By Danny O’Neil
To say Doug Baldwin has been unbelievable this season is neither an exaggeration nor a figure of speech.
In four games Baldwin has managed three catches that had to be seen twice to be believed. Well, at least the officials needed double vision, consulting instant replay to confirm that yes, Baldwin did in fact do that.
He did come back to somehow catch a ball that Russell Wilson was actually throwing out of bounds in Carolina. He did make a full-extension diving catch at the goal-line, getting a single hand on the ball initially and then pulling it in for a 35-yard touchdown against Jacksonville, and last week he did perform a two-tap sideline routine that even coach Pete Carroll initially thought was incomplete only to have it overturned on replay, sustaining what turned out to be Seattle’s only touchdown drive of the game.
Doug Baldwin leads the Seahawks with 216 receiving yards on 12 catches, seven of which have converted third downs. (AP)
But of all the disbelief Baldwin has inspired so far, here’s perhaps the most incredible achievement: He has been Seattle’s most valuable receiver this season, and by most valuable I mean the best.
He’s not the highest-paid receiver on the team. In fact, Jermaine Kearse is the only wideout whose salary is lower. Baldwin’s not the highest profile, either, on this team that features Sidney Rice, Golden Tate and – soon enough – Percy Harvin.
But all Baldwin has done through four games is accumulate the most receiving yards so far, inspiring visions of that rookie season when he led the team with 51 catches and making you realize he was never quite healthy last year.
This is the point where the discussion veers off into one of receiving roles that lends itself to some wickedly backhanded compliments such as this one: Baldwin’s productivity is amazing considering he’s primarily a slot receiver.
But that’s wrong. Baldwin’s productivity is so very important precisely because of the fact he is a slot receiver. The next time Wilson talks about the need to be great on third down, think about the way Baldwin touched two toes down on that third-and-7 play early in the fourth quarter in Houston.
Tate is the receiver who makes everyone hold their breath when he catches a pass or fields a punt with room to run. Rice is 6 feet 4 and equipped with Go-Go Gadget arms that allow him to pull touchdowns out of the clouds and Seattle is expecting Harvin to be a truly game-changing threat.
And after a month of wondering whether Harvin’s absence would hamstring this offense, Baldwin has left his fingerprints all over the team’s undefeated start. He sustains possessions, an ability that is the ultimate virtue for this team. The Seahawks are not part of the new age of NFL offense where teams like Denver, New England and now Philadelphia are seeking to push the pace, running more plays in shorter time with the intention of maximizing the number of drives in a game.
Seattle is exactly the opposite. It wants to run the ball first, second and sometimes third while playing a punishing style of defense that turns a four-quarter football game into a three-hour war of attrition. Seattle has thrown 104 passes in four games, second-fewest of any team in the league. The fewer possessions a team has, the more important those drives become, which is exactly why Baldwin’s role is so critical. He is a third-down specialist who excels in acts of sideline dexterity, and it’s not the total of receptions that is so important for Baldwin, but the timing.
He caught seven passes in Week 1 at Carolina and four converted third downs. He caught one pass against San Francisco in Week 2, but it was a doozy, a 51-yard completion on third-and-12 early in the third quarter. He caught three passes last week in Houston, two of them on third down.
Does he have a knack for those important moments?
“You make the best of the opportunities you’re given,” Baldwin said.
He has certainly made the most of those opportunities this season, averaging more than 18 yards on the 12 passes he has caught. That’s not just good for a slot receiver, it’s a great way to show just how important Baldwin has been to this team’s 4-0 start.