Published January 13, 2015
The joke is that Seattle wide receiver Doug Baldwin is always angry, always carrying a chip on his shoulder from being overlooked.
The truth is that while Baldwin plays with that intensity from going undrafted coming out of college, he's also a fervent student of the game, knowing where he can find openings in coverage.
"He's very good at reading defenses," Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson said. "He thinks he's the quarterback sometimes."
After a 2012 season during which Baldwin was constantly trying to overcome nagging injuries, his performance in the season opener last Sunday showed off the abilities that the Seahawks came to value during his rookie season. Baldwin had seven catches for 91 yards against the Panthers, and most important to the Seahawks offense, five of those receptions went for first downs.
Four of those five first-down receptions came when the Seahawks were facing third down, including completions of 25, 13 and 13 yards.
"He has this ability to change directions that makes him extremely quick and that suddenness is what gets him open but then it goes to the savvy that he has and the time he's spent working with Russell," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. "Those guys really are relying on seeing things in the same fashion and being able to take advantage of the opportunities."
Seattle wanted to see that relationship between Baldwin and Wilson flourish last season. Baldwin was coming off a rookie campaign where he was the first undrafted rookie to lead his team in receiving since 1960 after he caught 51 passes for 788 yards and four TDs.
But Baldwin refused to take any time off after his rookie season. He believed he constantly had to work, constantly had to be looking over his shoulder for a more established receiver with better credentials to come along and take the spot Baldwin earned his rookie season.
The result was a series of nagging injuries that made Baldwin just a bit player last season as the Seahawks offense evolved and flourished. He caught only 29 passes and never more than four in any game while missing two games due to injuries.
Baldwin gave himself permission to take a break this offseason and went into training camp healthy. He was already expected to be the Seahawks' slot receiver, but removed any possible doubts with a solid training camp where he displayed his ability to read and react to what Wilson wants to do in the passing game.
The connection the duo has is most evident in scrambling situations, where the original play breaks down and the Seahawks rely on Wilson's athleticism to keep the play alive. Sometimes Wilson keeps the ball himself and churns out yards on the ground. Most of the time he's looking to get the ball downfield quickly.
When Wilson scrambles, it puts extreme stress on Seattle's offensive line not to commit a blocking penalty. It also taxes the receivers who must continue to work downfield trying to get open. No play last week stood out as much as Baldwin's sideline tiptoe catch of Wilson's risky, hopeful throw while being pressured.
"The previous play that we had goes out the window," Baldwin said. "We're just focused on trying to get open, trying to get to our scripted spots where Russell will be looking when he gets out of the pocket. ... Basically, it's just playing backyard football, trying to find a place to get open, trying to find a spot for Russell to see us so that he can deliver the ball effectively."
Baldwin now gets the chance to show just how much he's involved again in Seattle's offense against his favorite opponent — his former coach at Stanford, Jim Harbaugh, and the 49ers. Baldwin has four touchdowns against the 49ers, including two of his three receiving TDs a season ago in the Seahawks' 42-13 rout of San Francisco last December.
"I don't know what it is," Baldwin said with a grin. "I just think the game plan happens to fall into my hands on that week."
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org