
There will be other Seahawks players who I root for, but there will never be another jersey on my back. We say goodbye to a player who challenged our perceptions of what makes a great receiver, and wave hello to a man who will undoubtedly challenge societal expectations of former football stars.
The Seahawks fan in me wishes we could watch Baldwin play for another five years. I will miss rooting for him on Sundays. The human in me is happy he has found life beyond the gridiron. I will root for him everyday.